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Through Understanding of Socioeconomic Metabolism towards Sustainability

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New indicators to measure human consumption burden on the environment

An EU initiative has introduced indicators to monitor the overall environmental burden imposed by human society.

Digital Economy
Climate Change and Environment
Fundamental Research

In response to continuing environmental degradation, policymakers are calling for an indicator to monitor environmental burden driven by the final consumption of goods and services. Currently, this burden is too complex to be captured by one single number. Several footprint indicators need to be established, which are also necessary to avoid shifting the burden from one region to another and across environmental areas. With EU funding, the THUNDER (Through understanding of socioeconomic metabolism towards sustainability) project created footprint indicators that assign environmental burden from the whole production chain to final consumers. The THUNDER team developed a consolidated set of footprint indicators suitable for monitoring the complicated environmental burden caused by humans. The indicators address the entire production chain of products consumed, accounting for the burden generated globally, irrespective of national boundaries. Indicators were based on three concepts: planetary boundaries, life-cycle impact assessment and stand-alone environmental footprints. They include, among others, carbon, potential net primary production, stratospheric ozone depletion, smog, toxicity, and scarce water and mineral. Researchers then calculated the footprint indicators through an environmentally extended multi-regional input-output analysis (EE-MRIO). They partially integrated the set of indicators in EE-MRIO. The indicators were further narrowed down to the potential net primary production footprint and scarce water footprint. EE-MRIO was used to link and estimate the two indicators. Lastly, project partners analysed the global transfers of the two footprints through international trade. Results show that the footprint of imported products is higher for wealthier countries for both footprints. Thanks to THUNDER, policymakers now have at their disposal evidence regarding environmental burdens abroad that are brought on by domestic consumption. The developed set of footprint indicators will help them to measure progress in environmental areas and set up policy goals. The project also highlighted the importance of international trade for displacement of environmental burdens.


Environmental burden, footprint indicators, THUNDER, socioeconomic metabolism

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