sustainability

Peak stuff gathers pace

Five years ago Chris Goodall wrote about a phenomenon that nobody else seemed to have noticed – the amount of materials that we were using in the UK had begun to fall. Had we experienced ‘peak stuff’, he wondered. It was a tentative and hopeful conclusion, but a little early to call given our economic circumstances at the time.

With a few more years of data, it now looks pretty certain, and yesterday the Office of National Statistics confirmed it. “The amount of material consumed in the UK has fallen from a peak of 889.9 million tonnes in 2001 to 659.1 million tonnes in 2013.” That’s a fall from just over 15 tonnes of materials per person, to 10.3 tonnes.

There are four categories we’re talking about here: biomass (crops, wood and fish), metal ores, non-metallic minerals (such as construction materials) and fossil fuels. Around a third of the total is fossil fuels, as we still require huge amounts of oil, coal and gas. Modern appliances use less metal, so we need less of that. Britain’s house building slump is reflected in a drop in construction materials, and biomass use has fallen too. This has all happened in the context of a growing economy.

productivity

Is this because we’ve outsourced our material needs to other parts of the world? Partly, as imports have risen significantly since 2000, but the ONS measures that through ‘raw material equivalents’ (RME). This assigns an estimated raw materials use to our imports, giving us a better picture of our overall materials footprint. Though the fall is markedly smaller, the peak is still clear.

This is good news. Our current use of materials, especially fossil fuels, has been unsustainable for a long time. It needs to come down, reducing our own ecological impact and freeing up resources for those who don’t currently have enough. There is much further to go before we reach one planet living. A sustainable share is estimated to be around a third of our current consumption. But it’s a start.

One problem that’s hiding in the stats is that if you include the fossil fuels needed to make our imports, then fossil fuel use hasn’t fallen. Even if we’re using fewer of them in the UK, as a population we are causing more of them to be burned. And of course fossil fuels are the most important category of materials to cut back on.

Still, these are interesting trends to keep an eye on.

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