Address Energy and Agriculture to Enhance Sustainability, Says UNEP Report

June 7, 2010

Sustainability Imperative: Decouple Development from Environmental Degradation

Sangwon Suh

Brussels, Belgium—Reforming energy and agriculture should be top priorities in moving toward sustainable patterns of consumption, according to a new report from the United Nations Environmental Programme's (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, which is co-chaired by former Bren School dean Ernst von Weizsäcker.

The report, co-authored by Bren assistant professor of industrial ecology Sangwon Suh and titled Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, is the latest in a series from the 27 experts who constitute the panel. It was released June 2 at the European Commission in Brussels.

The report focused on agriculture and energy as areas in which production and consumption patterns have the greatest negative environmental impacts and also present the greatest opportunities for generating "significant environmental, social, and economic returns," the authors wrote. "Current patterns of production and consumption of both fossil fuels and food are draining freshwater supplies, triggering losses of economically-important ecosystems such as forests, intensifying disease and death rates, and raising levels of pollution to unsustainable levels."

"Decoupling growth from environmental degradation is the number-one challenge facing governments," said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UNEP.

Steiner identified "energy in the form of fossil fuels, and agriculture, especially the raising of livestock for meat and dairy products" as two areas "having a disproportionately high impact on people and the planet's life-support systems."

Von Weizsäcker, who served as dean of the Bren School from 2006 through 2009, said the report challenged the widely held view that rising affluence leads automatically to environmental improvements.

"In the case of CO2, a doubling of wealth leads typically to an increase of environmental pressure by 60 to 80 per cent, and in emerging economies this is sometimes even higher," von Weizsäcker said. "In the case of food, rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets toward meat and dairy products—livestock now consumes much of the world's crops and by inference a great deal of freshwater, fertilizers, and pesticides linked with that crop production in the first place."

"People may wonder what's new about this report, because we are used to hearing about the environmental problems caused by fossil fuels and agriculture," says Suh. "The point is that more than a thousand pollutants are generated by the myriad activities linked to the production-consumption chain of our modern economy. While there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence about which products and sectors are the most pollution-intensive, anecdotes do not add up to a full picture. It is therefore not easy to say which are the priority areas. This report is important because it is the first global-scale attempt to systematically translate fragmented data into quantitative environmental impacts of products throughout their life-cycle."

The problem of the environmental impacts associated with energy and agriculture is becoming increasingly urgent with the increase in housing and meat consumption in developing economies, Suh explained.

"In this report, housing was identified as a major area of energy consumption, and therefore a significant cause of environmental impacts, and housing demand is growing rapidly in developing countries," he said. "For instance, the average living space per person in China was only about four square meters in 1980 but had risen to 24 square meters by 2005."

He explained that per capita meat consumption, which also has substantial environmental impacts, had tracked in a similar way, rose in China by 42 percent from 1995 to 2003, with recent projections of a 40 percent, to 70 kilograms per capita per year, within a few years. That is still much lower than US consumption, which is 120 kilograms per capita per year and still increasing.

While some efficiency gains are possible in terms of reducing the impacts of agriculture, according to the panel, a 50-percent growth in population by 2050 would overwhelm or offset those gains. They conclude: "A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products."

The UNEP panel set out to identify activities or resources that contribute disproportionately to environmental pressures and impacts, focusing on production and manufacturing processes, products and consumption categories, and materials.

"Decoupling does not happen by itself, it can only be the result of strong policy action," said lead author Edgar Hertwich, of the Industrial Ecology Programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology."

Read the UNEP release

Read the UNEP International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management report.

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Ernst von Weizsäcker