Two weeks ago, the United Nations Environment Assembly, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment comprising 4,700 delegates from 170 countries gathered for a week-long summit in Nairobi, Kenya. At the top of the agenda was the issue of sustainable consumption. Joyce Msuya, acting head of UN Environment stressed that we “have grown at the expense of our planet” and that we must “transform our patterns of consumption and production” if we wish to see a sustainable future. Likewise, Siim Kisler, President of the 2019 UN Environment Assembly, claimed that current consumption and production habits are “increasingly stretching beyond the limits of our planet”, and that “unless we act now, we will not be able to reverse these mega-trends”.
The UN Environment Background Report to the summit provides a worrying wider context to these claims. Our existing consumption and production can be directly linked to devastating environmental consequences. Annually, air pollution costs us $5trn and causes 7 million premature deaths worldwide; man-made climate change is projected to lead to increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events; and man is polluting water faster than nature can purify it- contributing to global water stress. The environment poses one of the greatest security risks to humanity today, and with the global population projected to rise to almost 10 billion by 2050, pressure on our planet looks set to increase. The UN claims that if we are to stick to our current patterns of consumption and production, by 2050 the equivalent of almost three planets will be needed to meet our needs.
It is essential then, that we move from our current trajectory. Msuya urged delegates to the summit to be “optimistic and bold” and to aim for an 80% reduction in fossil fuel use and near zero waste economies by 2050. The summit’s background report too, emphasized that growth and consumption must be decoupled from negative environmental impact.
Such measures would surely go a long way towards securing a sustainable future, but there is reason to remain skeptical as to their likelihood. In fact, current trends point in the opposite direction. Vehicle ownership is projected to increase 32% by just 2020; air travel by 300%. Both are key emitters of harmful greenhouse gases. The International Chamber of Commerce predicts that consumption of limited raw materials will nearly double by 2060. And at the same time as we increase our harmful consumption, we remain extremely wasteful- the UN estimates one third of all food produced ends up being thrown away each year.
Reversing these trends will prove no easy feat. The UN claims that the current rate at which CO2 emissions are being decoupled from economic growth will need to triple if countries are to meet their current targets, set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement; two thirds of the planet have no access to controlled waste disposal systems; and whilst renewable energy uptake has increased, the International Energy Agency forecasts it will account for just 18% of the world’s energy by 2040, well below the IEA’s sustainability target of 28%.
The attention being placed on environmental security and a shift to sustainable consumption is of course a positive. High-level summits of the world’s leading experts and those in power shows that steps are being made to address this pressing issue. But these summits must move past the unaccountable, insufficient pledges of previous gatherings- a 2017 UN report found that the Paris Agreement’s state commitments would not limit global warming to the stated 2°C target, even if met. We must move towards decisive, fundamental transformation of how we grow, consume and produce. It remains to be seen what will emerge from this latest gathering, but we must hope that delegates have taken it upon themselves to push for such action. After all, as Joyce Msuya noted at the summit’s opening, “time is running short”.