Filed under: Climate change Development Environment

Our current human lifestyle – our production and consumption patterns – is exploiting earth’s natural resources in an unsustainable manner. However, there is a way out of this mess, according to experts at the Roundtable on Climate Change and Development in Slovenia.

The carrying capacity (supporting our human lives) of Earth is between 1.5 and 18 billion people. Yet today we are already 6 billion and predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050. Experts argue that if we all live like Rwanda – one of the least-developed countries with access to the bare minimum of resources, such as energy and water – we can sustain 18 billion people, no problem. However, if we reach the traditional development goals of growth and all aspire to live like the US, experts say the earth can simply not support more than 3 billion. This is only exacerbated by climate change, putting even more pressure on our planet. So what can we do?

Balazs Horvath, UNDP’s Regional Practice Leader for Poverty, explained that the question is not if we will get to a lifestyle that uses fewer resources, and uses them wisely. We must, as simply there is no other choice. The question is how. There is a smarter path in which we collectively adjust our lifestyles, and turn toward economies and societies that use and produce with lower carbon intensity and greater climate-resilience. Alternatively, we continue as we are. At some point, markets will crash, we will have binding constraints (like not enough oil, gas, water, food and alike for everyone), and we will fight over it. Sooner or later, we will be forced to adjust quickly.

To get on this smart path is not so easy. We will have to start acting collectively with one goal in mind. However, the lack of political will and various disincentives in place today are hindering change. Just take energy prices, argues Horvath. Exploring its anatomy, subsidies clearly distort price signals and make it look much cheaper than it really is. At the same time, looking at the Western Balkans as an example, there are no resources for green and renewable energy, while existing fuel subsidies average around nine percent of the GDP in this region, probably more than 10 times the amount needed for renewables. In other words, we make energy look cheaper for you and me, but it costs nations a lot more, which could be redirected with a longer-term vision. Veerle Wandeveerd, Director of the Environment and Energy Group at UNDP, also called attention to numerous ways of alternative financing available to increase countries’ capacities.

Mathis Wackernagel, President of the Global Footprint Network, pointed out one of the main obstacles to get on the smart path: the tragedy of the commons – the impossibility of getting all the states of the world to come to a conclusion around global public issues, such as climate change, in isolation. Wackernagel says, putting them in a larger context, though, and creating individualized incentives and motivations could work. For example, preparing for resource constraints is in the most direct self-interest of cities and countries, much more so than for individuals or companies.

As Wandeveerd, of the UNDP Environment and Energy Group, said, “If it’s not sustainable, it’s not development.”

If we don’t change the way we think of development, we will find ourselves in a very different world: hot and hungry.

  • “Acting collectively with one goal in mind” is a tall order within an unsustainable paradigm that offers many incentives to think and act separately. Asking people to behave counter-culturally is only really effective if we’re talking about flipping the culture to the extent that the new counter-culturals are those stuck in the old ways acting unsustainably.

    Flipping paradigms needs more than incremental ‘less of this, more of that’ fixes and more than reductionist ‘one issue at a time’ fixes. I’d suggest it needs nothing less than reframing humanity’s view of its role on Earth so people can have a net-positive impact. And reframing the global economy to achieve this ‘positive development’ so that growth comes from the intensity of change rather than the intensity of business as usual.

    • Agi Veres

      It is certainly a “tall order”, no question about it. It’s not just a new development paradigm that’s needed, but a new development model that can make the shift. And that is another tall order… not only for the UN.
      The challenge is to push towards this new model, while the political, economic and social framework is unchanged.

  • Yes Agi, a new development paradigm + a new model (for implementing the paradigm. Many people (in the west) worry that this will mean they lose out on luxuries that they are accustomed to, yet not realising that the availability of luxuries in future depends on how fast and how effectively we make the change.

    What do you think about the ‘development goals of growth’? Has the UNDP done work on how markets could implement the new paradigm by accounting for the cost of avoiding unsustainability? If externalities became internalities then growth would be measuring speed of change to a new vision of development?

    If it helps I can provide a paper about this, for review by you and your experts. Thanks, keep up all the good work!

  • deltaroo

    “the question is not if we will get to a lifestyle that uses fewer resources, and uses them wisely. We must, as simply there is no other choice.” Really? No other choice? What about voluntary population reduction by choosing not to reproduce?

  • Bruce

    This is good news for me. I thought our planet consumption rate was TWO point five planets — think I’ll go out and buy a SUV to celebrate.