About SEM

Mission statement

The Socio-Economic Metabolism Section promotes scholarly and policy relevant research on the resource use dynamics of socio-economic systems across scales, and operates as a reliable source of information and advice for government and industry to help deliver solutions for sustainable resource use.


Challenge

In recent years, pressure points around climate change, water and food availability, price surges for industrial raw materials and bottlenecks in crucial supply chains have converged very rapidly and in an unprecedented manner. The deep crisis of our global system of production and consumption has been highlighted in recent years by the 2008 global financial crisis, the inability of the global community to reduce economic inequality, and the failure of complex supply chains to deliver basic goods and equipment during the COVID19 pandemic in 2020.

Current production and consumption systems have become unsustainable. Intergovernmental organizations such as the OECD have concluded that modern societies increasingly depend on the environment as a source of raw materials and energy and as a sink for emissions, and are hitting the limits of what the planet can support. The global use of resources has grown at an unprecedented rate and the number of chemical elements and their combinations used in modern technologies have multiplied. As a consequence, societies degrade their natural resource endowment and the quality of their environment, which in turn shapes economic, social, and geopolitical boundary conditions.

In addition to over-consumption in industrialized countries, additional challenges for the global use of resources arise from the strong demand for raw materials caused by urbanization, industrialization and growing consumption in emerging economies, the provision of adequate access to modern energy for rapidly growing, poor populations, and the need to adapt to and mitigate climate change.Securing access to resources and decreasing dependency on potentially critical resources has become a priority for governments and industry.

Socio-economic metabolism is complex and includes many delays and feedbacks, either within resource cycles or between different resources. For example, many green technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions depend on critical minerals, making these industries potentially vulnerable to supply disruptions. Fossil fuel deposits can be extracted only by using dramatically larger amounts of energy and water and many must remain in the ground to achieve even modest climate change mitigation targets. Problem shifting is unavoidable in such complex systems. Many agree that the global economy is at a turning point and decisions are urgent, yet information is incomplete.

The United Nations Environment Program has formulated a Green Economy initiative to redirect investment to green economic activities, in response to the dual financial and environmental crises. The OECD and the European Union, as well as many individual countries, such as for example Japan and China have formulated similar strategies. These new policy challenges will require new information to inform policy planning, programs and policies. There is a need to expand the traditional set of economic indicators by complementary high-level information on materials use and waste, energy use and emissions, and water use.


Approach

Successful policy formulation in complex environments needs sophisticated approaches and methods to analyse diverse socio-metabolic data. The main compass for policy making today is restricted to a small set of economic indicators (GDP, inflation, and employment) and ignores the fundamental realities of industrial metabolism, resource use, waste and emissions. Industrial metabolism research fills this gap by measuring and modeling industrial metabolism on multiple scales, e.g., from from single materials and technologies, via economic sectors, to whole economies. In doing so, the research provides new accounting systems, headline indicators, and also detailed information on the metabolic consequences of different policy settings.
Industrial metabolism research has established concepts and methods to measure material and waste flows through industrial systems, energy and emissions, water and land use. Research frameworks link physical flows to physical stocks of infrastructure, buildings and capital to explore stock and flow dynamics and to allow modeling of scenarios for policy alternatives.

The accounts and indicators report on the history of resource use and current conditions, and enable scenarios to be established. This allows inefficiencies in current systems to be explored, and provides ways to test technology alternatives to see system-wide outcomes and trade-offs. This helps in investigating potentials for dematerialization, to secure future human development and well-being to factor in major resource constraints.

The accounts are also largely compatible with economic accounts, and therefore may operate as satellite accounts to systems of national accounts, allowing countries to establish indicators for resource productivity. In doing so, societies are able to monitor the ‘ecological debt’ that has built up, and to design new systems of production and consumption to establish well-being based on different, less exploitative resource use patterns.

In recent years, the research community, together with statistical offices and government departments, has established methodological guidelines for resource flow and stock accounts at a national level. We can now evaluate policy alternatives with regard to their biophysical constraints, and resource use and emission outcomes. This provides new information which is increasingly being used in policy initiatives across the globe.

At the same time, accounting for resources can be applied to almost any level of detail including economic sectors or individual business or geographical units such as regions or cities. The analysis may also focus on certain materials of concern because of their availability or toxic capacity and will open-up possibilities for technical and engineering solutions to metabolic problems. The analysis may, in addition, focus on the design of industrial systems and processes to improve their metabolic performance by reducing inputs, enabling recycling and reuse and avoiding of waste and emissions.

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