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Tracing Pathways of Resource Use in the World Economy: An Analysis of National and Sectoral Influence across the Global Water-Energy-Land System



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A research and policy agenda has emerged in recent years to understand the interconnected risks natural resource systems face and their exploitation drives. The so-called Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus has served as a focal point for the conceptual, theoretical and empirical development of this agenda. However, boundaries for WEF nexus assessment are usually established without a foundational understanding of major interactions and risks across the water-energy-land (WEL) system. Consequently, priorities drawn from nexus studies might simply be an artefact of the partial scope of nexus assessment rather than a reflection of major risks to the WEL system and the activities which it supports. This thesis demonstrates how macro-economic methods of resource accounting can be used to broaden nexus assessment, sectorally and spatially, to identify and compare different sources of water, energy and land use, in individual countries and globally. A study of water and land use embodied in international soybean trade (Chapter 3) reveals that while single commodities can be analysed in this way, data and time constraints involved in using Material Flow Analysis (MFA) data make global assessment of water, energy and land use pathways across different production and consumption systems challenging. However, Multi-Regional Input-Output Analysis (MRIOA) is found to offer a practical approach to this end. By combining economic and environmental accounts from the Eora MRIO database, resource risk indices, and techniques for production source decomposition, this thesis examines thewater, energy and land footprints of 189 countries. Chapter 4 evaluates the scale of national water, energy and land use embodied in domestic production and international trade; Chapter 5 compares the contribution of food and non-food related sectors within this context; and, Chapter 6 reveals how these impacts are distributed across supply networks. Linking national consumption to resource origins reveals that countries are often highly exposed to over-exploited, insecure, and degraded water, energy, and land resources. These risks are found to originate from multiple sectors, including food, textiles and construction, and are primarily indirect, stemming from international trade and production up-stream national supply networks. These findings highlight the partiality of studying the WEL system within a single sector, across a limited supply chain scope, and at a sub-global scale. Policy interventions within this context need to reflect how resource pressures are transmitted through consumption and production systems between local, national, and global scales. However, further research is also needed to expose the links between inequality, ideology, overconsumption and environmental exploitation which drive decisions in relation to water, energy and land resources.





Bithell, Mike
Richards, Keith


resource security, macroeconomic, international trade, water, energy, land, MRIOA, MFA


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Commonwealth Trust: Vice Chancellor's Award
Is supplemented by: