Germany, like other countries, has committed to global achievement of the SDGs, as expressed, for example, in its new National Sustainable Development Strategy.
But the growing externalization of Germany’s environmental and socio-economic footprints, as related to its consumption and trade patterns, is a cause for concern related to this global responsibility.
Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has begun. Meeting their ambition for universality requires that national implementation in one country does not compromise sustainable development in other countries or globally. Germany, like other countries, has committed to global achievement of the SDGs, as expressed, for example, in its new National Sustainable Development Strategy. But the growing externalization of Germany’s environmental and socio-economic footprints, as related to its consumption and trade patterns, is a cause for concern related to this global responsibility. Implementing SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production requires minimizing those negative externalities and instead fostering synergies and opportunities for sustainable sourcing.
While it is well known that Germany (like Europe as a whole) is a large and growing net importer of biomass and agricultural commodities from many different world regions, there has hardly been any quantitative assessments of Germany’s external footprints. Now the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in collaboration with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) has published a paper, ‘Tracking Germany’s Biomass Consumption: Scientific Underpinning for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda,’ which provides new insights into the production-to-consumption links on which Germany depends. By employing innovative approaches and tools, we shed new light on the increasingly longer and more complex supply chains, along which commodities are produced, processed and imported, and the associated externalization of resource use, environmental pressures and footprints.
For “connecting the dots”, i.e. spelling out costs and benefits along the full supply chains, we’ve used a Multi-Regional Input-Output (MRIO) model, which assesses Germany’s full consumption-based (internal and external) footprints. Another innovative combination of tools we’ve used is Material Flow Analysis (MFA) coupled with local-level production, transport and trade data. These tools have allowed us to i) quantify the extent to which Germany is externalizing its environmental footprints and ii) pinpoint the location of biomass production for export to Germany at high spatial resolution (e.g. at the municipality level). By zooming in on the specific production context, we come closer to true footprints, i.e. local impacts on the ground, as related to export production for Germany.
Through enormous net imports of soy and palm oil, Germany has externalized large parts of its environmental footprint.
Initial results from applying these innovative tools to the commodities soy and palm oil indicate that:
· Germany has become an enormous net importer of soy and palm oil (and agricultural products in general), so that large parts of Germany’s environmental footprints materialize outside of its territory;
· Germany’s total consumption-based demand (including virtual imports, i.e. soy or palm oil used as inputs along the supply chain without physically entering Germany) is almost twice as large as the direct physical imports listed in conventional trade statistics;
· The external land area on which soy is produced for meeting Germany’s total consumption-based demand, equals about 20% of Germany’s domestic cropland; and
· Local production context matters; for example, some areas of soy production in Brazil for export to Germany are severely water scarce (different from Brazil’s average situation at country level); this water scarcity is likely aggravated further by the additional soy water demand.
All this is evidence for the fact that Germany’s responsibility for the transgression of Planetary Boundaries (PBs) (and with that on universal achievement of the SDGs) is significantly higher than a purely domestic analysis within the country boundaries would suggest. Moreover, our analysis identifies particularly vulnerable “hotspots” to which Germany externalizes some of its footprints, further increasing the pressure on the PBs. For example, one hectare of deforestation in tropical forests may have more severe impacts on climate or other Earth system functions than one hectare of deforestation in temperate German forests.
Next steps in this analysis will be i) extending our tools beyond environmental footprints to include socio-economic footprints, and ii) more detailed attribution of costs and benefits (and responsibilities) at each step of the supply chains. But already, our preliminary results can be used for supporting universal SDG implementation within the PBs, by assessing the external and global effects of existing national strategies and policies, and of new strategies and policies in agriculture, bio-economy, circular economy, trade, development and other areas.
Eventually, our results can help to operationalize SDG implementation, including claims such as:
· “Resource use and consumption to be in line with ecological boundaries within Germany and globally” (German Integrated Environment Programme), by making pressures on ecological boundaries spatially explicit;
· “Achieving more with less” (German Resource Efficiency Programme), by comprehensively quantifying both internal and external resource inputs into supply chains and hence resource use of German consumption patterns;
· “Living well within the limits of our planet” (EU’s Seventh Environment Action Program), by identifying situations in which environmental pressures are externalized rather than reduced, and with that counteract the decoupling of economic development from environmental pressures as required for a green economy; and
· “Fair and sustainable supply of raw materials from Global Markets” (EU Raw Materials Initiative), by tracing back supply chains to the original locations of production, resource inputs and environmental pressures.
Evidence-based operationalization of the universality principle of the SDGs can only be achieved in continuous science-policy dialogues (and mutual learning processes). By assessing externalities and synergies across regions, levels, scales, and also policy areas, science can help to narrow the gap between the level of ambition enshrined in the SDGs and current development pathways, and with that support sustainability transitions.
More details about this work can be found in the recently published SEI-IASS paper: ‘Tracking Germany’s Biomass Consumption: Scientific Underpinning for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda.’ We invite comments on the paper and on this guest article.
Holger Hoff is a Senior Scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute (Sweden) and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Germany)