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A Global Call To End Wasteful Consumption And Production

11/04/2015 11:45 EST | Updated 11/04/2016 05:12 EDT
Development Unplugged

Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

By Livia Bizikova and Peter Denton

Like many of the other sustainable development goals (SDGs), Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production patterns (or SCP) is woven throughout the SDGs. It itemizes the key areas where changes to existing patterns must and can be made. Its inclusion is essential, because without a significant global shift in the ways we produce and consume, we will step outside the operating space in which humanity is able safely to live on this planet.

By the Rio+20 conference in 2012, SCP was recognized as one of the three "overarching objectives of and essential requirements for sustainable development" in the main outcome document, "The Future We Want," alongside poverty eradication and natural resource protection/management.

The alternative to SCP is unsustainable production and consumption, which undermines long-term development and frustrates efforts to deal with climate change. SCP therefore matters to Canada just as it does to other countries.

What SCP means, however, differs greatly between developed and developing countries. Over-consumption mostly occurs in richer countries, where SCP means developing more efficient production systems and encouraging less wasteful lifestyles. Unsustainable production tends to be found in poorer countries, where essential development may take pathways known to cause environmental damage.

To improve well-being everywhere, we need to find ways of using resources efficiently, generating less waste and enabling a more equitable standard of living worldwide. More than the other Goals, SCP requires changes in society and culture -- changes in how we think.

But it also requires changing how we live and work. Most of the targets related to Goal 12 focus on reducing environmental impact and minimizing the adverse effects of human activity on the environment. We need to reduce waste (through prevention, while we continue to "reduce, reuse, recycle") and to improve the environmentally sound life cycle management of what we produce, especially chemicals.

While this seems reasonable and practical, waste production has increased steadily over the past decades, alongside lower recycling rates. Some sectors are worse than others. For example, in North America, over a third of the food grown, produced or transported here is wasted. This raises questions about the systems we are using to manage our resources, about equity (when globally so many people do not have enough to eat) and about environmental impact (considering all the resources used to produce food and the greenhouse gases emitted to transport them). Not surprisingly, one target in Goal 12 is therefore to halve food waste by 2030.

Other targets focus on promoting green public procurement policies, reporting on corporate sustainability and educating consumers everywhere about sustainable lifestyles.

One criticism of the targets associated with these goals, is that most have no benchmarks to measure progress - they only signal the desired aggregate final outcome. For example, how much waste reduction and recycling is needed? What are the local ecological limits for resource use (such as water) or for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in production processes? How do we identify sustainable products and track their market share?

Fundamentally, a big part of SCP is about buying time. If we can reduce impact, minimize damage and slow the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources in the developed world, then we have the chance to bring the rest of the world up to an equitable standard of living.

In 2015, what are the implications of SCP for Canada? There has been much discussion about more efficient industrial processes in Canada (for example, oil-sands production intensity and related issues); however, from the SCP point of view it is critical to reduce material use, improve efficiency and set boundaries to expansion by well-designed natural resource management policies and practices.

Waste generation and low-levels of recycling are also a huge challenge for Canada. Both industrial and municipal waste are higher in Canada compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

(In 2008, Canada generated 777 kg per capita of municipal waste, 20 per cent above the OEDC average.)

The average household recycling and composting rates are also lower. To make matters worse, we also lack current national data for tracking progress on waste management across different sectors, making it difficult to prioritize specific problem areas. This needs to change.

Canadians also remain among the highest users per capita of energy and water, while GHG emissions are rising (not declining). Food waste alone is a significant issue in Canada. Clearly, we need to change how we live and work together.

Regardless of these challenges, SCP is a core component of our progress towards sustainability. Developed countries have committed to take the lead on this. There are opportunities for Canada both to create efficient and clean production and consumption systems at home and to assist developing countries to do the same. And that would be a very good start.

Livia Bizikova is Director, Knowledge for Integrated Decisions, at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD); Peter Denton is an independent consultant.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members.

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