The amount of raw materials needed to sustain the economies of developed countries is significantly greater than presently used indicators suggest, a new Australian study has revealed.

Using a new modelling tool and more comprehensive indicators, researchers were able to map the flow of raw materials across the world economy with unprecedented accuracy to determine the true “material footprint” of 186 countries over a two-decade period (from 1990 to 2008).

The study, involving researchers from the University of New South Wales, CSIRO, the University of Sydney, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, was published today in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It reveals that the decoupling of natural resources from economic growth has been exaggerated.

The results confirm that pressures on raw materials do not necessarily decline as affluence grows and demonstrates the need for policy-makers to consider new accounting methods that more accurately track resource consumption.

“Humanity is using raw materials at a level never seen before with far-reaching environmental impacts on biodiversity, land use, climate and water,” says lead author Tommy Wiedmann, Associate Professor of Sustainability Research at the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “By relying on current indicators, governments are not able to see the true extent of resource consumption.”

Chile is one of the countries included in the study showing high footprint compared to other countries. Specially, the largest per-capita exporters of embodied primary materials – in particular metal ores – are Australia and Chile.