In the last decades several national material flow accounts have been conducted, most of them for industrialized countries such as the United States (Adriaanse et al. 1997), Japan (Adriaanse et al. 1997), or the fifteen European Union member states (Weisz et al. 2005b). Also, some material flow accounts were conducted for developing countries, such as Chile (Giljum 2004), Brazil (Machado 2001), Venezuela (Castellano 2000), Philippines (Rapera 2004), Thailand (Weisz et al. 2005c), and Laos (Schandl et al. 2005). For a detailed list, see Weisz et al. (2005a, 2005b). Most of these studies provide data and detailed analysis on the material input side, including material exports. Fewer studies deal with material outputs (Matthews et al. 2000; Eurostat 2001b; ETC-WMF 2003). Because policies that specifically target the use of resources have been lacking, policy application of indicators for resource use has been very limited. In recent years, however, policies that aim at a sustainable use of resources have entered the political agenda in Japan, the EU, and the OECD.
Japan clearly is the international forerunner in sustainable resource policy. In 2003 the Japanese government enacted the Basic Law for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society. It includes two laws on waste management and public cleansing and promotion of the use of recyclable resources (OECD 2004a). As the title indicates, the Japanese policy focuses on reduction of consumption of natural resources through the enforcement of recycling and reuse to reduce the environmental load. MFA is specifically used as an accounting framework from which indicators such as DMI, DPO, and material use efficiency can be derived. The Japanese government set three quantitative sustainability targets for the period 2000—2010 and focused on the containment of material flows:
• To increase resource productivity of the Japanese economy by 40 percent. With respect to indicators, this is defined as GDP/DMI.
• To increase the cyclical use rate, which is the amount of recycled materials per DMI, by 40 percent.
• To reduce wastes deposited (a problem particularly grave for a densely populated country such as Japan) by 50 percent. This will be monitored by conventional waste statistics.
Although many countries in the past decade sought to include dematerialization in their sustainability programs one way or another, we do not know of a country other than Japan where major policies were so clearly directed at using indicators from MFA for sustainability targets and monitoring. However, it has to be stressed that material productivity (GDP/DMI or GDP/DMC), like material intensity (DMI/GDP or DMC/GDP), describes a relative condition. Increasing material productivity (like decreasing material intensity) can be gained through either relative decoupling (i.e., material use grows slower than economic growth) or absolute decoupling (i.e., material use declines). Only the latter indicates a real reduction of materials used. Besides, because DMI and DMC cover only materials domestically used, dematerialization can easily be gained by shifting from producing to importing commodities.7
In the EU the final version of a strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources was launched by the European Commission in December 2005 (Commission of the European Communities 2005). The focus of the communication is on understanding and mapping the links between the use of resources and their environmental impacts, improving the knowledge base, and developing tools to monitor and report progress.
The European Commission states that the overarching goal of the strategy is to "reduce the negative environmental impacts generated by the use of natural resources in a growing economy" (Commission of the European Communities 2005:5). Contrary to the Japanese government, the EC did not specify quantitative targets, did not focus on a reduction of resource use, and did not suggest specific measures.
The essential elements of the EC formulation are that the strategy assumes that improving the state of the environment and facilitating economic growth are not competing goals and that the environmental impacts of resource use are stressed, not the use of resources themselves. Both assumptions are not unambiguously shared in the scientific community and pose quite a few challenges for the design of resource use indicators.
In particular, concentrating on the environmental impacts of resource use may be difficult to accomplish. Attempts have been made to weight material flows according to environmental impact, but they have not been fully satisfactory. A recent study carried out for the European Commission used Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) factors to weight material flows and to create a highly aggregated index for the environmental impacts of material flows (van der Voet et al. 2005). This study has been criticized for lack of standardization. Using exergy (i.e., workable energy; see Wall 1977) as a means to weight material flows according to their reactivity with the earth's crust, the ocean, or the air (Ayres et al. 2004) is more promising regarding standardized methods and conceptual clarity. However, because it is a very abstract concept from thermodynamics, the meaning and relevance of exergy may be difficult to communicate to a wider public. In a recent article we suggested using MFA indicators at a more disaggregated level in order to come up with the conflicting requirements of standardization, transparency, linkage to SNA, and environmental specificity (Weisz et al. 2005a).
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