Natural Resources, what are they?

Global resource use – Worldwide patterns of resource extraction

Economic and thus human development have always been closely linked to the control and production of materials. Due to continued growth of the global economy, the demand for natural resources, such as fossil fuels, metals and minerals, and biomass from agriculture (crops), forestry, fishery, etc, provided by Planet Earth is rapidly increasing, and they are being exploited without metres and bounds. This results in serious environmental damages through the extraction process itself, but also due to the ever longer transport distances between extraction, processing and final consumption. (Please see our “resource snapshots” for further information.)

Global resource extraction grew more or less steadily over the past 25 years, from 40 billion tons in 1980 to 58 billion tons in 2005, representing an aggregated growth rate of 45%.

Figure 1 illustrates the overall material basis and the growing resource extraction of the global economy between 1980 and 2005.  Figure 1: Global used extraction of natural resources in for categories. However, growth rates were unevenly distributed among the main material categories. Particularly the extraction of metal ores increased (by more than 65%), indicating the continued importance of this resource category for industrial development. Increases in biomass extraction were below average. The share of renewable resources in total resource extraction thus is decreasing on the global level.

Taking into account all the materials that are extracted but not actually used to create value in economic processes (i.e. overburden in mining or “ecological rucksacks”), the resource extraction more than doubled in the last 25 years. Due to simultaneously increasing world population numbers, the average resource extraction per capita remained almost stable, today amounting for nearly nine tons.

Regarding material intensity, i.e. economic output per unit of domestic natural resource extraction, Europe is the most ‘eco-efficient’ region, while Africa produces the smallest economic output per domestic extraction. Nonetheless, Europe’s share in worldwide resource extraction is 1.5 times higher than the share of the African continent and Europe is increasingly importing natural resources from other world regions.


Figure 2: Net Metal Imports. Source:

Disaggregating the extraction data by world regions, it can be seen that, as a consequence of rapid industrialisation in countries such as China and India, Asia’s share in global resource extraction has increased steadily, especially since the early 1990s. From 1980 to 2005 the extraction of fossil fuels in China, for instance, tripled; the total increase in used extraction amounted for 150%.

Europe’s resource extraction grew only by 3%, but studies show that these raw materials are increasingly being substituted by imports from other world regions. Latin America, for example, is specialising noticeably in the extraction of resource-intensive export products, such as metal ores or biomass for biofuels. In 2005, Chile extracted fivefold the amount of copper of 1980, Brazil threefold the amount of sugar cane – being the raw material for ethanol fuel.

North America brings in the highest net regional metal imports, receiving 82% of all regional net metal imports. The two territories importing the most metals worldwide (US$ net) are the
United States and Mexico. The territory size in Figure 2 shows the proportion of worldwide net imports of metals (in US$) that are received there. Net imports are imports minus exports. When exports are larger than imports the territory is not shown.

Figure 3: Mineral Depletion. Source:

Figure 3 shows the fall in the financial value of a territory’s mineral resources due to current extraction rates. Territory size shows the proportion of all annual mineral depletion that occurred there. Mineral depletion is the loss of potential future income at current prices due to current quantities of minerals extracted. Included here are gold, lead, zinc, iron, copper, nickel, silver, bauxite, and phosphate. Territories with the highest mineral depletion are Australia, Brazil, Chile and China. Australia is the largest producer of bauxite, Brazil of industrial diamonds, China of tungsten, and South Africa of platinum and gold. Mineral extraction often causes environmental damage, itself a form of depletion. Territories that are small on this map may lack minerals or have used those worth extracting.

Global material extraction and resource efficiency

The above explained exchange of domestic extraction by imported materials does also affect the countries’ eco-efficiency, expressed by the material intensity indicator (domestic extraction devided by GDP, Figure 4), reflecting economic output per unit of domestic natural resource extraction. Figure 4: Material intensity by World region One observes that industrialised economies are characterised by the lowest material intensities (or highest eco-efficiency), with Europe being world-leader with around 1.25 tons per 1000 US $ GDP in the 1980s and improving to 0.75 tons at the beginning of this decade. Without a doubt this development is partly the result of the use of new technologies with improved material and energy performance and structural change of economies towards service sectors characterised by less material input per economic output.

Nonetheless, the picture generated by this indicator is distorted, as this leading position is gained, to a certain degree, at the expense of the exporting countries. Figure 5clearly illustrates that, on a world-wide level, it has been possible to decouple economic growth (GDP) and resource use (extraction); nonetheless, absolute numbers of resource extraction are still increasing, mirroring the fact that efficency gains through structural or technological effects are overcompensated by scale effects brought about by economic growth. The finiteness of important resources as well as constricted regeneration capacitiesmake a reversal of this trend indispensable.

Another effect of an extraction for export (see example Chile above) is that the added value remaining in the exporting country is very low, which also affects the material intensity. Thus, while steadily increasing raw material prices result in enormous revenue growth for resource rich countries (e.g. through taxes) as well as for the extracting companies, the trickle-down effect to the countries’ population is limited, depending on the political strategies of the local government. Additionally, the depence on resource exports brings about a high grade of vulnerability, as price changes, or even slumps, have especially severe consequences on the local economy.

Scenarios of future resource extraction

Scenarios on future natural resource extraction, applying integrated economic-environmental models show that in a baseline scenario without additional policies to limit resource use, used domestic extraction within the EU remains roughly constant until 2020, while unused domestic extraction decreases (particularly overburden from mining activities)(Figure 6). Figure 6: Global resource extraction, by major groups of resources and regions (OECD, 2008) (source: OECD,2008; based on Giljum et al., 2008)

The stabilisation of domestic extraction, however, is accompanied by growing imports of material intensive products. This indicates that the material requirements of the European economy will increasingly be met through imports from other world regions, causing shifts of environmental pressures related to material extraction and processing away from Europe towards resource-rich countries.

In order to quantify the use of resources as presented above, the Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI) in Vienna built up and maintains the only worldwide comprehensive data base on resource extraction, which comprises data for almost 200 countries, 270 types of resources, and currently a time series of 26 years (1980-2005). The complete aggregated data set is freely accessible on the website



Contact and further information:

Stephan Lutter & Stefan Giljum (SERI; Vienna/Austria)
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