The deepest of changes are needed

The deepest of changes are needed


outlines the work of the Commission on Sustainable Development on changing production and consumption patterns


The pressure of rising demand on the world's natural systems is having serious effects both nationally and globally. Twenty eight countries, for example, are already affected by scarcity of freshwater, while the loss of agricultural soils gradually reduces the world grain yield per hectare, and threatens the security of our food supplies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now considers a 2░C warming and a rise in the sea level of 48 centimetres, caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, a definite prospect for the end of the next century unless precautionary action is taken, especially over transport patterns and the production and consumption of energy.

Present industrial society lifestyles can hardly be extended worldwide without overtaxing environmental resources and threatening fragile ecosystems. Recent data on the gross domestic product, estimated at purchasing power parity, of China, India, Brazil and Russia rates them amongst the top 10 in the world. These four nations cover over a fifth of the world's land surface and are home to more than one-third of its population; yet their per capita income levels are still relatively modest compared to those of leading economies.

Sustainable development, as UNEP defined it at the January 1994 Oslo Symposium on Sustainable Consumption, 'encompasses the total supply-demand economic system and it implies the deepest of cultural and technological changes'. It cannot be achieved in its economic, environmental, institutional and social dimensions without sustainable consumption patterns.

Awareness about the relevance of these issues has been growing ever since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and was greatly increased by the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987.

The message is clearly spelled out in several principles of the Rio Declaration and in many chapters of Agenda 21, both of which were agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit: indeed, Chapter 4 of Agenda 21 is devoted to the subject. These point to a process of change focused on sustainable patterns of production and consumption and on developing appropriate national policies and strategies. Few topics in Agenda 21 so well portray the complexity of sustainable development both as a concept and as a medium-term strategy for the future of mankind on Earth.

Role of the CSD

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) has provided for a spirited debate on this subject since its first annual session in 1993. Its 53 member countries, the remaining observer nations, an impressive number of United Nations bodies and agencies, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, the scientific and academic community and business and industry have all been involved.

At least nine important meetings sponsored by these various stakeholders, and with their participation, took place in Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, the United States and the Republic of Korea between January 1994 and December 1995. Most were held in the North - consistent with the objective laid down in item 4.8 of Chapter 4 of Agenda 21, that 'developed countries should take the lead in achieving sustainable consumption patterns'. As the summary of the Symposium held in Oslo underlined, the industrialized countries, with 25 per cent of the world's population, account for more than 80 per cent of the overall consumption of natural resources, 75 per cent of municipal and industrial wastes - and have contributed about 80 per cent of man-made global carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. They have made significant gains - in per unit terms - in energy intensity, waste minimization and air and water quality, but these tend to be offset by increases in overall economic activity.

Two principal objectives were discussed at the meetings, in accordance with item 4.7 of Agenda 21, Chapter 4, which calls for action:

- 'to promote patterns of consumption and production that reduce environmental stress and will meet the basic needs of humanity';

- 'to develop a better understanding of the role of consumption and how to bring about more sustainable consumption patterns'.

Synergies between regulatory, economic and social policy instruments would help to achieve the first of these objectives, as was pointed out at the Seminar held in Stockholm in December 1994, and at the Workshop that took place in Seoul in August 1995. These would include incentives for product and process innovation, the removal of subsidies, proper pricing for the use of natural resources, ecological tax reform and the principle of extended product responsibility.

The second objective, pursued at all the 1994 and 1995 meetings, is to define - as Bill L. Long, Director for Environment at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development put it - the principal relationships between consumption patterns and environmental degradation, and between consumption patterns and economic development. It seems that additional data and further analytical studies are needed for this - as well as to relate production and consumption patterns and to identify the processes that would most effectively bring about positive changes.

Nonetheless, there is growing empirical evidence - as the Experts Seminar held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, in December 1994 concluded - that meaningful changes in those patterns are already taking place in several countries without having visible impacts on economic growth, business profitability or personal well-being.

The CSD work programme

At its third session in 1995, the CSD adopted a five-point work programme and set up an Ad Hoc Working Group to review progress and submit proposals and recommendations to the fourth session in 1996. Under the programme, trends in consumption and production patterns, especially in developed countries, are to be identified and their impact on trade with developing nations is to be assessed. Policy implications, and the effectiveness of policy measures intended to introduce changes in consumption and production patterns, are to be evaluated, and time-bound voluntary commitments to make measurable progress on priority sustainable development goals are to be elicited from countries.

The ultimate objective of the CSD work programme is the improvement of decision-making processes at the national level. Certain practical measures are needed to stimulate action by individual governments and to permit them to establish priorities in accordance with their own perspectives and characteristics. So modelling techniques are being developed to identify trends and allow for policy options, including the use of economic and social instruments.

Technology transfer

The move towards the greater use of environmentally friendly products will require the support of developed countries and intergovernmental agencies in transferring technology to developing nations. Information and education are important in guiding customer choices and in inducing wider acceptance of internalized social and environmental costs. Other useful tools for promoting the necessary changes in production and consumption patterns include fostering international cooperation and partnerships, and disseminating sustainable practices through networking and establishing specific databases.

All stakeholders have a role to play and, for this very reason, the CSD has reached out and involved such major groups as NGOs, business and industry. Through closer cooperation with other members of the United Nations system, the CSD Secretariat, under the guidance of the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, has mobilized the expertise of intergovernmental organizations in its effort to carry out the directives and recommendations of Agenda 21.

In attempting to implement this mandate, one is reminded of Herman Daly's proposition: 'The basic needs of all present people take priority over future numbers, but the existence of more future people takes priority over the trivial wants of the present'.

Henrique Brandão Cavalcanti is Special Envoy of the President of Brazil and Chairman, third session, United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development.

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