The Sustainable development Goals (SDGs) for the 21st century will not achieve their overall objective if the agreement is only for ‘promoting’ ‘sustainable consumption and production’. The Zero-draft Goal 12 stress is also on production patterns - chemical, hazardous, food and other waste; business practices and public procurement; dissemination of environmentally sound technologies and capacity building; sustainable tourism - which is really old wine in new bottles. The key issue of modifying consumption patterns is limited to providing information to “ensure that people everywhere have information and understanding needed to live sustainable lifestyles”, and as such will not even be included in the monitoring arrangements; the objective of providing information should be to “modify consumption patterns in cities to achieve sustainable lifestyles” for this key goal to be effective and to be monitored.
The International Social Science Council (ISSC) has recently re-framed global environmental change from an exclusive focus on physical processes of nature to the inter-linkages with social processes shaped by the shift from rural to urban societies. This new insight from the social sciences has largely been ignored by the rest of the United Nations, which continues to see the environment in terms of scarcity, rather than use and distribution of natural resources. The ‘World Social Science Report – 2013’, produced by the ISSC and UNESCO, concludes that even climate change should be considered a social and not a physical problem. Such has been the power of the current intellectual and conceptual framing of environmental change that for the last forty years we have been dealing with the symptoms rather than the activities causing the problem.
The reframing to focus on consumption patterns in cities is supported by historical trends in industrialised countries. In those countries carbon dioxide emissions doubled with universal access to adequate energy around 1920, doubled again with saturation levels of infrastructure and urbanization by 1970 and doubled again from the consumption patterns in cities before stabilizing around 2000. As we develop we can modify longer term trends in each of these areas because of demand-side energy efficiency, urban design and avoiding the wasteful lifestyle without affecting human wellbeing, and we need policies to support and enable this shift.
By 1970 three-fourths of the population of industrialized countries had moved to towns, and the “American way of life” soon became the “Western way of life”. It is based on electricity for lighting, heating, cooling and mechanical power, and oil powered cars, trucks and aircraft for transportation of people more for recreation than to work and industrial food production. This was a high energy based arrangement that affected every aspect of daily life, and the promise of large houses in the suburbs, low price fuel, fast travel and foreign holidays, dining out, weekly shopping and new fabrics. With one fifth of the global population using four-fifth of the natural resources, infrastructure-production and lifestyle-consumption systems reflected technological advances as well as social values and worldviews; the former leading to resource scarcity and the waste carbon dioxide of the later coming up against even more limited ecological limits, with citizens, until recently, not even aware of these impacts. Such is the power of ideas, institutions and rules, that the imbalance being created in nature was first described as global environmental change and later, to accommodate developing country concerns, as sustainable development, without requiring any action at the personal level.
As three-fourths of the world population, that has not urbanized, moves out of rural areas it is adopting lower-carbon urban designs partly because commodity prices have risen rapidly and partly because of their population density. The re-emergence of China and India, with twice the population of the industrialized countries, is based on the “Eastern way of life” that is less wasteful, not so much focused on accumulation of material goods and with values and behaviour shaped by a services rather than an industrial economy using fewer resources and energy for their wellbeing – less than half the level of the United States. The denser urban design and smaller homes, greater reliance on public transport, rail and more internal than foreign travel for recreation, and greater reliance on local food with much less waste provides hope for a sustainable future. Modifying consumption patterns should be the focus of the sustainable development goals in all countries, including developing countries, and not curbing generation of electricity and infrastructure development, which are needed for urbanization.
According to an analysis of long-term economic trends by the OECD, around 2030 Asia has the potential to be the world’s powerhouse just as it was prior to 1800. Currently the OECD has two-third of global output compared to one-fourth in China and India, and by 2060 these two countries will have a little less than half of world GDP with OECD’s share shrinking to one-quarter. The Asian middle class is expected to increase three times by 2020 to 1.7 billion and reaching 3 billion by 2030, accounting for two-third of the global middle class and two-fifth of global consumption. Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent and nine out of ten citizens are expected to be living in cities by 2050 in Latin America.
The global community now has to develop a vision for new cities that focuses on urban design to modify patterns of natural resource use as well as consumption patterns of city dwellers to safeguard the environment, as that is where the demand for natural resources has and will come from, and that is where the battle to protect the environment and ensure sustainable development will be won or lost.