The Economic Metabolism

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Lastly, and relevant to the next section, materials exhibit dynamic path dependency. Material flows enter and stay in the system as stocks and leave, or are recycled, at a future date. Most energy embedded in products is not recoverable, but an interesting and useful feature of material stocks in-use is their latent ability to contribute to material and energy saving through recycling in the future.

Operational efficiency and embodied energy are not simply properties of the aggregated material stock but of individual items making up infrastructure and other artefacts appliances, durable goods, etc.


These stocks contain a great deal of material, but they also have discrete lifetimes and often interact across sectors to supply services to society. Through their long lifetime in-use, they are responsible for lock-ins of lifestyles and emission pathways. Urban in-use stocks also relate to the density and accessibility of urban spaces and the capacity and utility of urban systems such as public transport or water supply systems. A study of global cities over 10 years Angel et al. Stocks and flows play different roles over different time scales.

Over the short-term less than 5 years , physical and economic flows can change with the vicissitudes of markets, income GDP , prices and events. Over the long-term, deeper structural changes related to population dynamics, urbanisation and infrastructure development, long-run economic policy, cumulative savings, resource depletion and institutional arrangements are more connected to the development of stocks.

Thus, long-term change is recorded in the quantity and quality of in-use stocks, and existing stocks and systems of stocks influence the long-term future.


This is valid from both the metabolic and the wealth and income perspectives Piketty Stocks and flows are certainly interrelated. Yet, the use of stocks by society determines the resource flows needed to operate, maintain or expand the physical stock. The services from stocks of infrastructure, machines and durable goods are closest to the interests of society; the socio-economic metabolic framework is driven first by stocks. For example, travel by automobile requires a flow of energy, but it is the stock the automobile that enables the conversion of energy into the service of mobility determines the amount and type of fuel used and resulting emissions.

Stocks in-use record the cumulative resource flows — materials and energy — embedded in the infrastructure and artefacts of the socio-economic system. Through their role in production, the age and efficiency of stocks are key factors in the operational consumption of resource flows in the economy and related GHG emissions.

Economic Metabolism

At the same time, the services from stocks are key for social and material development. Without an integrated approach that encompasses stocks and flows of materials and energy, such a trade-off is underestimated or even invisible. This indicator is used to estimate the carbon emissions caused by developing nations if they were to converge on the level of service provided in industrialised nations.

The CRV P for scenarios of infrastructure development was calculated using a metabolic approach that incorporates stock dynamics. Emissions from the operation of infrastructure are generally considered to be the main concern in the standard energy and emissions approach to GHG accounting: the models used, such as Davis et al. However, for the developing world to converge on the quality of life enjoyed in the industrialised world by , there will need to be a significant increase in the material and monetary quantity of infrastructure stocks. If we are to use current energy sources and technology to construct them, this must lead to a large carbon impost.

There is a premise to these calculations that should be acknowledged that achieving Western-style infrastructure stock is a desirable endpoint of sustainable development and that obtaining the same level of services from infrastructure and in-use stocks involves the same intensity of resource use as seen currently in the developed world.

The former assumption is certainly debateable in terms of environmental sustainability, and the latter is not necessarily the case as, quite apart from probable technical improvements, it is possible to realise a better quality of life without the need for a high-income, high impact society. As a model for this, there is a group of countries in the so-called Goldemberg corner that have relatively high income and long average life expectancy with low-carbon lifestyles Steinberger et al.

The salient point, however, is the significant trade-off between the aims of sustainable development and climate change mitigation. The very poor access to basic infrastructure in developing nations is untenable. If we are to alleviate this situation, then industrial development and urbanisation in these countries will dominate growth in infrastructure construction for several decades; this will increase global material demand and thereby produce GHG emissions.

Problem shifting is not limited to the issues of developing nations. While attempting to depress the carbon intensity of production and consumption, we face increasing material demands, sometimes for critical materials.

Hence, it is important in any scenario analysis of climate change mitigation to include materials and anticipated large-scale in-use stocks of materials. Medium-term 5—15 years relation of supply risk to the importance in clean energy technologies From Fig. Criticality can be a complex function of factors such as geographical distribution of reserves and stability of government in the nation owning those reserves Dawson et al. Although rare earth elements are often found in other metal ores, e. Criticality is sensitive to such a monopoly and one uncertainty is the speed at which new mines can be opened outside of China, but another part of the supply issue is the limited opportunities for recycling before due to the long lifetimes of end-use products.

Roelich et al. Economists could argue that more demand will raise prices and thereby make it economic to exploit more reserves. Whether or not this is valid, and whether or not production is sufficiently responsive to changes in demand, the challenge remains: over the next human generation, large infrastructure investment decisions will be made in developing nations, and unless they have affordable greener options, they will revisit an industrial history in a way that the available carbon budget does not permit.

Increased future demand for services from infrastructure and other fixed capital — such as carbon capture and storage CCS , water treatment plant, roads and renewable energy technology — nearly a billion new dwellings globally. In contrast to some adaptive strategies that aim for resilience through flexibility and reversibility in investments and even reducing the lifetime of investments Hallegatte , climate change mitigation is about commitment to long-term change: setting in place the economic, institutional and physical structures to enable a sustained transition to a low-carbon future.

The first priority is effective interventions to limit climate change UNFCCC , followed by the question of whether a response is efficient in terms of cost or resources required. What are the options for effective climate change mitigation policy and how does the metabolic framework generate answers or enable assessment? We use the global aluminium sector to illustrate a range of policy actions addressing technical and behavioural change. The energy intensity of producing new aluminium makes it a major contributor to GHG emissions, and there is also the need for aluminium in the future infrastructure stocks of both the industrialised and developing world.

The global aluminium material cycle Graphic reproduced from Liu et al. These results indicate the magnitude of the problem at the largest scale and underline the importance of coupling mitigation strategies with material efficiency strategies. The following sections expand on a selection of strategies, again relating to aluminium stocks and their use in society.

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Currently, global aluminium recycling is dominated by pre-consumer scrap This is useful for reducing energy demand per unit of production by substituting for energy-intensive virgin aluminium. However, for every ton of aluminium finally consumed, approximately half a ton goes through various production processes, consuming energy and producing emissions but without ever forming a final product.

Ultimately, in-use stocks provide a service and the question here is: can we use fewer stocks by using them more to obtain the same level of service? Answering this has less to do with the consumption of a particular material, like aluminium, and more to do with the characteristics and lifetime of the stock in-use. We may also seek to change behaviours in the use of stocks. We look at the example of the stock of US automobiles in which aluminium is increasingly a material component Ducker Worldwide Even with optimistic improvements in the efficiency of aluminium production, embodied energy in automotive parts is likely to increase Cheah et al.

For example, collective consumption in the form of car sharing reduces the need for people to own vehicles in exchange for the inconvenience of not having a private vehicle on demand.

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An analysis of the US car sharing market found members of carshare schemes reduced their number of cars per household, and on aggregate, every carshare vehicle took between 9 and 13 private vehicles off the road Martin et al. Another way to provide services from less stock is to have longer lived stocks and infrastructure that are more intensely used. This is counter to the current practice of planned obsolescence but is compatible with business models using adaptable design Allwood and Cullen and more radical approaches Chap. It is sometimes argued that newer technology introduces greater operational efficiencies and so faster stock turnover is an effective mitigation strategy.

However, this needs to be considered in conjunction with the emissions embodied in the stocks. Kagawa et al. Further examples are discussed in Chap. The current impacts of climate change and the prospect of yet higher global temperatures and more extreme weather should already instil urgency in policymakers to institute climate adaptation and mitigation measures. There are also long-term benefits of early action that interact with large-scale urbanisation and infrastructure growth.

For example, implementing more stringent building codes now that anticipate and avoid the impacts of future climate events can have a net economic benefit over the long term Baynes et al. This raises the importance of timing in effective policymaking. Delaying mitigation action can have long-lived consequences. Retaining or augmenting carbon- or energy-intensive technology stocks locks in their emissions intensity for at least the life of those assets IPCC a.

Where stocks operate in a system, e. In many sectors, the technology to achieve cuts in emissions is already available Pacala and Socolow ; IPCC b , which undermines the contrary view that it may be better to wait for yet more efficient technology and hold off investment until that is available. Returning to the example of the aluminium industry, Liu et al. They also considered three high-level scenarios of reducing the demand for stocks by assuming different saturation levels for global in-use aluminium per capita.

They found that the effectiveness of mitigation options depended heavily on the stock dynamics and the timing of stock creation and scrap availability. Among the options they simulated for reducing emissions in aluminium production was CCS in decarbonising electricity. Introducing efficiency measures and CCS early before had a greater effect because emissions related to aluminium in new building, transport and communication infrastructure were reduced.

Conversely, later in the century, maximising scrap collection had an increasing benefit as earlier cohorts of stock came to the end of their lifetime. Building up the infrastructure capacity, as an essential component of wealth, also involves energy and emissions. A dynamic metabolic analysis properly represents both physical wealth in in-use stocks and the material and energy flows needed to create and maintain those stocks.

Economic or physical flow measures may represent growth and development, but they are insufficient to understand long-term change and the lasting effect of wealth creation. On the basis of environmental and economic flows alone, developing nations appear highly materialised compared with industrialised countries and have lower productivity, but a more balanced assessment, taking into account physical stocks and infrastructure, can provide information on their relative socio-economic situation.

In reporting and modelling sustainable development, physical in-use stocks are an essential complement to the current information on flows in the system of environmental and economic accounting. There are conceptual parallels between the economic and environmental accounting systems even if their valuation and methodology differ.

In the UN system of national accounting European Commission et al. This is entirely a calculation on values of capital stocks that has not been fully translated into the environmental extensions of national accounts. There is a substantial literature on the valuation of natural and anthropogenic capital, but there is a strong tendency to use a common denominator of monetary value or utility.

Important physical information is then lost. For example, there is a world of difference between having a small amount of high quality, recently built road, and a much larger quantity of ageing, highly depreciated road that will soon be due for repair or replacement; the way capital value is determined means these two situations could be equivalent in net worth but they are very different in the services they provide and in their long-term material and energy requirements.

Frontiers in Socioeconomic Metabolism

Concentrating on the flow measure of GDP is rightly criticised as a false measure of human well-being, which might be better defined by the accumulation of capacity to provide employment, food, education, safety and security, an approach explored in Chap. That capacity corresponds more with the quantity and quality of infrastructure, productive and non-productive capital stocks.

Stocks are not merely the accounting residuals of the net difference in bulk material flows. Through the services they provide, stocks are indicators of physical wealth, and our ability through flows to maintain and sustain that wealth is equally an important dimension of reporting and modelling the physical aspect of human well-being.

Just as seeking greater wealth by increasing GDP can produce perverse outcomes Costanza et al. For example, the metric of domestic material consumption DMC is used widely as a macroeconomic indicator of material requirements. Developing countries will always have a relatively high DMC until they attain sufficient infrastructure and capital stock to satisfy the physical demands of their socio-economic aspirations. However, the interpretation may not be so simple.

Matthews et al.

The Economic Metabolism The Economic Metabolism
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