Goal 12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”

E_SDG_Icons-12_310The debate around sustainable consumption and the finite nature of the planet’s resources has a long history.

One of the most well-known (and also heavily criticised) studies on the issue was ‘The Limits to Growth’. Conducted back in 1972 by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it argued that indefinite growth was impossible in a finite world. More recently, the High Level Panel that was brought together by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to advise on the global development agenda beyond 2015 concluded that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fell short “by not addressing the need to promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production”.

The Royal Society’s ‘People and the Planet’ report also highlights the issue of sustainable consumption. There are huge disparities in material resource consumption levels around the world and across income categories. The report concluded that alongside the essential task of lifting the world’s poorest out of poverty and raising their consumption levels, material consumption levels of the most well-off needs to be addressed.

A central theme

The successors to the MDGs – the Sustainable Development Goals, adopted at the end of September this year – have heeded the words of the High Level Panel. They were designed to go beyond the Millennium Development Goals in many ways – more comprehensively incorporating environmental, social and economic issues. As a result sustainable consumption and production is a central theme to the new goals.

The issue not only has its own individual goal (number 12), but is incorporated into a number of others (Goal 14 ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’ to name just one) and within the overarching vision that accompanies the goals:

“We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable.”

What does the goal call for?

The sustainable consumption and production goal itself covers a range of issues; sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, global food waste, waste generation more generally and management of chemicals and wastes throughout their life cycle. It also includes a target on rationalising inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies.

The importance of scientific, technological and innovation capacity in supporting the transition to more sustainable consumption and production patterns is highlighted. The goal also raises the need for people to have relevant information and awareness (for more on this see Sarah’s blog on the SDGs and education). And tools to monitor sustainable development are also mentioned in a (slightly obtuse) sub-goal: “Develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

Who will be involved?

In short, everyone. The vision names a wide range of actors that will be needed to deliver the new SDGs:

“We commit to making fundamental changes in the way that our societies produce and consume goods and services. Governments, international organizations, the business sector and other non-state actors and individuals must contribute to changing unsustainable consumption and production patterns”

The goal itself specifically encourages companies to adopt sustainable practices and report on sustainability information and commits signatories to promoting sustainable public procurement practices. Although it commits all countries to taking action it makes it clear that developed countries should take the lead.

Now for the hard (and most important) part

Now that they’ve been agreed, the conversation around the SDGs is moving to how countries will implement them. Sustainable consumption and production has been pegged as one of the most difficult to achieve. A recent analysis conducted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) separated the goals into three categories:

  1. those we are on course to get more than halfway towards by 2030;
  2. those where progress will need to be significantly sped up, and;
  3. those which will need a complete reversal of current trends.

Goal 12 falls into this latter category (accompanied by combating climate change, reducing inequality, limiting slum populations and marine conservation).

When it comes to implementation, countries will need to prioritise the goals depending on their individual contexts. Goal 12 stressed that developed countries should take the lead, and it is these countries that this goal will be most difficult for. The ODI analysis found that the emerging and developed economies (BRICS and OECD) are driving the negative global trend for this goal. Further analysis conducted by the Stakeholder Forum, using the UK as a proxy, found similar results: major shifts will be needed in emerging and developed countries to meet Goal 12.

As the goal itself acknowledges, science, technology and innovation will be key to delivery (among other things, but I am slightly biased). The next blog post in this series will take a closer look at this. You can also join us at a PolicyLab event on 23 November to discuss this issue.

This blog post is the third in a series on the Sustainable Development Goals. Previous posts looked at education and resilient cities. The final post in the series will look at why science and innovation is important for delivering the goals.

Register for the Royal Society PolicyLab on ‘How can science help the UK meet the Sustainable Development Goals?’ to be held on 23 November, 6:30 to 8:30 pm.