What do we do about a problem like consumption?
Posted by Katy Roelich on July 12, 2011 at 7:39am
It is widely recognised that our current patterns of consumption and production in Europe are unsustainable and that our lifestyles are putting too much pressure on the planet’s environmental systems. If we want everybody on the planet to live well, within environmental limits then our social, technical and economic systems will need to be totally transformed. This degree of change would require us to tackle a complex range of issues that are deeply connected including consumption patterns, technological innovation, economic development, global trade and local infrastructure.
The scale of complexity and uncertainty associated with these issues can seem overwhelming; it can feel impossible to know how and when to act. This can leave individuals feeling powerless and make it incredibly challenging for policy makers to identify priorities and effective policy solutions. The result is often that action is focussed on the areas of consumption (but usually production) where intervention might be straightforward. This can prevent us from taking comprehensive approach to reducing the impact of our lifestyles.
As a citizen and consumer I understand the feeling of paralysis in the face of ever-changing science and contradictory information. As a scientist I am frustrated by the lack of comprehensive evidence to underpin the important decisions we are going to have to make in the next few decades. We need to look at the problem of unsustainable consumption from the perspective of both what we consume (and our lifestyles) and also how the goods and services we consume are produced (our production and energy systems).
When we compare the influence of these different aspects of the problem on the scale of the environment impacts caused we get some very interesting results. Work undertaken on behalf of Defra showed that despite reductions in emissions resulting from improvements in production and technology the consumption related carbon emissions  of UK residents has been steadily increasing between 1992 and 2004. The reduction from producing goods and services more efficiently was being outweighed by increases in final demand; we are buying more stuff. To see real reductions in our consumption emissions we need to tackle the increasing consumption that is driving these increases in emissions as well as continuing to focus on the efficiency of production in the UK.
The OPEN:EU project is trying to help overcome inertia in sustainable consumption and production policy and provide a more comprehensive evidence base to help people prioritise intervention and identify the scale of change required. One way it is doing this is be creating the EUREAPA tool that not only lets users look at the impacts of consumption and production, but also allows them to alter production efficiency and consumption patterns. This allows people to explore the changes in consumption and production that would be required to live within environmental limits.
Creating scenarios in this way can reveal a great deal about the kind of action that will have the greatest effect, allowing policy makers to focus their limited resources on interventions that have real impact. Work undertaken on behalf of the UK Waste and Resources Action Plan explored the effect of resource efficiency (sustainable production) and resource sufficiency (sustainable consumption) policies on carbon emissions in the UK. The results showed categorically that action to consume more sustainably had a substantially higher impact on emissions reduction. Simply replacing product less frequently and using products for their design lifetimes would result in a far greater reduction in carbon emissions than lean production or waste minimisation.
Sustainable consumption and production is a complex and uncertain area of policy to engage in. We should not let this complexity preclude action in this important and urgent area of environmental policy. But action should be based on evidence and should consider improving the efficiency of production and also, perhaps more importantly; addressing the trends in consumption that are driving our emissions ever higher.