Project Leader: Paul Ekins
Sponsor: Biffaward/Forum for the Future
Through the landfill tax credit scheme, Biffaward have instigated a series of over 20 research projects examining resource flows in the UK. These projects are quantifying the movement of resources through specific economic sectors or geographical areas as these resources are extracted/imported, manufactured into products, used and disposed of. The wastes generated at each stage of this sequence are also quantified. For these projects, material flows are tracked using the fundamental principle that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Therefore the mass of resource inputs (raw materials) flowing into a system is balanced by the mass of outputs (wastes and products) flowing out of it and the change in the system's stock of the resource. Hence, the term 'Mass Balance' is used to describe the approach taken by these studies.
The Biffaward series of projects represents a major addition to this field of research. Resource flow analyses of this type are key to understanding the flows of materials through the economy and to identify where the necessary resource efficiencies can be made to work towards the Factor 4 or Factor 10 improvements required for sustainability. This information is also crucial to the development of indicators to monitor the resource efficiency of the UK and to inform policy making designed to move industries, industrial sectors and the economy as a whole to a more sustainable position in this regard. However, to enable the development of comprehensive resource efficiency indicators, or to properly inform policy making, the data need to encompass the entire economy.
The Royal Society for Nature Conservation (RSNC), which administers the Biffaward fund, have given Forum for the Future the task of co-ordinating, presenting and interpreting the data output of the mass balance projects to ensure that the potential benefits of this series of studies are maximised. Paul Ekins from PSI is directing this task. In order to carry it out a framework has been developed that allows resource flow data for geographical areas, industrial sectors or specific resource types to be held in a common database. Ensuring that the data outputs of the projects are compatible results in the projects adding value to each other rather than existing as separate projects. The data from the series of Biffaward mass balance projects, supplemented by data from other sources, will, therefore, build up over time to create both a cross-sectoral and geographical picture of resource flows, which will be the subject of further analysis and research with the objective of promoting sustainable resource use.
Importance of Research
There is, therefore, a clear need for a systematic, regulated approach to the collection of mass balance data in the UK, given the general lack of information that currently exists. It is difficult to see how the improvements in resource efficiency which are widely agreed to be necessary for sustainable development can be systematically achieved without the development of such an information base on resource use and resource movement through the economy. It is hoped that this project, along with the spin-off initiatives it will generate, will clearly demonstrate the need for, and the value of, this approach and that the system of resource accounts being produced for this project can contribute to the development of national resource accounts which will become an indispensable part of sustainable resource management in the UK.