Socio-ecological metabolism approaches to analyse telecoupling related to international trade

Institute of Social Ecology (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna)


International trade of land-based products is one major process behind telecouplings. Trade is growing exponentially, much faster than aggregate global production and consumption of land-based resources, thereby resulting in growing challenges with managing telecouplings for sustainability.

However, the relation between traded products flows and impacts of land is all but straightforward. First, impacts on land are complex and need to account for land-use intensity and ecosystem functions. Moreover, the increasing complexity of global supply chains is making it challenging to trace back consumption patterns to their social and ecological impacts at the production site, on a high level of product disaggregation. Empirically tracing telecouplings associated with flows of traded products needs overcome these challenges, while still generating indicators facilitating quantitative assessments.

This research project focusses on developping robust biophysical indicators to quantify the extent, magnitude, and dynamics of telecouplings due to biomass trade, especially embodied land demand and HANPP. These indicators will be used to quantify and analyze the global to
regional effects of telecouplings on land-use efficiency for the period 1986-2017. One major task will be to establish consistent global databases allowing to trace and account for global trade flows on a high level of disaggregation using bilateral (country-by-country) trade matrices for all countries with a high product resolution (dozens to hundreds of products). The developed framework will be applied to analyse how telecoupled land use can be
governed through international trade agreements, in collaboration with Leuphana University of Lüneburg.

Expected results are:

  • a global database on telecouplings resulting from biomass trade,
  • the development of indicators tracing how telecouplings affect resource efficiency and
    environmental impacts, and
  • insights into the trade-offs and synergies of governing telecouplings through
    international trade agreements.


Nicolas Roux

Institute of Social Ecology
Schottenfeldgasse 29, 1070 Wien, Austria

“Understanding the drivers, impacts and mechanisms of international biomass trade to enhance sustainable globalization.”

Nicolas Roux


Roux, N.,T. Kastner, K.-H. Erb, H. Haberl (2021): Does agricultural trade reduce pressure on land ecosystems? Decomposing drivers of the embodied human appropriation of net primary productionEcological Economics 181:106915,

Policy Brief

N. Roux: Land use, land use change and forestry emissions: changing the EU’s accounting schemes

COUPLED Policy Brief, No. 5, June 2021.

Key messages

  • The current regulation relies on the actual carbon sink, and compares it to a recent reference period.
  • This approach faces three problems: 1. The negligence of land use change happening between the reference period (2000-2009) and the accounting period (2021-2030); 2. The negligence of historical legacies; 3. The maturation of existing forests.
  • We suggest an alternative accounting approach, based on the potential carbon sink concept.
  • The potential carbon sink approach enhances a fair distribution of effort based on historical responsibility.

Read the full Policy Brief (pdf).

… and more

Nicolas’ online lecture

How does International Trade of food and biomass products affect the environment, deforestation and other ecosystems? Different narratives, data to make your own opinion, and policy options.

Nicolas’ Pecha Kucha challenge: 20 images x 20 seconds

Does trade help to achieve SDGs? Or do we need different trade regulations? Nicolas has six minutes to discuss whether or not international trade in agricultural products did reduce pressure in land ecosystems. Does he pass the challenge? Look for yourself.