Delivering Sustainable Consumption and Production



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Gargantuan Consumption and Production Cycles

Correcting the mistakes of industrialization, reversing pollution, rehabilitating damaged ecosystems, eradicating poverty, promoting education, and sustaining inclusive green economy require tremendous amounts of resources—mainly financial resources, in the region of hundreds of trillions of dollars and euros and yuans. This much is evident, though I will not be listing here the various amounts needed, largely reported elsewhere by a number of media outlets. Equally evident is the fact that the general investment policies, financial mechanisms and banking systems developed over at least the last century have largely contributed to current economic, social and environmental crises.

Without rejecting the benefits of development in terms of education, health, freedom and technology, it must be admitted that as a consequence of unsustainable growth the world is currently faced with the risk of economic, social and environmental breakdown. Policies and markets need to be seriously reformed, with the financial system at the service of sustainable development and not the other way around, in order to facilitate a badly needed transformative change through the promotion of resource efficiency and the adoption of sustainable consumption and production patterns, particularly in cities.

With the exception of a few irresponsible business and political leaders blinded by their thirst for unbounded wealth, it is duly recognized that we are going through an unprecedented era, the Anthropocene, in which the world’s population is consuming more resources than the planet is capable of producing.

Over the last decade there has been increasing recognition that to effectively deliver policy outcomes it is crucial to change people’s behavior. While the concept of sustainable development has gained ground in recent decades, this has taken place in parallel with a dangerous rising trend of patterns of unsustainable consumption and production. Presently we consume over one and a half times more resources than the Earth can provide, and well before 2050 we will need more than two Earths to meet our gargantuan consumption habits. Meeting the challenge of shifting consumer preferences towards more “green” behavioral patterns as well as effectively integrating sustainability parameters in the business and industry decision-making process requires an in-depth structural transformative change—and one, at that, which takes standard practices away from counterproductive “greenwashing” strategies.

Today, our consumption habits are depleting key resources and destroying various ecosystems. The number of things we use in our daily lives has increased exponentially in many parts of the world. Global extraction of raw material has tripled over the past four decades, rising to an annual figure of 70 billion tons in 2010, and is currently expected to reach 140 billion tons by 2030. This surge in the amount of material we consume is underpinned by growing populations, the middle class expanding, and higher income per capita worldwide. For a variety of economic and social reasons these trends are unstoppable, which makes it imperative that we change the way we produce and consume, doing more with less, if we are to achieve sustainable development.


The international community has increasingly realized that it is important and indeed imperative to change our unsustainable consumption and production patterns if we are to eradicate poverty and deliver sustainable development. This has resulted in the adoption at Rio+20 of the Ten-Year Framework of Programs on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) and the inclusion among the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of a stand-alone goal on SCP, together with related targets in most of the other goals, showing the cross-cutting nature of SCP in support of sustainable development. In this same spirit, the COP21 Paris Agreement has highlighted that sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption and production, with developed countries leading the effort to achieve them, play an important role in addressing climate change.


Uncertain Transition: Resource Efficiency First

There are encouraging signs that society is beginning to understand the absolute need to change our unsustainable consumption and production patterns. Terms such as “efficiency,” “decoupling,” “decarbonizing,” “quality of life” and “sustainable lifestyles” regularly appear in the media, illustrating the fact that people, governments and businesses are already weaving sustainability into their daily decision-making. Carbon footprint monitoring, food waste reduction campaigns, urban gardening, vehicle-pooling models, and sharing economy, as well as surveys to understand the values and motivations of youth, are among the tools currently helping people to make more sustainable consumption and production decisions.

Yet these actions are often piecemeal. They are not yet framed within a holistic vision of what constitutes a sustainable lifestyle, nor are they supported by reliable information to guide consumer choice towards sustainable goods and services, or, generally speaking, by government policies to the same effect. Consumer action and choice as well as government policies will be necessary to reduce the unsustainable impact of our current consumption levels, particularly in developed countries, and to generate a supply of sustainable products to make the adoption of more sustainable lifestyles a realizable goal in all countries.

Take the “simple” example of buildings: green, low-carbon or passive buildings likely constitute the single most important sector for reducing energy use and CO2 emissions, with criteria and labeling systems already in place in many countries. But despite their huge potential, the actual number of such green buildings to have emerged since this was identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the low-hanging fruit in terms of reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions is just a drop in a vast ocean of opportunities. Cities and countries can save billions and trillions of dollars if a low-carbon and resource-efficiency policy is applied across the board in the construction sector by retrofitting older structures, erecting new high-quality buildings and also, if not mainly, developing suitable social housing programs.

Many of the solutions we require to achieve the shift to sustainable consumption and production patterns do not rest with the ultimate consumers of products. Living sustainably is not just about individual choice: it is also about ensuring that governments enact policies that guide people towards this type of lifestyles, that guide and enable markets to adapt accordingly, and that increase the offer of sustainable goods and services to provide consumers with the necessary choices. Though people are end consumers, most of the decisions around goods and services, and their associated impacts, are taken at much earlier stages in their design, production and delivery.

Here is where the public sector can wield a critical influence, stimulating both the production of and demand for sustainable products by implementing sustainable public procurement policies. Government purchasing accounts for between 15 and 30 percent of the sales of goods and services in domestic markets around the world. This is generally closer to 15 percent in most developed countries, but reaches 30 percent in some developing countries. Not only does this market share offer a significant opportunity to send a clear signal to producers regarding the need for sustainable products, it also means that green or sustainable public procurement policies can be aligned with government policies supporting related social and environmental objectives.

Presently we consume over one and a half times more resources than the Earth can provide, and well before 2050 we will need more than two Earths to meet our gargantuan consumption habits

Existing initiatives from around the globe, such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient fluorescent lamps in all public buildings and public areas, institutionalizing and applying recycling policies, reducing food wastes in enterprises, restaurants and schools as well as university canteens, or reducing and even eliminating harmful substances in production processes and consumer products, prove that sustainable procurement transforms markets, boosts environmentally friendly industries, saves money, conserves natural resources and fosters job creation.

Given the size and scope of the challenges faced and the actions required, it is necessary for public and private decision makers as well as the civil society to achieve greater understanding and implementation of policies that deliver resource efficiency and SCP. To that end, applying life-cycle thinking is essential to identify and prioritize the relevant policies and practices. This in turn must go hand in hand with the systemic thinking necessary for sustainability, integrating resource efficiency in global value chains by using life-cycle data on environmental impact, thus enabling private and public organizations to make informed choices leading to increased SCP.

Promoting resource efficiency throughout the production process is essential to advance a circular economy and an inclusive green economy, in particular by enabling the effective development, application, adaptation and replication of resource-efficient and cleaner production concepts, methods, policies, practices and technologies in industries and businesses, focusing especially on small- and medium-sized enterprises

In this context, the development of eco-innovation and the application of an innovative business model that incorporates sustainability and life-cycle thinking throughout all business operations and in cooperation with partners across the value chain will save businesses material and financial resources. For this reason they will be in a better position to access matching funds from financial institutions to further expand their activities. This strategy entails a coordinated set of modifications or novel solutions to products (goods/services), processes, market approach and organizational structure, which leads to a company’s enhanced performance and competitiveness.


The “Easy” Case of Energy: Efficiency versus New, Alternative and Renewable

The unprecedented rates at which we are presently experiencing technical change have resulted in much prosperity, but have also presented us with a range of daunting challenges. In order to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change we must pay serious attention to promoting and scaling up resource efficiency in all sectors and all countries. Nevertheless, the global community has given priority to GHGs emissions and energy crises, devoting more attention and investments to finding new and renewable energy sources than to optimizing efficiency as a means to reduce energy use in most industrial and consumption sectors. In many cases the business-as-usual patterns of industrial production and consumption remain fundamentally the same—that is, wasteful—even if alternative or renewable resources are used where possible. By contrast, savings from efficiency and productivity throughout the value chain are simply gigantic, both in terms of material saved per product and other resources (including energy) needed per product.

In this context, energy transition should provide access to energy at a lower cost to the environment. Energy transition will be the result of a combination of actions, of which energy efficiency is a significant part. Indeed, abatement of the GHGs that cause global warming and climate change can be achieved by: a) using energy more efficiently; b) shifting to means of energy supply that cause fewer emissions; c) better managing biomass resources to reduce emissions where they occur and to create sinks for carbon where possible; d) changing behavior towards lower energy lifestyles. All these changes in the sources and use of energy can make a fundamental contribution towards achieving patterns of sustainable consumption and production.

Resource efficiency, in particular when it comes to energy, is relevant for both developed and developing countries, especially considering that about three billion additional middle class consumers will arise around 2050. Many of these will be found in emerging countries, which by then will aspire to the same level of consumption as current developed ones. Investments in energy productivity can create new jobs, foster economic growth, reduce energy bills for families and make business operations more profitable. Additionally, in developing countries savings from energy efficiency could contribute to making modern energy services available to the whole population and at the same time support eco-innovation.

But the efficient use of resources, including the “easy” case of energy, will be critical to bring about that goal. The reduction of GHGs emission can be achieved through technological innovation and behavioral changes which lead to the adoption of less energy-intensive lifestyles. These changes include, for instance, choosing more energy-efficient goods and services. Savings generated by more efficient production and consumption of energy can make a fundamental contribution to mobilizing financial resources and unlocking investment capital towards other development priorities such as education and health, once basic needs for all are guaranteed.


Cities: “To Be Sustainable or Not to Be”

Cities are responsible for most of the consumption and production of energy today. As the phenomenon of urbanization keeps growing the importance of city-level action will be reinforced, making cities the focal point of the efforts to deliver sustainable solutions to the production of goods and enable consumers to make responsible choices. The road towards achieving SCP through city-level action, however, starts with buildings, the most readily accessible means of advancing energy efficiency and the reduction of CO2 emissions.

In applying sustainable consumption and production, cities can act as catalysts in the promotion of sustainable development. The New Urban Agenda, prepared through the Habitat III process, provides an opportunity to focus on vertical and horizontal integration and the implementation of the SDGs at the city level. Promoting resource efficiency in cities will increase their economic resilience, contribute to climate change mitigation, and reduce waste and associated costs, while also improving quality of life.

To that end it is essential that all countries, starting with leading economies such as those under the G20, engage more proactively in an objective and responsible low-carbon agenda, bringing together central and local governments and businesses in a long-term strategic alliance with the aim of delivering the urgently needed transformative change in policy frameworks and actions, in market evolution and lifestyles, towards responsible and sustainable consumption and production patterns to achieve sustainability.

The global community has devoted more attention and investments to finding new and renewable energy sources than to optimizing efficiency as a means to reduce energy use in most industrial and consumption sectors

Many of the problems attributed to cities are consequences of past and current policies and action plans for economic growth and consumer behavior. In this context it is particularly important to take into consideration the growing global middle class, who are not only expected to live longer due to improvements in health care but are also characterized by their increased purchasing capacity. Considering the previously mentioned expected increase over the next thirty years of three billion people belonging to the middle class, cities can be thought of as the “industries of the three-quarters” in the sense that, as an order of magnitude, cities will host about three quarters—between 70 and 90 percent, depending on sector and region—of the population, GDP, resources use, waste production, and CO2 emissions of the world. This is to say that there could be no sustainability if not at city level and with resource-efficient cities looking to deliver sustainable consumption and production.

However this requires proper knowledge and understanding of urban metabolism, in particular resource flows to and within cities. Considering the huge pressures cities will be facing in terms of supply and demand of resources, there is a need to support cities and their networks in better identifying and realizing the economic, social and environmental benefits of resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production. This in turn will result in cities, and therefore also countries, being more resilient on the back of resulting climate change mitigation actions.

Ultimately, resource-efficient cities combine greater productivity and innovation with lower costs and reduced environmental impact, making them the engines of sustainability. Increasing demand for consumption products will mainly occur in cities. Hence, depending on their consumption patterns and demand for low-carbon resource-efficient products, they will drive overall development towards sustainability or away from it. In the same order of ideas, innovation in hard and soft infrastructure will improve resource management in cities and provide a plan of action that could easily be replicated in a large number of urban areas—a perfect opportunity for some cities, especially middle-sized ones, to lead by example.

To conclude, if governments are serious about sustainable development and looking for responsible actions to effect a truly transformative long-term change, the focus should be increasingly on promoting sustainable consumption and production, notably through resource-efficient cities with relevant policies and sound governance, developing adequate market instruments and enabling capacity at all levels. Therefore, by improving productivity and efficiency in-house, in-industry, in-city, and by delivering sustainable consumption and production, countries and governments, businesses, industries, and society in general will be better equipped to cope with the investment necessary to further consolidate and strengthen the transition towards sustainable development.




From January 2015 to the end of 2016 Arab Hoballah was the director of Sustainable Lifestyles, Cities and Industry for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He has also been the director of Sustainable Production and Consumption since 2005, having previously occupied important positions for more than fourteen years in the Mediterranean Action Plan, all within the UNEP program. He has launched and supervised a number of initiatives and joint partnerships in the fields of construction, cities and tourism. He has been actively involved in the preparations for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20 as well as the Habitat III Summit.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)

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