International Trade in Resources

A Biophysical Assessment

image of International Trade in Resources

Tasked with building and sharing knowledge on how to improve management of the world’s resources, UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP) turns its attention to the world trading system and its implications for global resource efficiency. In this report entitled “International Trade in Resources: A biophysical assessment”, the IRP examines how efficient the current system of world trade is in distributing resources from the geographical locations of supply to the locations of demand. By examining trade from a biophysical (versus an economic) viewpoint, the authors of the report seek to assess whether or not trade allows commodities to be obtained from countries where their production requires fewer resources and generates a smaller amount of wastes and emissions.




The availability and quality of natural resources such as energy, materials, water and land are essential to human well-being and sustenance. The uneven distribution of these resources, owing to geological or climatic factors among others, has traditionally led to human settlements in geographies where the required resources were plentiful and accessible. If resources were plentiful, the settlement process created population centres, which often turned into industrial regimes dependent on the immediate natural environment of resources. The resulting depletion in local availability created a demand for resources from peripheral territories. This pattern holds for renewable resources (e.g. forests, drinking water and food crops) and even more so for non-renewable resources (such as silver, copper, iron, coal and petroleum), which play a central role in the later stages of development. In physical terms, therefore, there is an inevitable asymmetry between population centres and peripheries: peripheries extract raw materials from nature and process them to a certain degree for their own consumption, on the one hand, and for use by the centres on the other. Centres have few raw materials to extract, but they process the extracted raw materials further and consume them, and deliver manufactured products to the peripheries. Historically, urban centres have specialized in commodities for which resources were easily accessible within their peripheries, and exchanged them, through trade, for specialized commodities from other centres (Pomeranz and Topik, 2006).


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