Consumption and the environment — 2012 update

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Why do we need to address consumption?

Demand for natural resources worldwide has increased tremendously over recent decades. The main drivers have been growth in population, wealth and consumption, with high population growth mainly in developing countries and highest levels of wealth and consumption in developed countries.

This demand is causing major, irreversible impacts on global ecosystems and ecosystem services: 73 170 km2 of forest were cleared each year in the period 2000–2005 (FAO, 2009). In addition, since 1960 a third of the world's farmland has been abandoned, exhausted as a result of overexploitation and soil degradation (Schade and Pimental, 2010).

Moreover, emissions and wastes emitted during the processing and conversion of resources into goods and services have caused further damage to the natural environment and human health. Nitrogen pollution, ground-level ozone and particulate pollution are on the increase, as is the prevalence of synthetic chemicals in the environment (EEA, 2010a), with negative impacts on the environment and health.

If one isolates different activities in the economy, it is production activities across sectors, such as mining, agriculture, and manufacturing, that are directly responsible for the majority of the environmental pressures caused by economic development. However, private and public consumption of goods and services is the fundamental causal factor and driver of change in production activities and the resulting flows of resources and wastes from and to the environment.

Although an increasing global population is a factor in rising pressures, it is consumption and production patterns in developed countries, with developing countries catching up rapidly, that are the key drivers of global environmental problems. This was recognised in Agenda 21 in 1992 and again at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, where governments agreed a Plan of Implementation strongly focused on sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and a commitment to develop a 10-year framework of programmes on SCP (UNCSD, 2002).

The June 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will focus on two main themes: a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development. Sustainable consumption and production patterns will be viewed from a green economy angle. The conference is expected to consider the adoption of a global framework of programmes on SCP.

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