Business Times

Can sustainable consumers and producers save the planet?
By Prof Mohan Munasinghe

Household consumption drives modern economies, but unsustainable consumption, production and resource exploitation have led to multiple crises that threaten the future survival of humanity. Climate change is now considered the ultimate threat multiplier which will exacerbate the formidable problems of development we already face – like poverty, hunger, illness, water and energy scarcities, and conflict.

The world is facing economic, social, and environmental risks, best characterized by a “bubble” metaphor based on greed and false expectations, where a few enjoy immediate gains while the vast unsuspecting majority will pay huge future costs. These threats can interact catastrophically, unless they are addressed urgently and in an integrated fashion.

Economic, social and environmental bubbles
First, the ongoing economic recession was caused by the collapse of a greed-driven asset bubble which inflated financial values well beyond the true value of underlying economic resources. These “toxic” assets are estimated at about $100 trillion (twice the annual global GDP).

Second, a social bubble based on poverty and inequity is growing despite economic growth, excluding billions of poor from access to productive resources and basic necessities, like food, water and energy. Currently, 1.2 billion people in the top 20 percentile of the world’s population by income, consume almost 85% of global output or 60 times more than the poorest 20 percentile. Poverty is being exacerbated by the economic recession, worsening unemployment and access to survival needs.

Finally, mankind faces the bubble of environmental harm and resource shortages, due to myopic economic activities that severely degrade natural assets (air, land and water) on which human well being ultimately depends. Climate change is just one grim global manifestation of this threat, and ironically, the worst impacts will fall on the poor who are not responsible for the problem.

Unfortunately, human responses to these issues are uncoordinated and inadequate. Governments have quickly found over four trillion dollars for stimulus packages, to revive shaky economies. Meanwhile, only about 100 billion dollars per year are devoted to alleviate poverty, and far less to combat climate change. The recession is further dampening enthusiasm to address the more serious long term poverty and climate issues.

Clearly, world leaders lost a major opportunity to allocate a much larger share of the stimulus packages to green investments, sustainable livelihoods, education and health, and safety nets for the poor, instead of mainly propping up banks and promoting unsustainable consumption. We should now seek to recoup the momentum for longer term change, by promoting sustainable consumption.

Key role of sustainable consumption and production
Anthropogenic carbon emissions exemplify modern resource over-exploitation. The consumption of 1.2 billion richer humans accounts for some 75% of total emissions. Instead of viewing these consumers as part of the problem, they should be persuaded to contibute to the solution. A recent report (Munasinghe et al, 2009) shows how to mobilize the power of sustainable consumers and producers.

Making consumption patterns more sustainable will reduce carbon emissions significantly – e.g., using energy saving light bulbs, washing laundry at lower temperatures, eating less meat, planting trees or avoiding plastic shopping bags. Such actions will not only save money, but are also faster and more achievable than many so-called big technology solutions. Furthermore, families that purchase low-carbon products and services can stimulate innovation in businesses, while encouraging politicians to take radical steps towards a lower carbon world. Many existing “best” practice examples can be replicated widely, and innovative businesses are already developing the future “next” practice products and services.

A “virtuous cycle” of mutually supportive sustainable consumption and production can cut across national boundaries and interests. It will complement the traditional top down emphasis on action by governments, who lack political will to take bold steps. Finally, the rich must not only help the many billions of poor to emerge from poverty, but also set a better example that will encourage the latter to seek more sustainable consumption paths.

The sustainomics framework (Munasinghe, 2009) , originally proposed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, provides four core principles that underpin this novel approach to addressing climate change and sustainable development problems together.

n First, making development more sustainable (MDMS) becomes the main goal. It is a step-by-step method that empowers people to take immediate action, which is practical because many unsustainable activities are easy to recognize and eliminate. The sustainable consumption-production path epitomizes this approach.

n Second, the three key dimensions of the sustainable development triangle (economic, social, and environmental) must be given balanced treatment. Consumers need simplified and relevant information on these aspects, to make sustainable choices, via pricing, advertising, labeling, and the media.
n Third, our thinking should transcend traditional boundaries. It is essential to replace unsustainable values like greed with sound moral principles, especially among the young. People must be made aware that problems like climate change span the whole planet, play out over centuries, and concern every human being on earth. Stakeholders need to work together to meet the common threat – more than ever, government needs the support of civil society and business. Trans-disciplinary analysis will help producers find innovative solutions that cut across conventional disciplines. Sustainable consumption and production requires such a revolution in thinking and behaviour.

n Finally, full life cycle analysis using integrated tools is required. In particular, producers need to re-examine the entire value chain from raw material extraction to consumer end use and disposal, from the economic, social and environmental perspectives. This will help identify areas where innovation can improve production sustainability, reform pricing, and yield accurate labeling information (e.g., carbon footprint). The principles of industrial ecology would help to minimize both resource inputs and waste outputs.

Concluding ideas
Ordinary citizens and businesses are often ahead of political leaders in terms of willingness to address climate change and sustainable development issues. Given the many existing best practice examples, we do not need to wait for new technologies, laws or infrastructure. Consumers can be encouraged to behave more sustainably without lowering their quality of life.

All human beings are stakeholders, when it comes to sustainable development and climate change. Consumers and producers can and must strive to make development more sustainable -- economically, socially and environmentally. By acting together now, we will make the planet a better and safer place for our children and grand children.

(The writer is director general of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, Chairman of the Munasinghe Institute of Development (MIND), Colombo and vice-chair, IPCC-AR4).

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