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The World Resources Forum (WRF) is a science-based platform for sharing knowledge about the economic, political, social and environmental implications of global resource use. Lewis Akenji, Senior Policy Fellow at IGES participated at the last Forum, held in October 2013 in Davos, Switzerland, where IGES led a workshop on "Achieving Absolute Reductions" and also gave a keynote presentation. The project has as its objectives, to identify, describe and analyse approaches to reduction in material throughput and energy use in production-consumption systems down to a one-planet level. This month we hear from Lewis on the prospects of such an approach and how an international consortium of leading organisations is tackling some fundamental sustainability questions.

Thoughts on "Absolute Reductions"at Davos Forum October, 2013

--- Could you please explain your recent presentation on the concept of Absolute Reductions at the World Resources Forum in Davos?

Akenji:

Human society is consuming more resources than the planet can sustainably provide. Our response to this challenge, both in research and in policy design, has been piecemeal - for example, not linking energy issues with food security and food issues with transportation. Most of the time, we don't consider how these areas affect each other. Then we have put our faith in technology and improved efficiency – doing more with less. In many cases this has been helpful, but has hardly done much to reduce our over-consumption. Although we are getting more efficient with our use of resources, we are still accelerating on a collision course with the natural limits of the planet: limits of resource availability, and limits of absorptive capacity for pollutants. We have largely refused to re-examine the growth-based development model and our exploitative relationship with nature.

In the 20th century alone, global population grew four times, global freshwater withdrawals grew three times, fossil fuel consumption grew 14 times, and economic output expanded 22 times. This 21st century, except for areas where we have hit the natural limits, there continues to be increased consumption. Today's worldwide resource consumption is about 50% higher than 30 years ago, at about 60 billion tons of raw materials per year. Estimates are that by 2025, despite technological improvements, waste generation will be doubling in some regions. Besides the difficulty in finding disposal sites, we are witnessing that the chemical and material composition of waste is increasingly becoming too complex for the environment to digest, nor for technology to sustainably address.

Our refrigerators and cars, for example have got more efficient; at the same time, the cars and refrigerators have become bigger and we sometimes now own more than one per household. The European Union, Japan, and other countries highlight their achievements in terms of increased resource efficiency and relative decoupling of economic growth from environmental impact. While this might sound impressive, what is needed for sustainability is decreased resource consumption at a global level. To put this challenge in context, if all countries of the world were to be as highly efficient in production as Japan and Germany, at the current levels and increasing rates of consumption, the planet would still not be able to support us!

Goals for the "Absolute Reductions" Project

--- Could you please elaborate on the project "Absolute Reductions" and its relevance at the World Resource Forum?

Akenji:

IGES has teamed up with the Global Research Forum for Sustainable Production and Consumption, and the World Resources Forum (WRF) to start assessing knowledge and the scientific basis for framing absolute reductions. The Reductions project is a collaborative initiative among several esteemed scientific organisations including IGES, the Wuppertal Institute, Tellus Institute, and the Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI). The exploratory phase is funded by the Japanese Ministry of Environment.  The project brings together knowledge from different scientific disciplines to analyse drivers of consumption, examine various science-based concepts towards reductions, model realistic future scenarios for reduced materialism, and to develop applicable frameworks and recommendations. In addition to fairly established ideas such as light-weight product design, substitution of materials, business models based on services and leasing, and product-sharing at the community level, we are also exploring more challenging options such as caps for resource extraction, and new valuation methods reflecting non-material wealth.

Choice and Options for Relationship between Absolute Reductions and Well-being

--- Is achieving Absolute Reductions feasible – politically or otherwise?

Akenji:

A more critical question is whether we really have any other choice, given the urgency and the magnitude of the problem of unsustainability.

Politically we need to make some hard choices sooner rather than later; as researchers, we need to develop and analyse options for supporting a rapid transition.

In 1992, arguably the peak of global political desire for sustainability action, world leaders agreed on a fairly ambitious blueprint for action - the Agenda 21 (*2). This common plan was developed in a spirit of international cooperation. Since then differences and conflicts between countries and social groups have become more emphasised. Trust has eroded and preparedness for collaboration has decreased. In all these divisions, in an increasingly competitive world, increasing consumption and economic growth has remained the holy grail of national and global ambition.

One interesting research finding is that growing resource use does not always contribute to increased well-being. There is now evidence that above a certain level, further increases in consumption do not significantly improve citizens' well-being. In the last several decades, there has been considerable growth in personal wealth, but expressed levels of happiness have hardly budged – in some cases they have actually fallen. In a sense, this gives us hope since if further material accumulation doesn't make us better off, what is then the point in pushing for more and more? The issue becomes to define how much consumption and material wealth is enough and to achieve contentment; efficiency must be complemented with sufficiency. Most industrialised economies and also some non-industrialised economies are experiencing what Herman Daly calls uneconomic growth - a pattern of growth that in effect makes us poorer since it reduces our future capacity to provide well-being.

For the research community to more effectively contribute to material reduction and transition to sustainability, we must orchestrate common exploratory platforms of practical knowledge generation, re-examine traditional research silos, and transcend scientific disciplines. For example, it is not enough to improve agricultural productivity (through genetic engineering and other measures) when physical, economic and social structures lead to excessive food waste. Nor can we isolate patterns of food consumption from understanding and design of mobility systems. Alas, our research questions, analytical models, research methodologies are carved along such distinctions; inter-linkages are usually recognised conceptually but hardly integrated in research design. At a time of need, traditional divisions of science run a risk of falling out of service to the larger society. We will not solve this problem with the Reductions project but we intend to raise some of the necessary questions and propose ways forward.

Future Prospects for the "Absolute Reductions" project?

--- Which direction or what action can researchers actually take in order to promote "Absolute Reductions"?

Akenji:

IGES and the rest of the consortium are now collecting case studies - examples of where absolute reductions have been observed or seem to be likely. These cases include reductions at the extraction phase, such as putting caps or non-use terms on resource use; reductions in quantity of material consumption through alternative business models and lifestyle changes; or product design that has led to reductions in waste and pollution. We have just made an open call for papers, and are now working on a Special Volume of the Journal of Cleaner Production with a focus on Absolute Reductions.

In discussing reductions, it is also important to be able to establish a practical understanding of environmental limits, what resource stocks are available, how rapidly we are approaching the limits and depleting the stocks, and how resources are distributed. Planetary boundaries and the ecological footprint are examples of approaches that provide a good starting point to understanding global ecological limits. These need to be further developed into more practical tools and systems. There are scientifically-sound tools for analysing the amount of resources we are using, so-called material flow analysis, but it's much more difficult to establish the limits for how much we can safely use. This is both a scientific and a political challenge.

Similarly, there are questions of environmental justice and equity in distribution of resources. How, for example, to address emerging countries that need to develop their economies and that are doing so at high environmental costs? How to address the issue of stranded environmental assets and compensation to countries that sacrifice such economic resources for the global environmental good? How to anticipate and avoid unintended consequences of pursuing absolute reductions approaches?

The consortium of the absolute reductions project will tackle these challenging questions, and welcome engagement from all experts and organisations.

Our geographic, political and economic divisions have thus pushed us to address unsustainability with a fragmented approach, but as the urgency grows there is need to realise, first, that there must be a solution at the global scale, even when we have to take actions at the local level; and, second, that achieving sustainability means an absolute reduction in the current global levels of consumption. In this respect, sustainability research has a responsibility to society to come up with potential solutions. My hope is that the Reductions project can produce a practical framing for the sustainability transition.


--- Thank you very much.

 Magnus Bengtsson, IGES Principal Policy Researcher contributed to this story

  1. *1: Reductions project: Reducing Environmental Degradation & Unsustainable Consumption Trends & Impacts On Nature & Society.
  2. *2: Agenda 21: A comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organisations of the United Nations system, governments, and Major Groups in every area in which humans impact on the environment. It was adopted by more than 178 governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992. (UNEP ABC of SCP http://www.unep.org/resourceefficiency/Portals/24147/scp/go/pdf/ABC_ENGLISH.pdf)
About "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability"

Until 2010, IGES released "Top News on the Environment in Asia" on a yearly basis. For over 12 years since its establishment of IGES in 1998, "Top News" collected and organised information about environmental issues and policy trends in the region.

In January 2011, IGES launched the new web-based series "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability" in which leading environmental experts deliver their take on latest trends of sustainable Asia.

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