Europe’s material footprint

The EU’s Eighth Environment Action Programme aims to significantly decrease the EU’s material footprint, that is, the amount of raw material extracted to manufacture the goods and services consumed. Since 2010, the material footprint has remained relatively stable and was 6.1 billion tonnes in 2020. This level of consumption is not sustainable and is higher than the global average. Given the lack of a declining trend, to achieve the aim of reducing the EU’s material footprint, significant efforts are needed to reduce consumption and material extraction, and switch to goods and services that require less material.

Published: ‒ 25min read

The EU’s material footprint refers to the amount of material extracted from nature, both inside and outside the EU, to manufacture or provide the goods and services consumed by EU citizens. The Eighth Environment Action Programme calls for a significant decrease in the EU’s material footprint to safeguard precious natural resources and because the extraction and processing of these resources has significant environmental and climate impacts, such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

From 2010 to 2020, the EU’s material footprint remained relatively stable: it fell by 7% from 2010 to 2016 and increased by 5% from 2016 to 2019. In 2020 the material footprint fell by 5% to 6.1 billion tonnes, but the 2020 data is heavily influenced by the economic slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is considered as a temporary phenomenon. Of the various material groups, consumption of non-metallic minerals is the highest, accounting for 50% of the footprint in 2020; changes in consumption in this group were largely responsible for the overall trend. Biomass was the next largest group (23%), followed by fossil fuels (19%) and metals (9%). Although non-metallic minerals account for a large part of the total material footprint, they have less of an impact on the environment and climate than metals and fossil fuels, relative to their shares of the material footprint .

The material footprint provides a comprehensive measure of all materials extracted to satisfy consumption demand in the EU, including materials extracted outside the EU and imported. The demand for metals and fossil fuels is met mainly by imports, while the demand for biomass and non-metallic minerals is met mainly by domestic extraction (see the EU’s Raw Material Information System for more information). The proportion of the material footprint accounted for by imports increased from 48% in 2010 to 51% in 2020. This indicates a growing reliance of the EU on other countries to satisfy its need for materials.

The EU’s total material footprint is above the global average and much above those of low- and middle-income countries. This level of resource consumption exceeds the planet’s ‘safe operating space’ for resource extraction, meaning that, if the world were to consume resources at the level of the EU, the capacity of the planet to provide these resources would be exceeded.

The material footprint could be reduced by decreasing consumption or choosing goods or services whose production or provision needs less material. Various circular economy policies (as part of the EU circular economy action plan) aim to reduce the need for primary material extraction, by keeping materials in the economy for as long as possible while keeping their value as high as possible, and boosting high-quality recycling.

Discounting the temporaty dip in 2020, the stable trend of the past 10 years is a cause for concern, as it shows that the EU is not on track to significantly reduce its material footprint in the coming decade. Whether or not this aim will be achieved is therefore uncertain.

Material footprints vary substantially across EU countries, from 7.5 tonnes/capital in the Netherlands to 29.5 tonnes/capita in Finland. Since 2010, 14 of the 27 Member States have reduced their material footprints, with Greece and Italy reducing their footprints by more than 30%. On the other hand, Romania, Hungary and Ireland’s material footprints have increased by more than 50%.

Differences in the material footprints among countries are difficult to explain, as they are based on citizens’ consumption patterns and also on the structure and efficiency of the economy. However, elements such as high levels of circularity (see EEA indicator on the circular material use rate) in the national economy are particularly important. High levels of circularity partly explain the low footprint value in the Netherlands, for instance, which has the lowest material footprint in the EU and also the highest circular material use rate.

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