Accepting Reality, Confronting Ourselves

There is no getting around the fact that material consumption is at the heart of the sustainability crisis – the aggregate “ecological footprint” of humanity is already larger than the Earth. The material challenge for sustainability, therefore, is how to accommodate both rising material expectations and a four billion person population increase over the next 50 years, while actually reducing total throughput. Researchers in various disciplines, from urban spatial planning to materials science, are exploring this conundrum. Re-Thinking Urban Form We have seen that modern cities unwittingly disrupt the ecosystems upon which they depend. To avoid this, should we not be reconsidering how we define city systems, both conceptually and in spatial terms? As presently conceived, cities are incomplete ecosystems, typically occupying less than 1% of the productive area upon which they draw. In whole-systems terms, ‘the city’ com-prises not just this tiny node of consumption, but also the complementary productive hinterland. Whole-systems planning is, of course, some time off. In the meantime, urban regions should at least implement policies to protect the integrity and productivity of local ecosystems and reduce the ecological load imposed on distant systems. This would require rehabilitating their own natural capital stocks and promoting the use of local fisheries, forests, agricultural land, etc. For example, land use planning planners and politicians should find ways to: capitalize on the multifunctionality of green areas (e.g., aesthetic, carbon sink, climate modification, food production, functions) both within and outside the city; more specifically, integrate open space planning with other policies to increase local self-reliance in food production, forest products, water supply, carbon sinks, etc. For example, domestic waste systems should be designed to enable the recycling of compost back onto regional agricultural and forest lands; strive for zero-impact development. The destruction of ecosystems and related biophysical services due to urban growth in one area should be compensated for by equivalent ecosystem rehabilitation in another. Urban Leverage: Good Ecological News About Cities The very factors that make cities weigh so heavily the ecosphere – the concentration of population and consumption – also give cities enormous economic and technical leverage in the quest for global sustainability (Mitlan and Satterthwaite 1994, Rees and Wackernagel 1996). The advantageous economies of scale and agglomeration economies of urban settlements result in: lower costs per capita of providing piped treated water, sewer systems, waste collection, and most other forms of infrastructure and public amenities; a greater range of options for material recycling, re-use, re-manufacturing, and a concentration of the specialized skills and enterprises needed to make these things happen; high population densities which reduce the per capita demand for occupied land; greater possibilities for electricity co-generation, and the use of waste process heat from industry or power plants, to reduce the per capita use of fossil fuel for space-heating; numerous opportunities to implement the principles of low through-put ‘industrial ecology’ (i.e., the creation of closed-circuit industrial parks in which the waste energy or materials of some firms are the essential feed-stocks for others); great potential for reducing (mostly fossil) energy consumption by motor vehicles through walking, cycling, and public transit. Walker and Rees (1997) provide a graphic illustration of the economies associated with housing type and attendant urban form. They show that the increased density and attendant energy and material savings associated with high-rise apartments, compared to single-family houses, reduces that part of the per capita urban ecological footprint associated with housing type and related transportation needs by about 40%. Such gains occur independent of building materials used. Similarly, Kenworthy and Laube (1996) detail how personal energy consumption associated with transportation needs is dramatically inversely related to urban density. Technological Efficiency Gains: The “Factor-10” Ideal… Various studies show that sustainability requires a massive reduction in materials consumption approaching 50% world-wide (e.g., Schmidt-Bleek 1993). However, the material intensity of consumption in industrial countries must be reduced by a factor of ten to accommodate the need for additional income growth in the developing world (Ekins and Jacobs 1994; RMNO 1994a,b). Even the Business Council for Sustainable Development has agreed that “industrial world reductions in material throughput, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means” (BCSD 1993). Clearly, one necessary factor in achieving sustainability must be a new “efficiency revolution” (Young and Sachs 1994). …and a Cautionary Note Many growth advocates assert that the market alone will produce efficiency gains capable of decoupling growth from the environment. This argument is flawed for several reasons. First, material efficiency has, in fact, increased greatly in recent decades. However, because the resultant savings can lead to higher wages and lower prices for an ever wider range of goods and services, they may actually increase gross consumption! The most recent studies of resource flows in a selection of high income countries found that the average citizen now requires 45-85 metric tons of natural resources (excluding air and water) annually – including 17 to 38 metric tons of direct material inputs – to produce his/her goods and services. Thus while these countries have seen some reduction in the ratio of resource inputs per unit GDP since 1975, there has also been “in most, a gradual rise in per capita natural resource use.” We can only conclude that “meaningful dematerialization, in the sense of an absolute reduction in natural resource use, is not yet taking place” (WRI 1997,2). Second, remember that in global terms, by far the bulk of material growth in the next few decades will take place in the less-developed countries. These countries account for 75% of the world’s population and, since growth here starts from a much smaller base, it has further to climb. Moreover, this massive expansion is less likely to benefit from efficient technologies than is growth in the developed world. Finally, free markets and market-based processes do not and cannot reflect ecological reality for a variety of theoretical and practical reasons. These range from the fact that prices reflect only short-term market supply and demand (and not true ecological scarcity) to the inability of markets to cope with lags, thresholds, and other discontinuities in the behaviour of natural systems under stress (see Rees and Wackernagel 1998). In these circumstances, the prices of raw commodities and manufactured goods alike are almost always far below the true social costs of recovering, transforming, using, and disposing of the resources involved. Free markets thus produce artificially low prices, and it is an economic axiom that under-pricing leads to overuse. Much of today’s sustainability crisis derives from the fact that prices do not reflect the hidden resource depletion and pollution damage costs of economic goods and services. Ecology and Fiscal Reform: Taxing our Way to Sustainability In these circumstances, governments have positive role to create the necessary policy incentives to ensure that even as consumption rises, the material and energy content of that consumption falls apace. Achieving a “factor_10” economy will require major changes in fiscal and taxation policy, industrial strategy, and consumer-corporate relations. However, if managed properly, the net effect of this transformation should be not only less consumption and waste but also more jobs and increased regional self-reliance (Weizsäcker and Jesinghaus 1992, Rees 1995a,b, Roodman 1997). Most importantly, approaching the “factor-10” ideal will require replacing present subsidies by systems of resource use and depletion taxes off-set by corresponding reductions in other taxes, particularly on labour. By raising prices closer to the full social cost of goods and services, taxes on energy and resources create an incentive for industry to minimize material throughput; meanwhile, lower labour costs further increase workers’ comparative advantage over capital helping to create jobs. Reducing income/payroll taxes in proportion to resource tax hikes also makes the reform package revenue neutral so there may be no increase in the average fiscal burden. Thus, unlike regulation or add-on pollution charges, ecological tax reform, properly implemented, would not jeopardize international competitiveness.
source: The Built Environment See also XlnkS43D

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