In its current form, the Finnish society is dependent on massive and ever increasing use of natural resources. Natural resources are taken into use in Finland and also received via imports both as finished goods and as resources used in Finnish production. The negative environmental effects of natural resource use due to the Finnish economy happen thus both inside and outside of its borders. Consequently, in order to assess natural resource use, it is necessary to take into account the hidden flows (all related material use) of production, not just the finished goods or their raw materials. These hidden flows consist of, for example, the water needed for the irrigation in agriculture or discarded rock in mining. Total material requirement captures this use.
Raw materials extracted in Finland and the imported goods and raw materials are used both for domestic consumption and for the production of exports, meaning that all of the above can not be counted as Finnish consumption. Different indicators can separate between domestic consumption (excluding exports) and total material requirement (including exports). The indicators give different specific numbers, but the overall picture is clear. Even in terms of domestic consumption Finnish per capita use of natural resources is among the highest in the world, higher than the EU average and higher than in the US and China. (IRP Global Material Flows). The economic benefits of exports contribute to Finnish welfare, underlining that the throughput of material from imports to exports must also be acknowledged. Ecological reconstruction entails radical reduction of total material use with special attention to “outsourced” environmental effects.
At the moment, the total material requirement is ca. 650 Mt (in 2019, 642 Mt). The goal is to reduce the total material requirement to ca. 200 Mt by 2070. This is an interim goal, and needs to be combined with a qualitative change in what is used and how the usage is organised. The reduction should be directed first and foremost to goods and raw materials that cause largest hidden flows, as the amount of hidden flows has grown the fastest while the level of domestic direct inputs has stayed relatively stable. In addition to a quantitative change (reduced consumption, reuse, maintenance, recycling), a qualitative change away from harmful modes of production and consumption is necessary.
How is progress measured?
The development of natural resource use is captured by the indicator total material requirement (TMR). Statistics Finland produces economy-wide material flow accounts that include TMR data. In addition, the accounts contain numbers for domestic material consumption (DMC), where exports are deducted from total use. DMC does not contain hidden flows, so it does not include the “outsourced” environmental pressures typical for an affluent open economy like Finland. It would be ideal to combine data on TMR with data on total material consumption (TMC) that takes into account hidden flows and subtracts exports. Unfortunately, TMC calculations are not systematically performed in Finland. This gap in data should be filled by publicly funded knowledge production.
The types of environmental pressure generated by societies are multiple, and no single indicator captures them satisfactorily. Aggregate quantifications, like TMR, lump together different resources (gravel, herring, timber, uranium, etc.), whose production and consumption cause very different effects. A good example are fossil fuels, the use of which is the major driver of global warming. This necessitates that the dashboard has a dedicated indicator for carbon balance.
Despite these problems, a quantitative measure of natural resource use is a useful proxy that gives an idea of the scale of human activity. When natural resource use increases, most likely environmental problems increase and worsen. For instance, loss of biodiversity is caused by a long list of disparate phenomena (overfishing and -hunting, pollution, ecosystem fragmentation, destruction of key habitats, etc), but the intensity of human activity is a common thread connecting them all. Moreover, the growth of material use is connected to the growth of energy use, which in turn makes tackling climate change harder.
In material flow accounts heavy materials, like flows of rock, gravel and sand, get a larger representation than small but ecologically especially harmful items such as toxins. On the other hand, the growth of infrastructure, such as buildings and roads, increases the amount of material and energy needed for maintenance and operation. In other words, the development of total material requirement indicates whether society is progressing towards an ecologically sustainable direction, but it does not give detailed instructions on what measures to take.
Focusing on the decrease in hidden flows of imports is motivated by considerations of global justice and equal development. The goods imported to Finland include in concentrated form a large amount of natural resource use happening elsewhere. For instance, it has been estimated that 90 percent of the biodiversity effects due to Finnish food consumption take place outside Finland (Sandström ym 2017).
Since the whole metabolism of societies has to transition not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, it is impossible to give a precise number for sustainable material use. Consequently, we present an interim goal for the year 2070. Some estimates of a level of sustainable resource use globally have been given. The UN International Resource Panel (IRP) has presented a scenario (“tough contraction and convergence“), in which global resource use is pulled back to the level of 2000, and consumption in developed and developing countries is converged (i.e., less consumption in developed countries and increased consumption in developing countries). When global population in 2050 is estimated to be 8,9 billion, this scenario gives global material consumption at 50 Gt and ca 6 tons per capita. Elsewhere, a global resource use of 68 Gt has been proposed as sustainable (Bringezu 2015). Lettenmeier et al (2014) have presented a detailed breakdown on 8 ton per capita consumption level in Finland.