How to motivate the rich to consume and produce more sustainably

Dec 15 2011

By Mohan Munasinghe*

How Millennium Consumption Goals (MCGs) for the rich can make the planet more sustainable for everyone. This novel concept was recently proposed , with consumption targets that will enable the rich to make development more sustainable, while complementing the Millennium Development Goals for the poor.

The Millennium Consumption Goals (MCGs) idea was proposed in January 2011 in New York, for the Rio+20 Earth Summit next year. MCGs provide targets to motivate the rich worldwide, to consume and produce more sustainably. This process would improve overall well being, reduce environmental harm, free up resources to alleviate poverty, and ensure intra- and inter-generational equity. MCGs for the affluent would complement the MDGs for the poor.

Addressing under-consumption of the poor, the first MCG ensures that basic human needs (food, water, energy, etc.) are met worldwide. Next, addressing over-consumption of the rich, several well recognized resource-related MCGs would target: GHG emissions; energy use; water use; land use and biomass; ores and industrial minerals; construction materials; and polluting discharges. Additional MCGs might cover: food security and agriculture; health, diet and obesity; livelihoods and lifestyles; economic-financial-trade systems; and military expenditures.

We need MCGs urgently, because unsustainable consumption and production have caused multiple problems threatening humanity?s future ? like poverty, resource scarcities, hunger, conflict and climate change. Global production already uses resources that exceed the environmental carrying capacity of planet earth by 40%. The world?s 1.4 billion richest people consume over 80% of this output ? 60 times more than the poorest 1.4 billion. Meanwhile, the Millennium Development Goals seek to raise consumption levels of over 2 billion poor. Clearly, the unacknowledged ?elephant in the room? is the fact that the unsustainable consumption of the rich is ?crowding out? the poor. The MCGs will help to avoid a planetwide resource crisis and increasing risk of social conflict, by persuading the affluent to contribute to the solution, instead of being seen as the problem.

To move this idea forward, the Millennium Consumption Goals Initiative (MCGI) was launched by a broad stakeholder coalition, to target Rio+20 and establish an international mandate. The MCGI is action-oriented, inclusive, multi-level, pluralistic and trans-national.

MCGs would provide a set of benchmarks, achievable through a combination of voluntary actions by rich consumers and producers, supported by enabling government policies promoting sustainable consumption and production. Existing research provide the basis for already setting both targets and policies. A top down effort is moving the MCGs forward on the UN agenda — creating a mandate, setting global benchmarks, and establishing an enabling implementation framework. While this process moves slowly, many prefer to ?ACT NOW?. This bottom-up approach involves pioneering individuals, communities, organisations, firms, cities, regions and nations, who are already declaring their own voluntary MCGs and implementing them. For example, the biochemical giant Novozymes states: ?The Novozymes target is a voluntary Millennium Consumption Goal (MCG) that supports the recently launched global Millennium Consumption Goals Initiative (MCGI).? MCGs often provide an attractive and meaningful ?umbrella? for already existing ad-hoc goals. In short, voluntary MCGs are being pursued by the willing, at whatever level they choose, and focusing on their preferred consumption targets.

MCGs have strategic advantages. First, they apply across developed and developing countries, and reduce the potential for deadlock due to nationalistic and regional self-interest. Second, small reductions in rich peoples? material consumption can improve their well-being (eg., through healthier lifestyles and diets), while lowering environmental harm and freeing up resources to alleviate poverty. Third, MCGs can be implemented using an inclusive, multilevel strategy, which combines both bottom up and top down approaches. The MCG concept is both fractal and subsidiary, because the basic idea remains unchanged (like a snowflake) at finer levels of detail, and effective implementation is still possible.

Fourth, MCGs have the potential for quicker results, by galvanizing affluent households and businesses to shift towards more sustainable behaviour, without relying only on slower government measures. Furthermore, rich individuals and communities could act effectively in their own enlightened self-interest, since they are better educated, have more influence and command more resources. Fifth, MCG-MDG twinning is possible – eg., by linking MCGs in rich communities with MDGs in poor communities. Sixth and finally, MCGs could mobilise, empower and link sustainable consumers and producers (including associated global value/supply chains). The same advertising that now promotes over-consumption could be used to encourage more sustainable consumption.

Values and habits could be changed society-wide to favour more sustainable behaviour (like the gradual change in attitudes towards smoking). MCGs would ?empower the person to define meaningful consumption rather than permitting meaningless consumption to define the person.?

The MCGs are designed to be an important practical tool within an overall strategy for sustainable development, which supplements ongoing initiatives like sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and green economy (GE). They are based on a holistic, practical framework for making development more sustainable called ?Sustainomics?, which I had first proposed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It would be fitting if the MCGs were included in the agreements at Rio+20, twenty years later. By acting together now on the MCGs, we will make the planet a safer and better place for our children and grandchildren. December 2011

*Professor Mohan Munasinghe, Vice Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), co-laureate 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He is Chairman of the Munasinghe Inst. of Development (MIND), Colombo; Professor of Sustainable Development at SCI, University of Manchester, UK; Institute Professor at the Vale Sustainable Development Inst., Federal Univ. of Para, Brazil; and Distinguished Guest Professor at Peking University, China.

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