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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Consumption and Production for a Finite Planet

Charles Arden-Clarke

26 Jun 2014

We live on a finite planet with an increasingly degraded natural environment, a rapidly growing population, and high and increasing levels of inequality. In order to face these challenges, we need a global shift to sustainable consumption and production (SCP) patterns to build a global economy that produces and consumes “more, and better, with less” as it grows.

The need for the world to shift to SCP patterns has been recognized in many quarters. As Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, said in her recent Dimbleby Lecture, the need to address this triple challenge outlined above is a key to maintaining global economy stability.

UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner—speaking this month at the launch of an International Resource Panel report, which showed that the world can save up to US$3.7 trillion annually by increasing resource productivity—highlighted the dangers of current practices.

“The worldwide use of natural resources has accelerated—annual material extraction grew by a factor of eight through the twentieth century—causing severe environmental damage and depletion of natural resources,” he said. “Yet this dangerous explosion in demand is set to accelerate as a result of population growth and rising incomes.”

“Dramatic improvements in resource productivity are a vital element of a transition to a Green Economy that will lift one billion people out of poverty and manage the natural resources required for the wellbeing of nine billion people by 2050,” he added. “This requires an urgent rethink of current practices, backed by a massive investment in technological, financial and social innovation.”

Shifting to SCP patterns requires the involvement of many actors along the full length of supply chains, up to and including the point of recycling or final disposal. Governments, business and civil society—including consumers—must take conscious decisions and actions to change the way we produce and consume.

Governments recognized this at the Rio+20 Conference, where they adopted the Ten Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns (10YFP). This multi-stakeholder platform, overseen by governments and the Economic and Social Commission of the UN, will provide focused and sustained support for the shift to SCP patterns.

The 10 YFP has programmes on consumer information, building and construction, food systems, sustainable lifestyles and education, sustainable public procurement and tourism. The first programme, on sustainable public procurement, was launched in April and the second, on consumer information, will be launched on 1st July in New York. UNEP, as the Secretariat of the 10YFP, is working hard to facilitate the construction of these programmes, and to raise awareness of the economic, social and ecological benefits that SCP will deliver.

The 10YFP will assemble actors to collaborate and scale up and replicate the many existing, but scattered and small-scale, models of SCP to generate a global collective impact.

The programmes of the 10YFP are expected to include elements that address climate change, supporting policies and demand-side measures that enhance energy efficiency and the deployment of renewable energy sources. Combinations of policies, economic instruments and consumer information tools can accelerate the shift to a low-carbon and energy-efficient economy.

The 10YFP has major potential to support the future sustainable development goals (SDGs). The importance of achieving SCP is already reflected in a “stand-alone” goal in the current draft of the goals being negotiated in New York. Decision makers at the first United Nations Environment Assembly, taking place this week at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, are deliberating SCP within the context of the SDGs. Governments in New York are discussing specific targets against which progress towards SCP patterns could be measured. Some of those related to climate change include overall energy consumption per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the proportion of renewable energy sources in total supply of energy, and energy consumption per capita. UNEP and other UN agencies are supporting these negotiations with recommendations on targets and indicators, including for the shift to SCP patterns.

Put simply, we can no longer continue with business-as-usual. As the International Resource Panel report showed, commodity prices are soaring: metal prices have risen by 176 per cent, rubber by 350 per cent, and energy by 260 per cent since 2000. A shortage of some of the world’s key metals may be felt within the next 50 years. SCP can head off such potentially disastrous effects, and keep companies in business and people in jobs.

Individuals also have a role to play. For example, an astonishing one third of the food the world produces goes to waste, a significant percentage by consumers. Simple measures—as laid out in the Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint Campaign—can not only cut this massive wastage, which has added environmental impacts, but save consumers money.

By educating consumers on purchasing decisions and lifestyles, and offering them resource-efficient and less polluting-products that can generate decent jobs and create revenues for disadvantaged communities and small-scale producers, the 10YFP will deliver collective impact for SCP. Ultimately, switching to SCP makes environmental, social and economic sense. Momentum is growing, and the 10YFP is an open platform for all to join.

Charles Arden-Clarke is the Acting Head of the 10YFP Secretariat, based in the Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch of UNEP’s Division of Technology Industry and Economics in Paris.

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