Development and dematerialization: An international study
Economic development and growth depend on growing levels of resource use, and result in environmental impacts from large scale resource extraction and emissions of waste. In this study, we examine the resource dependency of economic activities over the past several decades for a set of countries comprising developing, emerging and mature industrialized economies. Rather than a single universal industrial development pathway, we find a diversity of economic dependencies on material use, made evident through cluster analysis. We conduct tests for relative and absolute decoupling of the economy from material use, and compare these with similar tests for decoupling from carbon emissions, both for single countries and country groupings using panel analysis. We show that, over the longer term, emerging and developing countries tend to have significantly larger material-economic coupling than mature industrialized economies (although this effect may be enhanced by trade patterns), but that the contrary is true for short-term coupling. Moreover, we demonstrate that absolute dematerialization limits economic growth rates, while the successful industrialization of developing countries inevitably requires a strong material component. Alternative development priorities are thus urgently needed both for mature and emerging economies: reducing absolute consumption levels for the former, and avoiding the trap of resource-intensive economic and human development for the latter.