Analysis | Consuming and producing sustainably

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High Greenhouse gas emissions expected for the…
Africa: a « rich » continent undermined by…
Wealthy countries are capping their meat…

What is the nature of the sustainable production and consumption discussion twenty years after Rio? Has the approach to the issue really
shifted from the management of the scarcity of resources to a sobriety of production and consumption cycles?
How to think and implement public policies in this domain?

2015 was marked by two major events which show the international community’s growing concern of reconciling our consumption patterns and the environmental and social challenges we will be confronted with. The first was the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), adopted by the United Nations, and specifically Goal 12 which recognizes the essential and transverse role of consumption and production in sustainable development. The next was the Paris Climate Conference where an agreement was unanimously adopted setting the target of limiting global warming to under 2°C, and aiming for the 1.5°C mark. The agreement is to be validated by the States party to it and will become effective in 2020: it calls for a reorientation of world economy and a deep transformation of the production and consumption patterns which were developed in 20th century on the basis of fossil energy exploitation.

This is not a new issue: the Earth Summit on the environment and development, which was held in Rio in 1992, had already announced the hope of a sustainable economy. It recommended doing away with unsustainable production and consumption methods and replacing them with those which are profitable to all and whose dissemination is to be encouraged. The declaration of 27 principles and the 2 500 recommendations of Agenda 21 which were adopted at the time remain as common references for all the countries which signed and committed to building a sustainable future.

During the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, the United Nations once again expressed their support for this agenda with an action programme (10YFP) on sustainable production and consumption, adopted in article 226 of the final text, "The Future we Want". The programme which was entrusted to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and was based on five components: education and lifestyles, construction and buildings, tourism, consumer information and public procurement. Countries were invited to establish adequate participatory structures and to develop intervention strategies. But what do the terms "sustainable production" and "sustainable consumption" actually mean?

From an environmental point of view, they mean addressing a use of products and services which responds to basic needs and provides a better quality of life while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as the emissions of waste and pollutants over the whole lifecycle of products and services. Sustainable consumption and production must make it possible not to jeopardize the needs of further generations.

The aim is therefore to limit impacts and disruption on the main natural cycles (water, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous) of all the socio-economic activities (production processes along the whole life cycle; diets; types of habitat and transport; loss and waste; etc.). This is already a highly complex issue: what may appear to be an efficient policy in one field may have harmful effects in another. For example, extending the biofuel offer to substitute renewable energies for fossil energies may also contribute to increased pressure on earth or water (APFL 2010, Focus 4). Countries attempting to ensure food and energy security have also acquired land abroad to the detriment of existing local communities. An argument which would be limited to improving usage efficiency, in intra and inter-usage, would not be satisfactory: the net reduction of the impact of our lifestyles on resources has become a necessity.

Insert 1 | Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Sustainable consumption and production is about promoting resource and energy efficiency, sustainable infrastructure, and providing access to basic services, green and decent jobs and a better quality of life for all. Its implementation helps to achieve overall development plans, reduce future economic, environmental and social costs, strengthen economic competitiveness and reduce poverty.
Sustainable consumption and production  aims at “doing more and better with less,” increasing net welfare gains from economic activities by reducing resource use, degradation and pollution along the whole lifecycle, while increasing quality of life. It involves different stakeholders, including business, consumers, policy makers, researchers, scientists, retailers, media, and development cooperation agencies, among others.
It also requires a systemic approach and cooperation among actors operating in the supply chain, from producer to final consumer. It involves engaging consumers through awareness-raising and education on sustainable consumption and lifestyles, providing consumers with adequate information through standards and labels and engaging in sustainable public procurement, among others.
Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations (2015)

Respect for the nine planetary boundaries

Natural resources act as "sinks and for maintaining conditions for life" (European report on development, 2012). This refers to the capacity of ecosystems to regulate the hydrological cycle, to absorb and recycle waste and to maintain biodiversity. These natural systems may undergo sudden irreversible changes if tipping points or ultimate degradation is reached. For the living world and biodiversity, this means the brutal interruption of the food chain between species, acidification and the adaptation or non-adaptation of bacteria, and even the disappearance of large predators, or the interruption of pollination. For the climate, it means a brutal thermodynamic tipping and the radical modification of temperatures and rainfall patterns. Rockström et al. (2009) suggest nine planetary boundaries (figure 1). These boundaries would appear to be close to being reached in certain fields such as fresh water consumption, changes in land usage, the acidification of the oceans and the interference in the global cycles of phosphorous. Three processes are considered to have exceeded the alert threshold: climate change, the rate of decrease in biodiversity and human interference with nitrogen cycles. The other boundaries are chemical pollution, air pollution by aerosols and the decreasing ozone layer.

Les limites de la planète

Selon Rockström, la plupart des neuf limites de notre planète sont le point d’être atteintes. Le changement climatique, l'érosion de la biodiversité ou l’interférence humaine avec les cycles de l’azote ont déjà largement dépassées ce seuil d'alerte.

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The increasing impacts of human activities on the four cycles of the global system (water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous) and, in fine, on the climate and biodiversity, are observed objectively. The word "Anthropocene" appeared in the literature to identify the geological era which began with the industrial revolution at the end of 18th century and during which human activities had a major impact on the terrestrial ecosystem (See Svedin, APFL 2012, Chapter 6): "in a little over two generations, humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force " (Steffen et al., 2015).

Insert 2 | Anthropocene: the human and political implications of a new geological era

The word "Anthropocene" was used for the first time in February 2000 by Paul Crutzen, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for his work on the ozone layer. It actually bears witness to the fact that "The human footprint has become so vast that it rivals with some of Nature’s great forces in terms of impact on the Earth system." The term was then adopted by scientists from a variety of disciplines working together on "Earth system" science. The term was then adopted by scientists from a variety of disciplines working together on "Earth system" sciences.
The Anthropocene is a new era in Earth’s history in which human activities have become a geological force. The word Anthropocene comes from "anthropos", human, and "kainos", new. This therefore literally means the "new age of humankind". under the impact of human activities, the Earth is going from one geological regime to another. The extinction of biodiversity and dwindling forests; the change of the composition of the atmosphere; the acidification of the oceans and the modification of the cycles of nitrogen, water, phosphorous, etc.: our planet has been altered and is leaving the Holocene, a period which has lasted a little less than 12 000 years since the last Ice Age.
Man’s footprint on Earth is plain to see: humans currently move around more soil, rocks and sediments than water and winds combined; 90 % of photosynthesis is carried out in areas which are more or less managed by humans; In the United States the number of major earthquakes has been multiplied by twenty in comparison with the 20th century due to the exploitation of shale gas; the melting of polar ice is changing the interplay of forces on the earth’s crust to the point of modifying global volcanism, etc. Humans are not only behind climate change, as is now accepted, but also a geological force, which influences both the history of our Earth and natural factors, as for example variations in solar activity or plate tectonics. The Anthropocene is both the sign of our "geological" power and also our political impotence.
Despite increasing consensus within the scientific community and in the political sphere, geologists have not yet officially validated our entry into the new epoch. At the International Union of Geological Sciences, the International Commission on Stratigraphy keeps the official chrono-stratigraphic calendar of the 4.54 billion years of our planet up-to-date. The commission created an Anthropocene Working Group in 2009, and will publish its report in 2018, and in 2020 the Union will vote on whether or not to validate the new epoch.
The debate on when the Holocene becomes the Anthropocene covers at least four geo-narratives which describe distinct moral and political schemes and visions of our societies and invite us by means of specific political agendas to venture down distinct paths.
For William Ruddiman, a paleoclimatologist from the University of Virginia, it was in the Neolithic, 5000 years ago, that humans emitted - through deforestation, rice paddies and breeding – enough greenhouse gases to modify the trajectory of the Earth’s climate. The origin of the Anthropocene was thus agriculture and those responsible the human species as a whole.
A second possible beginning was proposed in 2015 by climatologist Simon Lewis and the geographer Mark Maslin in the magazine Nature. They suggested that our new geological epoch should begin with the European conquest of America. This birth of globalisation was to decimate the Amerindian population and resulted in 60 million hectares of fields returning to wasteland and the forest and a drop in the carbon concentration in the atmosphere of around 279 ppm in 1492 to around 272 ppm in 1610. European colonialization and budding capitalism could also be behind a new geological force. These two scenarii are nevertheless fragile ones: the Holocene probably ended neither 5000 years ago nor in 1610 because the concentration of greenhouse gases, even though it varied at these two periods in time, did not leave the Holocene range of values.
It was only in 1809 that this concentration exploded to exceed Holocene values and reach 290 ppm at the end of the 19th century and 400 ppm currently. It would appear that the Earth’s atmosphere left the Holocene at the beginning of the 19th century. With the massive use of coal, the carbon accumulated in the lithosphere over hundreds of millions of years was projected into the atmosphere in the space of a few decades, hence Paul Crutzen’s proposal to place our derailment out of the Holocene with the Industrial Revolution, new models of development by colonisation and economic competition.
Lastly, and this is the possible fourth beginning, some consider that the carbonisation of the atmosphere has been taking place slowly and progressively since 1800, with no clear spike and no « golden spike ». For geologists to accept a new epoch, they need to search for more precise markers. Jan Zalasiewicz, President of the Anthropocene Working Group at the International Commission on Stratigraphy, considers that radio-elements, which had hitherto been unknown on Earth, and which were jettisoned by the first nuclear explosions in 1945, are a very accurate stratigraphic marker. In this fourth scenario, the fracture is marked by the sheer enormity of the power race during the Cold War which turned the whole planet into an experimental laboratory. The age of waste and the expansion of the mass consumption society.
The Anthropocene enables an essential raising of awareness: we are not going through an environmental crisis but a man-made geological revolution. The last time there was such a large amount of carbon in the atmosphere as there is currently was during the Pliocene, between 2.6 and 5 million years ago. Human beings have never had to face such a situation. At the rate we’re going, half the animal and plant species will have disappeared by 2100. The last comparable extinction dates back to 65 million years ago, when three quarters of the species including the dinosaurs disappeared because of a meteorite. Homo sapiens is 200 000 years old: along with our children we must face up to planetary conditions that no human has ever faced before. Leaving the Holocene is not only a geological phenomenon but a new human condition. This leap into the unknown is not due to a meteorite or any other external event, but due to our own development model, which while it claimed to be tearing itself from the limits of the planet, has actually met them head on.
Nevertheless, there is a real danger of this concept becoming a vector of demobilisation, apathy and depoliticisation. According to the current classical story, the human species supposedly unintentionally destroyed nature in the past to the point of altering the Earth-system. It was supposedly only at the end of the 20th century that scientists actually opened our eyes to this. This is false and depoliticizes the long history of the Anthropocene. It is therefore necessary to politically understand this concept. It could be significant as it challenges the conceptions on which modernity was founded.
The concept of the Anthropocene shatters the promises of perpetuating our economic system by modifying it at the margins. Industrial modernity, from renewable and living energies to coal which is an inert resource, has represented nature as a shopful of static resources. This is also the Descartes ideology of a rift between humans and all the other beings grouped into the all-purpose and externalising concept of "nature" which is plagued by the Anthropocene.
The idea of "Progress" also took a bashing after it swerved away from the Holocene. The Moderns’ promise of an intentional society which would do away with tradition and the past has failed and our future has never seemed so dependent on the past. The level of the oceans in 2300 will not depend as much on the choices of the 21st century as on our own today. The more we move forward on the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions, the nearer we will be getting to "too late" and the future will be constrained and narrowed by the past – the complete opposite of the promise of progress as a futuristic wrenching away from the past.
It is also our conceptions of freedom, inherited from the industrial era, which must be rethought using a new form of geology. The ecological debt on which our modern edifices of Freedom were carefully hidden away from sight. Work tracing the global flows of matter, energy and waste, today and in the past, shows us how much all cultures, all social orders and all political systems are held together by the organisation of these flows.
The Anthropocene is throwing the modern ideology of nature, progress, freedom and democracy into crisis.Where modernity promised universal peace between men by dominating the planet, the Anthropocene announces the possibility of barbarity, and even the need for conflict. For Michel Serre’s Le contrat naturel and for many philosophers 20 years ago, the essential challenge was to reconcile humans and non-humans. It is striking to see how Bruno Latour’s latest book, Facing Gaia, steers away from this. After having appealed for peace, he calls for a confrontation of the terrestrials, or Earthbound, against the Moderns. The Moderns are also those who believe themselves to be separate from and above nature. They intend to pursue the process of modernisation believing that the Earth belongs to them. The Earthbound are those who know that they belong to the Earth and are part of this nature which is fighting back: Western city-dwellers committed to ecological transition, post-development or the fight to leave 80% of fossil resources in the soil; the rural and neo-rural population attached to a territory, forming with its occupants a "nature which is fighting" against concreting, extraction and "modernisation"; commons founded on systems of rules decreed by communities and which aim at protecting resources. Lastly, we can add to this coalition of traditional and new technologies: agro-ecology, cooperative wind-farms, etc. These coalitions of the Earthbound make up what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls the "third nature", a nature which resists, ignores, subverts and thwarts the second nature schemes of the Moderns.
Therefore, sometimes unbeknownst to the modern conscience of the scientists who address it and their "management" of an Earth-system seen from above, the Anthropocene appeals to the mobilisation of victims, rejects and those who count for nothing in this modernity which has destabilised the Earth.
Read the whole interview with Christophe Bonneuil

Regarding climate, the successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published since 1990 have shown unequivocally that human activities and particularly the use of fossil energies have led to an exceptional increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which were established at 32.3 Gt in 2014. Their recent impacts on physical and socio-economic systems affect all the continents and oceans. They have been the dominant cause of the warming which has been observed since the middle of 20th century1 (figure 2). In a number of regions, the evolution in rainfall has modified hydrological systems, affecting water resources both from the point of view of quantity and quality2. There has been an increase in the number of extreme events of high temperatures and heavy rainfall. Many terrestrial, freshwater and marine species have disappeared, or have modified their geographical distribution, activities and interactions3. The acidification of the oceans attributed to human activities has had an impact on marine organisms4. The negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more frequent than the positive impacts5.

High Greenhouse gas emissions expected for the 21th century

GHG have been and will remain the dominant cause of the warming which has been observed since the middle of 20th century. Their observation established a clear human responsibility in the mitigation of their emissions.
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Climate is only one aspect of the complex global changes which are occurring in global biochemical cycles. "The alteration of the cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous represent a major challenge for the planet which has not to date received enough attention", stipulates the UNEP report "Our Nutrient World – The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution" (2013).

Lastly, the historical analyses carried out on the evolution of biodiversity on a global scale also converge on disturbing conclusions. Since the beginning of the industrial era, the reduction of terrestrial biodiversity has already resulted in the disappearance of around 50% of it (GCDD, 2010) and the strong decrease in sea resources: between 1970 and 2010, 39% of terrestrial species disappeared, 76% of freshwater species and 39 % of marine species (WWF, 2014). This trend towards erosion has accelerated over the last fifty years. Five major factors are responsible for these changes, in varying proportions according to regions: changes in soil use (deforestation, urbanisation, infrastructures); the overexploitation of resources; local and diffuse pollution; the introduction of invasive exotic species and climate change. The changes in land use were historically the most decisive.

Multiple causes of degradation

If the impacts are clearly analysed, the underlying mechanisms to these evolutions, and to their acceleration since the middle of 20th century, are more controversial. Demographic growth is one of the main accelerators of the use of natural resources. The world population has multiplied more than four-fold since the beginning of 20th century, and this increase generates risks if the trends observed in the production and consumption patterns of developing countries converge with those of developed countries. From this point of view, demographic growth is not the only explanation: the same number of human beings can consume a great deal or moderately, according to their income and their access to technology, the political system, the degree of urbanisation and their cultural standards.

Simultaneously with the increase in population, the level of economic growth and the quality of this growth are major vectors of the use of natural resources. The improvement of man’s living conditions during the last century coincides with the increased use of natural resources. The history of this relationship shows two trends (European Report on Development, 2012).

Economic growth is first and foremost associated with an absolute increase in the consumption of natural resources. The increasing use of individual means of transport results in a higher demand for fossil energies. Higher standards of living also often go with a higher consumption of meat products. "The number of plant calories (except grazing) needed to produce one animal calorie varies from two to five according to the areas concerned, the type of animal production and the technical system used." (FAO, 2015). This therefore results in a significant rise in production needs and increased pressure on resources.

However, and this is the second trend, the growth rate of the economy is higher than that of the use of natural resources. Actually, as societies get richer, technological progress allows them to use the resources more efficiently. This could have resulted in dissociation between the GDP and energy consumption. But this is not the case, because of the rebound effects of the dissemination of this technology which leads to a strongly increasing consumption (as has been observed successively with the use of coal and oil) or the withdrawal of sustainable methods of exploitation which have matured (animal traction, use of wood, wind, water, etc.).

The increasing demand for limited resources resulting from this aggravates the competition between uses and users. The pressure brought to bear on resources is thus made more complex and worsened due to the links existing exist between the different types of demand. For example water is necessary for urban, industrial and agricultural users, not to mention the elementary needs of ecosystems in order to regenerate.

This pressure is aggravated in a global economy which is strongly interconnected by trade exchanges; the pressure on the natural resources of one country is not attributable solely to the internal factors of this country: an increase in the demand for meat in a part of the world will result in pressure on the lands and water in another region. Moreover, the rapid industrialisation of China has led this country to become the largest GHG emitter, artificially creating an illusion of sobriety in developed countries.

These different observations raise the question of scarcity (physical unavailability) and the political challenges linked to the management of this scarcity. Technological progress has partly enabled, up till now, to face up to an increased demand by replacing certain resources with others; by juxtaposing their use (oil for transport, coal and others for electricity, etc.); by increasing their transfer or by using them more efficiently. Natural resources nevertheless do not have the same levels of substitutability (European Report on Development, 2012). The resources which involve absorption and life-sustaining capacities cannot be replaced, which obliges us to establish physical boundaries where the secure functioning zone for human society is concerned (Rockström et al., 2009). Before reaching these zones of physical unavailability, the geographical concentration of certain resources (phosphate for example or rare earths) is already a source of conflict. And lastly, the abundance of local natural resources does not guarantee economic development as can be seen on the African continent (figure 3).

Africa: a « rich » continent undermined by economic and social fracture

Africa illustrates sadly that the abundance of local natural resources if useful does not guarantee alone economic development. Management and governance are as strongly needed in this case as in the situation of scarcity.
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Controlling energy

What is the socio-eco-bio-geosphere system’s adaptability, to be resilient and embark on a process of transformation to reduce its impacts? What is the likelihood of an absolute scarcity of certain resources or of reaching the tipping points of the main cycles?

Once the issue has been raised, the solutions considered focus very rapidly on technical innovations with a view to limiting the carbon footprint of our production methods. Sustainable agricultural intensification patterns such as agro-ecological systems are developed as alternatives to the conventional methods of increasing yields through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, improved varieties or mechanization. Projects for reusing waste water treated for agriculture, industry or urban needs are being developed.

In the energy sector, the heavy trend is still the massive use of fossil energies. If we take into account the recoverable quantities, the basic resources of coal, oil, gas and uranium resources. And the constraints do not only concern the potential resources themselves, but rather the way in which they will be exploited (Giraud, 2014): they are above all of a technical, economic and political nature and are closely related to the actors’ ability to take the climate stakes into consideration at all levels. GHG reduction is based on two fundamental pillars.

Controlling energy consumption is the first pillar. Digital technologies currently make it possible to optimize the production, distribution and consumption of electricity in order to improve energy efficiency (smart grids). By smoothing consumption peaks and decreasing the most expensive production capacities, these technologies enable securing of the grid and reducing its cost. According to the United States Department of Energy, if smart grid technologies were to increase the efficiency of the American power grid by 5%, this would be the equivalent of a saving in terms of GHG emissions of 53 million cars. This type of development could develop rapidly and generally. A number of end-use devices, industrial processes, heating systems, components of infrastructures and housing developments, are beginning to be replaced using new technologies, and a number of existing electric power plants are coming to the end of their useful lifespan. These transformations depend on the technologies deployed and the relative R&D expenditure.

The development and dissemination of renewable energy (RE) make up the second pillar. These technologies are gaining ground subject to incentives, particularly those of a financial nature (sustained support), the lowering of costs (improving the efficiency of the technologies) and proactive policies. Up until quite recently, it was in OECD countries that the relative share of RE increased the fastest, even if the production potentialities and the needs are actually more outside this area. In 2015, the share of developing countries reached a level which was almost equivalent to that of developed countries, both in terms of investment and in electrical power, thanks to projects developed in China, India, South America, and to a lesser extent, Africa. At the end of 2015, 173 countries had set targets where RE was concerned, including 146 which have established their own support policies on a national and territorial scale.

Changes in lifestyle of middle classes

More recently, questions of a socio-economical nature linked to our consumption patterns have emerged as major levers for limiting the impacts of our activities on natural cycles. The fight against food waste is a first lever. Post-harvest agricultural and agrifood losses represent between 15 % and 60 % of agricultural production according to the products and the countries. Solutions for reducing them exist but require heavy investment and action on the scale of the whole sector. Even though the studies are not categorical on this point, the reduction of losses and waste is a major vector of change for our future. And lastly, circular economy, which aims at deploying a new economy based on the principle of "closing the life cycle" of products, services, waste, materials, water and energy, is a tool which is evolving rapidly.

Nutritional policies which direct eating habits towards a more sustainable and healthier consumption (less meat consumption, promoting meat production systems which use less vegetable calories) make up a second lever (figure 4 | Wealthy countries are capping their meat consumption). Such actions for controlling the demand and sobriety are a "no regrets" strategy which makes it possible to meet several challenges at the same time: environment, food safety and health. The same goes for all fields: water, energy, transport, etc.

Wealthy countries are capping their meat consumption

In rich countries, a relative cap, and even a down-swing, of meat consumption before 2020 is forecast resulting from public information and widespread education. But this trend still contrasts with the aspiration in many emerging and poor countries.
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But challenging consumption patterns, in the Global North and South, also leads to a deeper questioning of our societies. The function of consumption touches on personal and societal notions such as needs, desires, social affiliations, habits, religious, cultural and professional influences, and also on techniques such as marketing and advertising. Therefore, besides economic science, a number of human and social sciences including anthropology, sociology and psychology (individual and social) have to be mobilized in order to understand correctly the mechanisms of consumption and consider the conditions for their moving towards increased sustainability. The legitimacy of this proposal is in itself an extremely delicate issue in societies which give a high value to individual freedom which supposedly includes the freedom to choose among the products and services offered on the market.

Regarding sustainable consumption, there are sometimes strong contradictions between the heavy trends of consumption and the demands or criteria of sustainability (read Armstrong, in APLF 2014, chapter 7). Among the factors which determine changes in consumption, access to the middle class and the increase in its numbers was one of the significant phenomena of the evolution of capitalist societies in the 20th century in the United States and Europe, in OECD countries in general and now in developing countries, whether they are emerging or not. This is currently one of the major societal consequences of the emergence of certain economies, an evolution which is very often desired by public and private actors, whether the political regime is of an authoritarian or democratic type.

Beyond questions of definition and characterization of the « middle class », an increasing proportion of the world’s population is neither rich nor poor but is in the middle of the income ladder. Even in Africa, where the rapid expansion of the middle classes is still limited, they have progressed significantly and this has contributed to a rise in domestic consumption in a number of countries (AfDB, 2011; AFD, 2011). According to the OECD (2012), the global middle class will rise from 1.8 billion people in 2009 to 3.2 billion in 2020, and to 4.9 billion in 2030. This progression will be driven by Asia, which will represent, in 2030, 66% of the global middle class and 59% of the consumption of the middle classes, against 28% and 23% respectively in 2009. The middle classes of emerging and developing countries are a driver of consumption and domestic demand, but remain vulnerable due to their characteristics in terms of employment (predominant informal sector) and education (low rate of graduates from higher education).

Access to the middle class results in radical changes in the consumption patterns towards the models built in industrialized countries after WW2 based on the access to personal cars and semi-sustainable goods (television, domestic appliances, etc.); the change in diet for a more consistent share ? of animal proteins and even the access to leisure and tourism services. All of this resulting in a considerable increase in energy consumption, and particularly electricity, by households. In Ghana, the number of car and motorbike owners is reported to have risen to 61%between 2006 and 2012 (AfDB, 2011). The development of shopping centres (shopping malls) in the great metropolises of Asia, Africa and South America illustrate the emergence of these consumption patterns borrowed from the United States. On 16th March 2016, the opening of an IKEA store in Casablanca (Morocco) gathered a crowd of over 20 000 visitors. These models include an increase in the proportion of imported products and encourage global trade (AFD, 2011).

These consumption patterns are supported by the massive use of marketing and advertising techniques which are now used all over the planet. Investment in advertising represented 544 billion dollars in 2015 with an annual growth of 4.4% and peaks for India (11%) and Latin America (12.7%), in countries where the consumption of the middle classes is strongly sustained. In Europe where its growth is moderate, and even decreasing, investment in advertising only increased by 2.6%. The proportion of the increase in investment in advertising attributable to emerging countries over the period 2014-2017 was estimated at 59% (ZenithOptimedia survey, Thirty Rising Media Markets 2014-2016). In this increase, China takes the lead with Argentina, Indonesia and Brazil, and Africa is all but absent.

Insert 3 | The emergence of a global middle class and a low emission economy

Broadly speaking, if you look across the global spectrum, when the "extreme poor" become "nearly poor", they actually reduce their carbon footprint. That's because the extreme poor tend to practise slash and burn agriculture, other very environmentally damaging agricultural practices, and over exploitation of the commons in their area—degraded lands, etc. The poverty agenda is actually quite good in that sense for sustainability. But it’s still true that the middle class consumes more resources per capita. So you will probably need to counterbalance this overuse as the middle class grows. If you think of the world as a whole, you have environmental benefits of moving away or out of poverty; you have a cost in terms of allowing the middle class more access to energy and other kinds of things; and then we have the roughly one billion or so people who now are classified as being rich who must adjust their consumption habits in order to become more sustainable. All of these will have to be balanced in order manage the use of natural resources.
More and more the growing middle class is becoming the main political driver for policy reform. We can observe in this class a slight degree of conspicuous consumption, dictated by social status, but above all a rise in the demand for services. There is a small amount of status consumption, but one interesting thing that is not understood yet is the growth of consumption of services. People are now consuming far more services, and much earlier, than they did before – not only middle-class people but also the poor. The simplest example is the mobile phone: the amount of money being spent on mobile phones compared to a landline phone is huge. Services are of course much less energy-intensive than material things. Part of the question will then be how services develop and if services prove to be a greater claim on people’s budget than material possessions.
There is nothing – either from the technological or policy point of view – which says you can't have a developed society which is sustainable. Policy needs and tools are different in developed and in developing countries. In developing countries, taxes are not a well-developed instrument for changing income distribution and making polluters pay – as compared to developed countries. But this simply means the issue has to be approached differently by developing and developed countries.
For example, Japan seems to have many elements of sustainability: fairly equal, low carbon footprint for its level of GDP, very efficient urban transport, Tokyo is a very dense city, an efficient use of railways, etc. Frankly, if the rest of the developed world was modelled on Japan, we wouldn't need to have a global agreement on climate change.
Inventing global sustainable ways of living will involve a lot of technological innovation. For instance, in New York City, bike-ways and alternative transportation solutions have developed. By seeking these alternatives, removing the physical parking of cars, and the development of roads, we can free up to 10% of urban space! How quick we get there, its rate of adoption, etc., are less clear. And these are only some of the questions.
And a more flexible technological change may be as powerful. If you can switch from two-stroke engines to four-stroke engines, the amount of carbon emissions per unit changes quite dramatically. If you could make public transport into a middle-class choice rather than a poor person choice (as it is in many developing countries), that could also have huge impact. In Asia, metro systems have increased and are actually profitable simply because of the concentration of peoples, which is very different from systems in advanced countries which require large amount of public subsidies to be built and sustained. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and China are among developing countries with financially sustainable metro systems. But we should be clear that the energy consumption of an emerging middle class in Asia and in Asian cities in particular, will rise. Business-as-usual would mean very large sales of automobiles in these markets and subsequently high carbon footprints.
We need to move from project financing to programme financing. I have a bit of a problem with blanket-type messaging like “we will no longer finance any coal power plants”. I would prefer a country to have a mixed energy strategy with a plan to adjust it over time and align with their nationally declared climate commitments, and then finance that programme. After the COP21, what is now needed is a mobilisation in favour of financing energy transition, but there is clearly a lack of political will and needed instruments. For instance, the United States lacks infrastructure banks to finance the deep de-carbonization of the economy. And if you don't have the United States which represents one quarter of the world GDP, do not clearly show the way to reaching a global target, this will make it harder for everybody else to bridge the gap.

Read the whole interview with Homi Kharas, Brookings Institution

Doing more and better with less

For the governments of developed or emerging countries, consumption is a major issue which meet socio-political targets: to encourage the emergence of middle classes and more generally give the population material satisfaction as a means of maintaining social peace, political stability and support for leaders. Critiques of the consumer society by sociologists such as Marcuse (2013) or Baudrillard (2009), and the exposing of lobbying techniques, and even insidious manipulation of consumers by Packard (1957), Guy Debord6 (La société du spectacle, 1967), Hodgson (2003) or Klein (2015), first affected Western countries from the end of the 1960s. To a certain extent, they are currently spreading to emerging countries. Consumers, and particularly those from the middle classes, are thus increasingly exposed to the double bind paradoxical requirement phenomenon mentioned by Bateson (1977): they are encouraged to consume more and more but also to respect principles of ethics, sustainability and even frugality.

In political and institutional terms, governments adopt orientations which save consumption. The action plans proposed are very prudent, and avoid committing to the reduction of harmful products (with the exception of tobacco), or to question eating habits or means of transport. They actually limit their action to expressing non-constraining recommendations, through policies for education, awareness-raising and information using eco-labelling and labels, the promotion of eco-products, to local products, to the reduction of packaging or the use of reusable or recyclable packaging. Even if the usefulness of these policies is certain, they only have a much reduced impact on the reorientation of the consumption or its contents.

In 2008, the European Commission established an Action Plan for a sustainable consumption, production and industry. This is also the spirit of the 2010-2013 French national strategy for sustainable development and the 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns (10YFP) adopted by the United Nations in 2013. In the National strategy of ecological transition towards sustainable development, adopted by France in 2015, circular and product-service economy was highlighted. It referred to taxes and the elimination of harmful substances, with no further explanation, and fighting programmed obsolescence. More ambitious in its proposals, the Strategic Analysis Centre proposed, in a note in January 2011, setting up the economic tools and "pricing signals" necessary for a transition towards sustainable consumption, including progressive tariffs for water and electricity. It nevertheless recognizes that "Public authorities are reticent to use the lever of consumption to move society towards a sustainable development" and highlights the fact that "policies that only seek to redirect production methods are insufficient and produce perverse effects".

It is clear that governments, and a number of other socio-economic actors, faced with stagnating purchasing power, rising poverty and inequality, and the need to support certain sectors such as agricultural production, are more than reticent to venture into consumption guiding policies. Questions must be asked on the factors and mechanisms which would make it possible to promote and implement policies of real paradigm change.

To conclude, the approach to the issue is less a question of solutions than a panel of social, economic and political tools in the framework of renewed governance. Recent history broaches the question of the abilities of States to initiate a new trajectory of our production and consumption patterns to face up to global and local challenges. At the end of the 1990s, global public goods appeared in international debates, in contexts marked by increasing interdependence between countries and the inability of markets and national policies to correctly manage the global challenges of climate, biodiversity or health. They have put the question of international governance regulations and tools back on the agenda, in a renewed proactive pattern. However, climate negotiations have since highlighted the illusion of international public governance and the need to consider a multi-level governance involving public, private and civil society actors, from the local scale (Aykut and Dahan, 2015). Part of the solution to the evolution of our consumption and production patterns may be found in commons where actors and citizens once again take on the stakes on their territory and look for specific solutions (Bollier, 2014).

1 Level of confidence: extremely high (See IPCC report, 2014)

2 Level of confidence: moderate (See IPCC report, 2014)

3 Level of confidence: high (See IPCC report, 2014)

4 Level of confidence: moderate (See IPCC report, 2014)

5 Level of confidence: high (See IPCC report, 2014)

6 Guy Debord: "The society of the spectacle is the autocratic reign of the market economy, which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government that accompanied this reign."


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