Resource efficiency — material resource efficiency and productivity

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
8 min read
Photo: © Stephen Mynhardt/EEA

Per capita consumption of material resources increased between 2000 and 2012 in 13 countries and decreased in 19. Significant increases were primarily due to large-scale infrastructure investments, with the largest declines related to the economic crisis and a collapse in construction activities.

Four countries have consistently been the most resource-efficient economies, with six remaining at the bottom of resource-productivity rankings, indicating opportunities for further improvements and actions.

Setting the scene

Natural resources underpin economic and social development, and over-consumption of these resources has resulted in environmental degradation and economic losses. Improving the resource efficiency of European economies and societies is essential, and this objective has been on the European environmental policy agenda for more than a decade.[1][2][3]

The SOER 2015 briefing on resource efficiency provides an overview of the status, trends and prospects at a European level. This SOER 2015 cross-country comparison focuses on material resources and uses resource productivity, the headline indicator chosen to monitor trends in resource efficiency under the Roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe.[4]

About the indicator

Resource productivity is defined as the ratio between gross domestic product (GDP) and domestic material consumption (DMC). DMC measures the total amount of materials directly used by an economy, and is defined as the annual quantity of raw materials extracted from the domestic territory, plus all physical imports minus all physical exports. It is expressed in tonnes per capita. This indicator is regularly published by Eurostat for individual countries and the EU as a whole.[5][6]

DMC does not include upstream material use related to imports and exports originating outside of the focal economy. Therefore Raw Material Consumption (RMC) has been proposed as a complementary indicator, as it better accounts for resource use embedded in trade. Modelling estimates for RMC have been produced by Eurostat for the EU-27 but are only available for a few individual countries.

Policies, targets and progress

Resource efficiency is a strategic priority of the Europe 2020 Strategy, a policy response to address a wide spectrum of important economic and environmental concerns.[7] In 2010, a flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe was adopted[8] and the resulting 2011 Roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe identified milestones for specific areas and almost a hundred individual actions to be taken by the European Commission and Member States.[4] One of the priority objectives of the 7th Environment Action Programme, which will guide European environment policy until 2020, is to 'turn the Union into a resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy'.[9]

However, no targets have yet been adopted for resource use or resource efficiency at a European level. In the recent communication, Towards a circular economy: a zero-waste programme for Europe,[10] the European Commission proposed the adoption of a resource-productivity target, and it is hoped that this would provide an impetus for countries to also adopt targets. At present, only a few individual countries (e.g. Germany) have concrete and measurable targets accompanied by a deadline.[11]

Many European countries have developed their own national programmes or strategies for resource efficiency. These initially tended to address individual topics such as energy consumption or waste recycling. However, they have gradually expanded to cover wasteful production and consumption patterns; the increasing cost of energy and raw materials; the rising global demand for raw materials; concerns over depletion of resources and the security of supply; environmental pollution; and global impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions.

A review of national initiatives shows that there is a great variety of regulatory settings and organisational arrangements in place in relation to resource-efficiency policies.[11] National policy priorities and responses are guided by EU regulations but vary widely, driven by a combination of local economic and geographic conditions, environmental priorities, and economic concerns.

The total use of material resources is strongly correlated with the population of a country and the size and structure of its economy. In 2012, the three countries with the largest total DMC were Germany, France, and Poland, while those with the lowest were Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus. 

The economic crisis that started in 2008 has been a major factor shaping trends in resource use. In individual countries and at European level, the most significant changes in resource use took place during 20072011 (Figure 1). In the EU-27, DMC grew from 15.6 tonnes/capita in 2000, peaked at 16.7 in 2007, before declining by 19% to the current figure of 13.7 in 2012 (Figure 1). In 2012, the countries with the highest per capita DMC were Finland, Estonia and Ireland, while the lowest were Spain, Hungary and the United Kingdom.

Figure 1: Material resource use (DMC) per capita in 32 European countries (2000, 2007 and 2012)

There has been a reduction in per capita DMC in the majority of countries over the period 2000 to 2012. The largest decline was recorded in Ireland (50%) (Box 1) and Spain (49%)  mainly caused by a collapse in construction activities  followed by Italy (38%) and Cyprus (32%). Per capita DMC increased in 13 countries, and the largest per-capita increases over this period  primarily due to large-scale infrastructure investments  were recorded in Romania (178%), Estonia (104%), Lithuania (54%), Bulgaria (46%) and Turkey (44%).

Box 1: A collapse of the construction sector

Figure 2: Ireland total DMC by component (2000, 2007 and 2012)

Between 2000 and 2007, Ireland had the highest DMC per capita in the European Union, at three times the EU-27 average. This was due to the construction boom resulting in very high consumption of construction minerals (38 tonnes per capita of minerals alone in 2007  more than twice the average total DMC per capita). Another contributing factor was large-scale agricultural production, resulting in the second highest DMC-biomass per capita in the EU-27 at almost 10 tonnes in 2007. 

The economic decline started in 2008, and resulted in the total DMC per capita in Ireland decreasing by 55% between 2007 and 2012, with the use of construction minerals decreasing by 70%. With a DMC per capita of 24.2 tonnes in 2012, Ireland is now third-highest in the EU-27, 77% above the EU-27 average.

Figure 3: Resource productivity (GDP/DMC) in 32 European countries (2000 and 2012)

Resource productivity, expressed as a ratio of GDP to DMC, links overall resource use to economic activity. Between 2000 and 2012, it increased markedly in the European Union (by 29% for the EU-27 and by 39% for the EU-15), a sign that European economies are creating more wealth out of the material resources that they use, although it also reflects changes in material use and the structure of economies.

The country with the highest resource productivity over the available time series is Switzerland. Switzerland, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have consistently been the most resource-efficient economies in Europe between 2000 and 2012. The increase in resource productivity between 2000 and 2012 was highest in Ireland, Spain, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, Cyprus and the United Kingdom. Only two countries  Romania and Estonia  experienced a decline in resource productivity in the same period.

There are large differences amongst countries, with little evidence of convergence of resource-productivity rates between 2000 and 2012. Resource productivity is lower in the new member states and in non-EU members. This is partly due to construction sector activity, which dominates material use in many countries.


Many factors determine resource use and productivity, including climate, population density, infrastructure needs, domestic availability of raw materials versus reliance on imports, prevailing fuel in the power generation sector, the rate of economic growth, technological development, and the structure of the economy.[12] There is also the long-term tendency for absolute amounts of resources used to increase in tandem with economic growth despite technological progress (the 'rebound' effect).

The long-term objective of current European environmental policies is that the overall environmental impact of all major sectors of the economy should be significantly reduced, and resource efficiency increased.[9] This policy goal  a double decoupling of resource use from both economic growth and environmental impacts  provides a framework and direction for national policies.[8]

The large differences in resource-efficiency performance amongst countries  and the fact that the same half-a-dozen countries have remained at the bottom of resource efficiency rankings since 2000  indicates opportunities for improvements and actions.

Efforts to support the exchange of good practice in policy design could be one tool to facilitate faster uptake of the most effective solutions. In addition, the use of indicators such as RMC will give a broader perspective on resource productivity, incorporating upstream material use. However, the link to the overall environmental impact of resource use is still not easily captured within available indicators.

Countries' perspectives


[1] EC (2001), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the Sixth Environment Action Programme of the European Community, "Environment 2010: Our future, Our choice", [COM (2001) 31 final].

[2] EC (2005), Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — Thematic Strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources, SEC(2005) 1683 SEC(2005) 1684 COM/2005/0670 final.

[3] EC (2008), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: the raw materials initiative — meeting our critical needs for growth and jobs in Europe. Commission of the European Communities, Com(2008) 699 final Brussels 2008.

[4] EC (2011), European Commission, Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, COM(2011) 571 final,Brussels, 20.09.2011.

[5] Eurostat (2013), Economy-wide Material Flow Accounts, Data extract 15 March 2014.

[6] Eurostat (2013), Resource efficiency scoreboard.

[7] EC (2010), European Commission, EUROPE 2020 — A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, Communication from the Commission, COM(2010) 2020, Brussels, 03.03.2010.

[8] EC (2011), European Commission. A resource-efficient Europe– Flagship initiative under the Europe 2020 Strategy, COM(2011) 21 Brussels, 26.01.2011.

[9] EC (2013), Decision no 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet.’, Official Journal of the European Union, 28.12.2013, L354/171.

[10] EC (2014), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions "Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe", COM/2014/0398 final.

[11] EEA (2011), Resource efficiency in Europe- Policies and approaches in 31 EEA member and cooperating countries, EEA report 5/2011, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[12] EEA (2012), Material resources and waste — 2012 update of SOER2010 thematic assessment, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen, Denmark.


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