Global Policy Forum

How Much of the World's Resource Consumption Occurs in Rich Countries?


By Amy Cassara

Earth Trends
August 31, 2007


About once a month, one of our users sends an e-mail to EarthTrends with a variation of the above, usually with an emphasis on resource consumption in the United States. Resource consumption can be tricky to measure. Is monetary expenditure a good proxy for consumption? What about the quantity of objects consumed? How do we account for recycling, or expenditures in the service sector? We'll consider a few different angles on the consumption question below.

In monetary terms, most consumption still occurs in industrialized nations; according to the World Bank, the 2.3 billion residents of low-income countries accounted for less than 3% of public and private consumption in 2004, while the 1 billion residents of high-income countries consumed more than 80% of the global total (See Figure 1.) In this same year the United States accounted for 4.6 percent of the world's population and 33 percent of global consumption--more than $9 trillion U.S. dollars.


Figure 1. Global Consumption, 2004 (in billion US dollars)


Source: EarthTrends, 2007.

Monetary expenditure alone is an incomplete measure, though, because in more developed economies there is a strong service sector--should money spent on services count as consumption?--and a U.S. dollar or its equivalent spent in a rich country typically equates with less consumption than in a poor country.

When comparing consumption of actual commodities, then, the picture is not quite as skewed, but still shows significantly greater consumption by rich countries (see figure 2). The average American, for example, consumes around twenty times more meat and fish and sixty times more paper, gasoline, and diesel than the average Indian.


Figure 2. Annual Consumption of Selected Commodities


Source: EarthTrends, 2007.

Consumption Trends

Consumption in developing countries is increasing at a rapid pace, however, particularly in rapidly industrializing economies such as China and India. Figure 3 shows trends in consumption for three major commodities from 1990 to 2005 (2003 for gasoline and diesel oil). With almost no exception, consumption is increasing everywhere in absolute terms, but in developed countries such as the US and Europe, the increase is not as rapid. Consumption trends in China have outpaced both high- and low- income countries in all four commodities shown below; in China, motor fuel, paper, and meat consumption has more than doubled, and fish consumption has increased nearly five-fold since 1990.


Figure 3. Trends in Consumption of Selected Commodities



Source: EarthTrends, 2007.

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