Consumption and the environment — SOER 2010 thematic assessment


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

1.1 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: 130 000 km2 of tropical rainforest are being cleared each year. In addition, since 1960 a third of the world's farmland has been abandoned, exhausted as a result of overexploitation and soil degradation (EEA, 2010a).

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).

Consumption leads to direct environmental pressures from the use of products and services, for example, through driving a car or heating a house with fossil fuels. Of greater interest and magnitude, however, are the indirect pressures created along the production chains of goods and services, including, for example, food and other consumer goods, but also energy services. Since an increasing share of the final and intermediate goods consumed in Europe is imported, a growing proportion of impacts caused by our consumption takes place in other parts of the world.

A consumption-based perspective for assessing and responding to environmental pressures highlights various leverage points for reducing them. Complementary actions to reduce environmental pressures throughout the life cycle from resource extraction and production through consumption to final use are shown in Figure 1.1.

The uppermost set of actions — responses aimed directly at improving production processes and technologies, and substituting environmentally-intensive material and energy inputs with greener alternatives — have received most attention over recent decades. Such actions have resulted in clear reductions in the intensity of environmental pressures (emissions per unit of economic output) from European industry. Some progress has also been made in the end-of-life stage through improving waste management (see the SOER 2010 material resources and waste assessment (EEA, 2010b)).

This assessment focuses on the two other stages in the life cycle: products/services and consumption.

Improved design can provide products with lower impacts, including lower waste generation during their production, when they are in use and at the end of their useful lives. However, it is increasingly recognised that environmental problems such as climate change cannot be solved through technological improvements alone (see, inter alia, Swedish EPA, 2010).

Actions influencing private and public consumption are also necessary as these can have knock-on effects upstream, potentially reducing pressures created during production. Such actions include those aimed specifically at encouraging demand for less pressure-intensive products but also actions aimed at encouraging broader lifestyle changes.

The term consumption as used in this assessment covers private (household) and public (government) final consumption of goods and services and investments in infrastructure (1), whether domestically produced or wholly or partially supplied through imports. In terms of value, private consumption was 2.6 times greater than public consumption across the EU‑27 at the beginning of 2010 (Eurostat, 2010a, 2010b). The main focus in this assessment is accordingly on private consumption, with public consumption addressed to a lesser extent.

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