UK’s appetite for natural resources on the increase

Despite efforts by Government and industry to reduce the UK's environmental footprint the volume of natural resources consumed by the economy continues to rise.

According to the nation’s Environmental Accounts, published by the Office for National Statistics, in 2004 Britain consumed 11 million more tonnes of raw materials than it had the previous year, an increase of 1.6%.

The 2004 figures show the total domestic material consumption at 693 million tonnes, compared with 682 million in 2003 and 680 million in 2002.

The main explanation for the rise is a large increase in imported fossil fuels, up 24.5%, coupled with a drop in exports which were at their lowest since 1996.

Overall, imports reached a record level last year, at 273 million tonnes, up 13.8% on 2003 figures.

Imports of minerals, food, forestry and fodder for animals were also all at record levels.

Domestic extraction raw materials dropped sharply, hitting a 20-year low, once again largely down to fossil fuels, with less oil and gas coming from the North Sea and the coal fields also less productive.

On the plus side, material efficiency has improved indicating less materials are being used to produce more goods.

The Environmental Accounts also give estimates on the remaining domestic crude oil and gas reserves, both expected to last just 12 more years.

Waste came under the auditors’ spotlight and the figures showed almost three quarters of the nation’s 330 million tonnes of waste in 2002/03 came from the mineral, construction and demolition industries.

The audit also tracked expenditure on environmental protection and waste management.

In 2004 the public sector spent £5.9 billion on the environment, with waste management accounting for the lions share of that at £3.5 billion.

£0.7 billion was spent on conservation measures, a big increase on the previous year, while just £0.3 billion was put into tackling climate change and cutting emissions.

In the private sector the accounts looked at cash spent by the extraction, manufacturing and energy supply industries and found the figure totalled at £3.4 billion, with almost two thirds of that spent on waste and wastewater management and a following 13% on measures to protect the atmosphere and prevent climate change.

As well as providing a snapshot of Britain’s resource consumption, the Environmental Accounts are used to inform sustainable development policy, to model impacts of taxation and other fiscal measures and to evaluate the environmental performance of different industrial sectors.

By Sam Bond

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