Consumption talks in New York

Guest post by Patrick Schroeder

While everybody is already talking about the upcoming 2012 Earth Summit Rio+20 Conference in Brazil, I have been wondering about the lack of interest in “Rio+19”, the 19th Annual Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development – abbreviated as CSD-19 – which is convening from May 2 to 13 this year in New York.

This lack of attention doesn’t mean CSD-19 is not important. In fact, the main topic is sustainable consumption and production (SCP), which has not gained as much attention as, for example, the green economy. However, unsustainable consumption patterns and production processes are at the heart not only of most environmental problems, but also social and economic difficulties we face.

Sustainable consumption and production is not a new topic in multilateral environmental negotiations. The issue was first brought up during the first Rio Summit in 1992, subsequently elaborated in Agenda 21. Ten years later, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (in Johannesburg in 2002) all countries agreed that “Poverty eradication, changing unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are overarching objectives of, and essential requirements for, sustainable development.”

In Johannesburg it was also agreed that a 10-Year framework of programmes on SCP would be put in place. To this end, the “Marrakech Process” was launched in 2003. It is a global informal multi-stakeholder expert process to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production patterns. The goals of the Marrakech Process are to assist countries and corporations in their efforts to clean up industry (“green their economies”), but also to encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.

One of the (informal) highlights of CSD-19 is a discussion around the idea of Millenium Consumption Goals, proposed by the Sri Lankan sustainability researcher Mohan Munasinghe. Although unlikely to influence policy discussions at this stage (the idea will feature only in form of a side event at CSD-19) this proposition to set targets or even restrictions for the consumption of the 1.4 billion humans in the richest 20 percentile of the world’s population, who account for about 80% of total carbon emissions, will become increasingly relevant in the future – not only to create environmental sustainability, but also to address issues such as global equity and fairness in distribution of resources.

The main focus of most policymakers and experts worldwide is still sustainable production. The dominant thinking is that by making production processes and products more efficient, environmental impacts and resource depletion can be minimised, and eventually solved. However, this thinking unfortunately addresses only one aspect of the problem and in reality technical efficiency improvements are in most cases offset by changes in consumption behaviour, a phenomenon called “rebound effect”.

Consumption and lifestyle issues have traditionally been considered secondary as they are in most cases a harder nut to crack and cannot be solved through technological fixes alone, but require social innovation and behavioural change. That’s why life cycle thinking is at the heart of SCP approaches. It means considering the environmental impacts (and increasingly also social life cycle impacts) of the whole life cycle of goods and services across the entire value chain from raw material extraction to production, transport, retail, consumer end-use and disposal.

Although China is playing a "world factory" role and is bearing the brunt of natural resource depletion, environmental deterioration and pollution through industrial activity, sustainable consumption and production is also a relevant topic for China. On the one hand, consumption of products manufactured in China for consumers in the United States and Europe contribute to unsustainable production and heavy environmental impacts in China. On the other hand, fast urbanisation and a rapidly growing middle class are drivers of increasingly unsustainable consumption and production patterns, rising energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Countries’ delegates meeting at the United Nations these two weeks will (hopefully) adopt a set of policy recommendations covering a range of issues that go to the heart of how we use and still abuse the Earth’s resources. The recommendations of CSD-19 on sustainable consumption and production as well as topics such as mining, waste, transport and the use of chemicals will serve as an important foundation for the 2012 Rio+20 conference, which will hopefully go beyond discussions about the green economy and address additional issues relevant for social sustainability and global equity concerns.