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Explanatory Variables for National Socio‐Metabolic Profiles and the Question of Forecasting National Material Flows in a Globalized Economy

James West and Heinz Schandl

Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2018, vol. 22, issue 6, 1451-1464

Abstract: Identifying which socioeconomic factors can explain differences in national sociometabolic profiles, and quantifying how well they do it, is relevant to the question of whether national‐level material flows can be forecast accurately enough to inform policy. In this study, we employed panel analyses to test a wide range of socioeconomic variables with respect to their ability to explain variations in the material flows trajectories between different nations. We found that, apart from the long‐established explanatory variables of population and affluence (gross domestic product [GDP] per capita), additional variables do little to explain the remaining variation between countries. The main explanation proposed for this is that, as product supply chains are increasingly globalized, expecting national‐level material flows to closely reflect national‐level development is not appropriate. The effects of globalized trade on national material flows are profound, and come via a number of different mechanisms, discussed in the study. This implies that attempting long‐term prediction of national demand for primary materials is unlikely to be a fruitful activity, and that further efforts to refine existing models will probably not greatly improve results. Conversely, forecasting material flows at the global scale may not be unreasonable, but would be contingent on having accurate forecasts of population and GDP. The linkage of national material flows to the global economy has important implications for the efficacy of attempting to materially affect global sustainability via policy measures taken in isolation, at the national level.

Date: 2018
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