The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (2012) provides the opportunity to answer the question how a continually growing economic system can fit within a finite ecological system. Natural resources underpin the functioning of the global economy and the quality of life of all citizens, and the concern over limits is not new. What is new is the scientific evidence that the planet will soon not be able to absorb the waste carbon dioxide of industrial activity, urbanization and excessive consumption. The policy response has to be a new form of international cooperation to equitably share the carbon space in the global commons**, because of the impacts on other drivers of human wellbeing. A low carbon green economy is now synonymous with sustainable development. While each country has its own vision of what is fair in defining the criteria for sharing the global commons, an analysis of patterns, trends and drivers of national resource use since 1972 suggests that transforming societies towards living in balance with the natural environment will also lead to more equity.
It has been computed that two-third of the global environmental impact has been caused by carbon dioxide , cities account for three-quarter of these emissions, and the construction sector accounts for more than a third of global material resource consumption . Urbanisation involved a population shift of half billion in developed countries and could amount to over 4 bn with the attendant growth in emissions in developing countries. The global community has to recognise the increase in resource use, and carbon dioxide emissions, resulting from the scale of the infrastructure needed for everything from energy, housing, roads, trains, airports and ports to education and heath care needed for urbanisation and eradication of poverty, as well as the fact that 3 billion poor lack adequate access to modern energy.
Carbon dioxide emissions are driven ultimately by consumption. Over two-thirds of global emissions of carbon dioxide occurred in developed countries in the period after 1970, caused by urban lifestyles . In developed countries, while industrial emissions have remained steady since 1990, over two-thirds of carbon dioxide emissions are now coming from the services, households and travel sectors, they account for more than half the increase in global emissions since 2005, and it is expected that emissions from transportation (largely for leisure) will exceed half of global emissions in 2050 . However, global attention continues to be focused on the increasing emissions from generation of electricity, largely from coal, in China and India, where three quarters of the electricity generated goes for industrial production and any reduction in emissions will have a direct impact on economic growth*, unlike in developed countries (the United States also gets most of its electricity from coal) where consumption by household’s accounts for two-thirds of the electricity generated, and reductions will impact only on (wasteful) lifestyles.
The policy problem is that climate change, and sustainability, have been framed in terms of assessments of damage and the attendant emissions targets and timetables that pit old against new emitters. The shared vision of the Cancun Agreements, 2010, now recognizes the substantial opportunities from a paradigm shift towards building a low carbon society , and the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, environmental and social – need to be redefined to augment ecosystem services to enable human wellbeing for all.
According to recent scientific consensus arising from an international consultative process the social and biophysical sub-systems are intertwined such that the system’s conditions and responses to external forcing are based on the synergy of the two sub-systems. Consequently, the full global system has to be studied rather than its independent components, as none of the challenges can be fully addressed without addressing the other challenges . The key scientific insight is that in actions for achieving global sustainability environmental change and social transformations are tightly intertwined.
As part of the re-appraisal of current approaches, a new poverty index recently developed by the United Nations stresses lack of services such as electricity as a key factor in determining poverty . To meet an adequate level of access to electricity around that of a mid level developed country like Spain (4500kwh) global emissions will increase by as much as one-third to half of current levels by 2050, and peaking of carbon dioxide emissions will depend on shifts in patterns of resource use in developed countries and the availability of innovative energy technologies in developing countries. Placing energy poverty as a central element in the framework of sustainable development/low carbon green economy requires political decisions for reconciling competing resource needs with respect to maintaining lifestyles and eradication of poverty.
The implication for international cooperation is that in industrialized countries frameworks will be needed to change particular kinds of resource consumption, not middle class lifestyles or human wellbeing, and in developing countries the type of urban infrastructure to be established will largely determine emission levels in 2050. Consequently, the strategic policy issue for decoupling energy use from economic growth will not only be developing efficiency standards and innovative technology for fuel substitutes – ‘impact decoupling’ as developed countries are doing - but also a modal shift in transport patterns and modifying the nature of the urbanization process itself, or, ‘resource decoupling’, as many developing countries are doing.
There is as yet no consensus whether political decisions on equitably sharing the global commons, (the new paradigm) are a precondition for agreement on a global rule-based system, or, incremental steps to develop a rule based system (the old paradigm) will lead to equitable outcomes. There is, however, an emerging consensus that the key drivers for equitable sustainable development should now be defined in terms of enhancing services provided by the global ecosystem for human wellbeing, rather than in terms of merely controlling global environmental degradation. Patterns of natural resource use that are in principle common for all will lead to a more prosperous and safer world.
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About the Author
Mukul Sanwal has held senior policy positions in the Government of India, United Nations Environment Programme and in the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat. He was closely involved with the Rio Conference, 1992, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. He is currently associated with the South Centre, Geneva, and with think tanks in India. These are his personal views.
** The atmosphere and the oceans serve as global commons for the waste carbon dioxide of human activity, and ‘sinks’ include national forests.
* Manufacturing constitutes 45 percent of the GDP of China and uses 74 percent of its energy, while manufacturing is 16 per cent of the GDP of India and uses 45 percent of its energy demand.
 UNEP (2011) Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth, A Report of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Swilling, M., von Weizsäcker, E.U., Ren, Y., Moriguchi, Y., Crane, W., Krausmann, F., Eisenmenger, N., Giljum, S., Hennicke, P., Romero Lankao, P., Siriban Manalang, A. Copyright © United Nations Environment Programme, 2011.
 Ibid. see also Implementation of Agenda 21, the Progrmme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the Outcome of the World Summit on Sustaianble Development, Report of the Secretary General to the General Assembly, SIxxty Sixth Session, A/66, August 9 2011.
 TISS (2010), Conference on Global Carbon Budgets and Equity in Climate Change, 28-29 June 2010, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.
 IEA 2007, Energy in the New Millennium: Trends in IEA Countries, International Energy Agency, 2007.
 UNFCCC, 2011, Report of the Conference of the Parties on its sixteenth session, held in Cancun from 29 November to 10 December 2010: The Cancun Agreements: Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention, Dec 1/CP 16, FCCC/CP/2010/7/Add.1. 25 March 2011, UN.
 ICSU, 2010, Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: The Grand Challenges, International Social Sciences Council, Paris, Oct 2010. See also German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), The World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability – summary for Policymakers, Berlin, March 2011.
 UNDP, 2010, Human Development Report 2010: The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development, Published for the United Nations Development Programme, November 2010.