How much materials are needed to provide a decent living for all?

By Dr Johan Velez and Professor Stefan Pauliuk, Industrial Ecology group, University of Freiburg  

Alongside climate change, eradicating poverty and increasing access to basic needs are some of the biggest challenges in our actual society. However, how can we provide a decent living for all while minimizing material depletion? A recent study by Vélez-Henao and Pauliuk titled “Material Requirements of Decent Living Standards” [1] delves deeply into this critical issue, offering a fresh perspective on the relationship between material (stocks and services) consumption and human well-being.

The Decent Living Standards Framework

The decent living standards (DLS) concept was developed by Rao and Min [2] to refer to a bundle of services e.g., nutrition, shelter, and mobility, that are essential preconditions to human well-being. This framework has been used to estimate the energy necessary to supply a well-being; however, they do not address the link between DLS material consumption [1].

Why materials? Materials such as steel, wood, and concrete form an important link between poverty-related and environmental SDGs. For example, eradicating poverty requires access to basic services, which require functioning products and material stocks for their provision.

The Material Requirements for a DLS

Providing a DLS requires a material footprint (MF) of about 6 t/(cap*yr) of which the dimension of nutrition (38%) and mobility (26%) are the categories that contribute the most to the total. Transport by car (19%) and electricity (17%) are the most significant contributors to the total MF, while food products contribute with around 37% of the total footprint. The environmental flows that contribute the most to the MF are biomass (20%), gravel (16%) and hard coal (11%).

Stocks associated with the DLS

The direct stocks required to provide the DLS is ~32 t/cap, with 98% of these associated with buildings.  On the other hand, the indirect stocks i.e., the infrastructure and machinery needed to provide services associated with DLS are ~11 t/cap from which 61% are associated with the construction sector, utility and engineering projects.

The role of sufficiency and efficiency strategies on DLS provisioning.

Lifestyles and efficiency measures significantly influence the MF. The DLS can be provided with an MF in the range of 3-14 t/(cap*yr).  for example, reducing meat consumption by half or switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet reduces the MF of nutrition by 9, 24, and 35%, respectively. Similarly, for mobility, a transition to electric vehicles would increase the mobility MF by 26%, while, active mobility measures such as walking and cycling and reducing the use of private vehicles can reduce the MF up to 10%.

The Implication of Renewable Energies and building archetypes on the DLS

Using electricity mixes with more renewable energies contribute to reduce the MF between 5-14% depending of the renewable mixes. Additionally, for residential buildings, increasing the use of wood, making buildings lighter and moving from single family to multi-family houses can bring between 17 and 43% savings in the MF.

Political Implications of the DLS and outlook

Provide a DLS for the 1.2 billion people living in multidimensional poverty will require an MF of about 7.2 Pg/yr and around 51.6 Pg stocks (direct and indirect). The findings offer for first time an insight in the amount of materials required to provided a DLS but much work still needs to do. Effort should focus on disaggregating the results into regions and account for the gap between the DLS and the current poverty thresholds.


[1]         J. A. Veléz-Henao and S. Pauliuk, “Material Requirements of Decent Living Standards,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2023, doi: 10.1021/acs.est.3c03957.

[2]         N. D. Rao and J. Min, “Decent Living Standards: Material Prerequisites for Human Wellbeing,” Soc. Indic. Res., vol. 138, no. 1, pp. 225–244, 2018, doi: 10.1007/s11205-017-1650-0.


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