High sensitivity of metal footprint to national GDP in part explained by capital formation

Zheng, X., Wang, R., Wood, R. et al. (2018) High sensitivity of metal footprint to national GDP in part explained by capital formation. Nature Geosci 11, 269–273

Use of metals is growing steadily, especially in emerging economies, with global metal ore extraction tripling to 7.4 billion tons between 1970 to 2010. 54% of this was used in the five BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries. Metals are a key enabler of economic development and human progress, and a requirement for the expansion of clean energy.

The increasing use of metals, however, has also caused problems. Mining and smelting are polluting processes, causing local pollution and land-use change. It creates approximately 10% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and 8% of global energy demand, and access to ore is increasingly restricted by the geographical concentration of mines, environmental concerns about extraction, and deteriorating grades of metal ores.

Although the majority of metals are infinitely recyclable in principle, the recycling process is often hampered by social behaviour, product design, lack of separation and sorting facilities, and inadequate technologies.

Affluence measured as per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has been identified as the main economic driver of domestic metal use, but reaches a plateau when gross domestic product reaches US$15,000 per person, suggesting an increasing resource efficiency in high-income economies.

The authors of this paper found that a 1% rise in gross domestic product raises the metal footprint by as much as 1.9% in the same year. Further, every percentage point increase in gross capital formation as a share of gross domestic product increased the metal footprint by 2% when controlling for gross domestic product. The paper concluded that other socioeconomic variables did not significantly influence the metal footprint. Finding ways to break the strong coupling of economic development and investment with metal ore extraction may be required to ensure resource access and a low-carbon future.

The full article can be found here.