Neogitiating Climate – Part Four

In contrast with the negotiations leading up to the 1997 agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, the ambition of binding targets to be undertaken by OECD countries after the Copenhagen (COP/MOP 2009) process will be largely ‘evidence based’ and more closely reflect the urgency and scope of ambition conveyed in the latest IPCC science[i]. The architecture of the political agreement coming out of the UNFCCC/Kyoto Protocol Conference and Meeting of the Parties in Copenhagen in December 2009 and follow-up negotiations is expected to lead to an unprecedented scaling up of the emerging global carbon market. Indeed, market-based instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) will act as the templates or vehicles for enhanced arrangements that will both facilitate and link ambitious targets in developed countries and an unprecedented transfer of resources and investment to the developing world in return for a form of ‘meaningful’ participation, short of binding commitments. The upshot of these developments will be further consideration of implementation measures that begin to impact on energy consumption and lifestyles. The IPCC evidence base that is helping to shape current UNFCCC negotiations has left policy-makers in no doubt that lifestyle change will have to be part of the mix when it comes to designing policies and measures that match the ambition of the anticipated emissions reduction and mitigation targets. Specifically, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC 2007) calls for changes in lifestyle and consumption that emphasize resource conservation and contribute to the development of a low carbon economy that is both sustainable and equitable[ii].The IPCC Chair, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, followed up the Panel’s Fourth Assessment Report’s (2007) treatment of the lifestyle issue with a call in 2008[iii] for a cut back in meat consumption as an individual contribution to curbing climate change.


Sustainable consumption lies at the provocative end of the sustainable development debate, insofar as it forces a return to some of the formative questions that drove Governments to convene the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992). Climate change policy responses after Copenhagen will inject a new urgency into the UNCED Agenda 21’s ‘Cinderella Chapter’[iv].  For Sachs[v] and Princen[vi] and others the efficiency perspective that has dominated discussion on the ‘sustainable production’ side of the equation must be accompanied by a sufficiency debate on the consumption side. The transition towards sustainability can only be achieved through a twin-track approach, which brings about an intelligent reinvention of the means as well as a prudent moderation of ends. Questions about ‘ends’ and ‘what the economy is for’ draw policy makers into uncharted territory in the consumption debate. Is it possible, for example, to imagine flourishing communities where an appreciation of limits and self-restraint has been deeply embedded or re-covered in our culture and society? Few governments in advanced liberal democracies have begun to pursue the logic of the sufficiency debate, and for understandable reasons. Sarkozy’s (Stiglitz et. al.,2009) commission was a unique moment of critique that will, undoubtedly, set a benchmark in the debate on the ends of economic activity alongside the UK Sustainable Development Commission’s report, Prosperity Without Growth: the transition to a sustainable economy (SDC 2009).

Part of the difficulty with the emerging governmental challenge of redefining wealth and prosperity, is that it runs against the grain of embedded assumptions about consumption in liberal democracies. As Offer[vii] reminds us, modern consumption theory assumes that rational consumers make choices that are well informed, far-sighted, and prudent. Consumers reveal their preferences by means of market choices, and market choices correspond to their well-being (‘welfare’). Offer[viii] points out that a great deal is at stake in the model of ‘revealed preferences’ as the source of well-being. Indeed, it may be nothing less than the conceptual underpinning of liberal society. The doctrine regards the free exercise of market choice as not only economically efficient, but also as a vital human aspiration (albeit, human choice that must be translatable into knowledge as algorithm (Marglin 2008). It is, in part, for this reason that political leaders have been slow to pursue the ‘sustainable consumption’ agenda since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), when an ambitious redefinition of prosperity was part of the explicit menu of policy challenges.

In the decade since Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992)[ix], technological development and innovation have increased resource efficiency at some levels and in some sectors. However, these developments have not amounted to an adequate response to address critical patterns of unsustainable consumption and production. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, negotiators revisited the consumption agenda and agreed the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (Chapter III) which includes a call for the development of a 10-year framework of programmes[x] in support of regional and national initiatives to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production” (SCP), with a focus on policy responses in the EU and OECD countries. The definition of sustainable consumption, however, had narrowed post-1992 as it ‘evolved’ in the course of negotiations at a range of international policy arenas and became more widely accepted as a policy goal.[xi] Seyfang[xii] (2005) cites, for example, the work of the OECD during the 1990s and its conclusion that market failure was the prime cause of unsustainability. She concludes that, within the strong market-liberal perspective, as reflected in OECD analyses, governments are encouraged to correct prices and provide regulatory frameworks to influence producers and stimulate eco-efficiency, and merely offer consumers more green choices.

Sustainable consumption implies much more than the identification of niche markets and the rhetoric of decoupling (Jackson 2009). It invites us to go back to the origins of the neoclassical economic model and ask what model would have been most viable in the absence of an inflated set of assumptions that we could find endless technical substitutes for our diminishing and non-renewable resources. The consumption question not only provokes a reconsideration of ‘full world’, ecologically constrained conditions, but places ecosystem functioning upfront and central. It does so by generating questions that ask – What is consumed? What is put at risk? What is lost?[xiii] The consumption question also foregrounds intention and societal design.

Mont and Plepys (2007) have articulated the challenge succinctly:

…developing socio-economic systems ensuring high quality of life and sustaining environmental impacts in line with nature’s carrying capacity should be perceived as the contemporary societal goal. The ultimate question facing today’s society in developed countries is whether consumerism actually contributes to human welfare and happiness….Strategies are missing that would conceive ways of shifting from a current culture of limitless consumerism to a society with less materialistic aspirations. (Mont and Plepys 2007:537)

[i] IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4 2007) (IPCC, Geneva). <> (Accessed 8 October 2008).

[ii] IPCC, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4) 2007 (IPCC, IPCC). <> (Accessed 8 October 2008) 16.

[iii] The Observer, 2008, ‘UN says eat less meat to curb global warming’, Sunday, 7 September, p.1.

[iv] Chapter Four of the UNCED Agenda 21 (1992), on sustainable consumption.

[v] W.Sachs, Planet Dialectics: explorations in environment and development (Zed Books, London, 1999).

[vi] T.Princen, M. Maniates, and K. Conca (eds.), Confronting Consumption (MIT Press, Cambridge, Ma., 2002).

[vii] A.Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-control and well-being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992.

[x] Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development Johannesburg, South Africa
26 August-4 September 2002 (A/CONF.199/20/Corr.1)    Identify specific activities tools, policies, measures and monitoring and assessment mechanisms, including, where appropriate, life-cycle analysis and national indicators.

  • Adopt and implement policies and measures aimed at promoting SCP patterns, applying, inter alia, the polluter-pays principle.
  •  Develop production and consumption policies to improve products and services.
  • Develop awareness- raising programmes on the importance of sustainable consumption and production patterns, particularly among youth and relevant segments in all countries, through inter alia, education, public and consumer information, advertising and other media.
  • Develop and adopt consumer information tools to provide the information related to SCP.
  • Increase eco-efficiency, with financial support from all sources, where mutually agreed, for capacity-building and technology transfer.

[xi] At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, consumption was clearly identified as part of the problem in a definition that appeared in Chapter 4.3 of Agenda 21: ‘…the major cause of the continued deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in industialized countries, which is a matter of grave concern, aggravating poverty and imbalances.[xi]By 1994, following a conference in Oslo, a popular and much less ambitious definition would emerge: ‘…the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of water and pollutants over the life cycle, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations’.[xi]

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] In the second half of 2009, two high-level reports were published, looking beyond and beneath the flawed assumptions of our growth-driven national economic models. The contents, sponsored by Government-backed commissions in France and the UK, are discursive milestones in the career of a set of questions that challenge our most basic assumptions about the way we measure economic performance and social progress[xiii], and define prosperity[xiii]. Published on the eve of the Copenhagen COP/MOP, they signal a high-level engagement with some of the far reaching challenges for OECD economies arising from the demands of climate change policy. The Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (2009) was commissioned by the President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy. The distinguished authors register their concern at the way in which narrow measures of market performance are now confused with broader measures of welfare. After all, ‘what we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted’ (Stiglitz et al., 2009:4).

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