Over the last decade, the total area covered by natural rubber plantations has grown by 20%, causing massive land conversion in the tropics. In Southeast Asia, the hotspot of natural rubber production, at least 1.5 million hectares of land have been turned into rubber plantations since 2010. Moreover, natural rubber has been relocated to the highlands, to accommodate the palm oil boom in the more humid lowlands where rubber was commonly grown.
In the highlands, monoculture rubber plantations mainly replace relatively undisturbed ecosystems, including patches of deciduous and evergreen forest that have stood for decades. This is not without serious ecological consequences. The abundance and diversity of animal species at several trophic levels are substantially reduced in monoculture rubber plantations, because animals rely on plant litter. In addition, the absence of understory vegetation in monoculture plantations leaves the soil more prone to erosion during heavy rainfalls.
Sustainability standards can help improve ecological conditions in rubber plantations by supporting more extensive agro-ecological systems. Yet, they will not reduce the land footprint of natural rubber production, which can only be limited if demand stabilizes or decreases. So should we start thinking about how to reduce our consumption?
Our study, published open access in Ambio, takes stock of natural rubber use in the European Union (EU) to suggest demand-side solutions to natural rubber expansion.
What is our approach?
The starting point of our assessment is that 70% of global natural rubber production is used for tyres. Therefore, to understand what natural rubber is used for in the EU, we quantified the annual consumption of natural rubber by different categories of vehicles through tyre use, based on the annual mileage driven in each EU country. Then, we compared vehicles based on the average amount of natural rubber that a person uses to travel, or that is needed to transport a ton of goods, over 100 kilometers .
In light of the large share of natural rubber used in car tyres, and of car’s relatively high natural rubber consumption per passenger-kilometer, we looked at why Europeans use cars. We compared EU countries based on natural rubber use in car tyres per capita, and indicators reflecting car use for everyday travel and long-distance travel for business or vacation.
In addition, we used trade records for rubber products and new vehicles to understand where the natural rubber ultimately used in the EU comes from. Combined with production data, we estimated how much land is used to grow natural rubber used for the mobility of people and goods in the EU.
What did we find?
We estimated that, in 2017, mobility in the EU used about 700 thousand metric tons of natural rubber, taking up around 5% of the global rubber plantation area in 2016. Due to EU’s sourcing strategies, nearly a quarter of the rubber plantation area in some producing countries is harvested to accommodate mobility in the EU. More natural rubber is used for personal mobility than for the transport of goods. In particular, private car use is responsible for about 58% of this consumption, with an average of 8 grams of natural rubber used for a person to travel 100 kilometers.
Figure: Spatial distribution of the land footprint of mobility in the EU. For countries where the EU uses >5% of the harvested area, pie charts show the share of the total area harvested in 2016 used to support mobility in the EU in 2017.
The annual amount of natural rubber consumed in car tyres per capita varies greatly between EU countries. It is generally higher in EU countries where a larger proportion of the population indicates the car as the preferred mode of transport for daily travel. Daily car use tends to encourage car use for long-distance business and leisure travel. Car travel is the norm in many EU countries where car ownership and economic prosperity are high and where urban planning has favored car-dependent lifestyles.
So how can we limit EU’s natural rubber consumption?
Mobility levels in the EU must be acknowledged as an underlying factor of the rubber boom, as they are already relatively high by global standards. The close link between natural rubber use and economic prosperity suggests that EU’s demand for natural rubber may increase with the economic development of the Eastern Member States in the near future.
Currently, the EU transport policy focuses exclusively on reducing carbon emissions, missing an opportunity to prevent other environmental impacts of mobility. For example, electric cars run on four wheels, so they consume as much natural rubber as their fuel-powered counterparts.
Our research highlights the role of car use in EU’s natural rubber consumption. Car use is primarily driven by car ownership, which is part of the Western lifestyle. People value and desire the social status and lifestyle opportunities that car ownership creates, such as living farther away from the workplace or shopping center, or regularly travelling to a holiday home in the countryside. However, a recent study indicates that younger generations in some EU countries are aspiring to move away from car-dependent lifestyles. Still, a number of factors could hinder this shift in the long run, such as rising housing prices in large cities.
Therefore, to overcome the functional and symbolic aspects of private car use, policy action is needed beyond the transport sector. Pricing measures, land-use planning, and housing policies, for example, can play a role in enabling Europeans to live car-free, to the benefit of tropical ecosystems.
Read the full publication HERE.
Cover Picture: ©Deva Darshan, retrieved from Unsplash
Research project: Impacts of changing lifestyles and ecosystem service demands
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Institute for Environmental Studies