Can "SCP" really save the planet?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 5 June 2015 14:40 GMT

A worker carries a television for a customer who made a purchase during Black Friday Shopping at a Target store in Chicago, Illinois, United States, Nov. 27, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

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It seems unlikely the world will stop the juggernaut of unsustainable consumption with yet another acronym

Ahead of today's World Environment Day, a press release about a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) popped into my inbox about how countries must find better ways of managing the planet's resources to meet the needs of a growing global population.

Fair enough. But when I got to the second sentence, I did a double take. It said policy makers could make it easier and cheaper to produce goods and services more efficiently by adopting patterns of "sustainable consumption and production", tagged neatly with the acronym "SCP".

I spend my working life wading through aid and climate change-related jargon, but this was a new one on me.

I couldn't help asking myself whether we should be trying to distil the massive shift needed in the way we make, buy and use things into one more acronym to be liberally scattered around reports, policies and strategies.

Doesn't it risk over-simplifying, neutralising and depoliticising the whole issue?

In the zero draft of a proposed new set of Sustainable Development Goals, released this week, one of the 17 is to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. 

It calls on countries to achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources by 2030. That is a tall order on current trends.

To get there, it recommends halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, cutting waste generation and encouraging companies to adopt sustainable practices, among other things.

Another approach that is being tried and tested is putting a price on natural capital, such as ecosystems - something that has been supported by the World Bank.

The UNEP handbook for policy makers on sustainable consumption and production, launched today, includes some examples of what's already being done and some interesting research findings.

For example, recent studies show that improving efficiency can cut energy demand by 50 to 80 percent in most production systems and utilities. And it is commercially viable to make energy and water use up to four fifths more efficient in sectors like construction, agriculture, hospitality, industry and transport, the guide says.

The Namibian city of Windhoek has reduced potable water demand by 5 to 7 percent by adapting its piping system, and has installed artificial aquifer recharge systems that can allow the city to survive for two years without depending on rivers.

In Buenos Aires, a "plan for sustainable mobility" has introduced a bus rapid transit system, cutting commuting time by 10 to 25 percent, as well as bringing environmental benefits. And in the Philippines, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development has launched an initiative to promote zero carbon tourism in the area.

But these are just a drop in an unsustainable ocean.

'CONSUME WITH CARE'

"We are now operating at about 40 percent above the earth’s budget. If world population and consumption rates continue according to business as usual, annual global resource extraction could triple from 2000 levels to 140 billion tonnes by 2050," warns UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in the press release.

“We must ask ourselves what the consequences of this pace of consumption and trajectory will be in a world that by 2050 will have to sustain up to nine billion people."

Indeed - but how to slow the consumption juggernaut? Steiner says decoupling economic growth from resource consumption and environmental impacts is key to SCP.

The problem is we really haven't worked out how to do that yet.

Every time we step onto a city street, and even in our own homes switch on a television or computer, we are bombarded by messages telling us to we need to buy more stuff. Is this OK as long as it's done according to the latest SCP guidance?

I am not sure. Even the logo for World Environment Day makes me a little uncomfortable: Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.

The message I am getting is that we can all consume as long as we do it in a more responsible way.

Short of a needed fundamental transformation in the way we run our societies, maybe SCP is the way forward. It's got to be better for the planet than what we're doing now.

But it doesn't seem very demanding.

I already eat vegetarian once a week (as the UNEP site urges me to do, among other green actions), I recycle, I buy LED lights, I hate throwing food away. But I fly and I rely on high-tech equipment, powered by electricity, to do my work.

Individually and collectively we are not doing enough to save the planet. And I am pretty convinced that won't change if we start asking people to change their behaviour according to a three-letter acronym.

You can guarantee the majority will simply shrug their shoulders and get back to their Amazon browsing.

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