World Environment Day 2015 was celebrated on June 5 with the UN tagline: “Seven billion dreams. One Planet. Consume with care”. The theme echoed concerns about the unsustainable consumption patterns that dominate our planet.
Rapid urbanization and industrialization, demographic and economic growth, make sustainable consumption and production (SCP) remarkably relevant in the context of the Asia-Pacific region including Indonesia. The UN defines SCP as a holistic approach to minimize the negative environmental impact from consumption and production systems while promoting quality of life for all. The UN Environment Program (UNEP) suggests four key SCP principles for analysis and policy action.
These principles also include decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation. Decoupling refers to the ability of an economy to grow without corresponding increases in environmental pressure. Thus, an economy that is able to sustain gross domestic product (GDP) growth without having a negative impact on environmental conditions is said to be decoupled.
In the context of Asia and particularly Indonesia, changing the growth model could become a driver for a new industrial system, which does not replicate the resource intense development of industrialized countries. We should leapfrog them by skipping polluting technologies and move directly to cleaner and more advanced systems, as explained by the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).
New renewable energy technologies that were either not available or unaffordable are now providing a major new economic opportunity. An example is based on my recent involvement in the appraisal of proposals on rural electrification with renewable energy sources in remote areas of Indonesia.
The US government is assisting the government in the provision of renewable energy technologies to communities in remote areas. The program highlights the importance of community involvement in the projects, with the use of electricity from renewable sources.
The selected areas were initially non-electrified and disconnected from the grid. This is a sound example of decoupling and leapfrogging in Indonesia, yet the challenge now is to move beyond mere experimental projects to more wide-ranging implementations.
Sustainable practices create jobs. Their private sector plays a pivotal role in shifting society toward SCP. While consumers typically have limited knowledge of the full life-cycles of the products they buy, producers are in a much better position to apply a life-cycle perspective to their operations and supply chains and initiate improvements.
However industrial sectors must avoid “green-washing” or the over-spending of financial resources on “green-branding”, rather than the actual work of minimizing environmental impacts. Ultimately, consumers also have the sovereignty to make an informed choice on sustainable alternatives. Beyond eco-labeling, consumers should put on their “environmental thinking caps” prior to determining their choices.
During a visit to the Bank of America headquarters in New York, I found that there were sustainable and innovative aspects of the building such as air conditioning that blows from the floors that was proven to minimize energy use.
However, although building materials were made from recycled materials, they were imported from the Middle East. Thus the transportation would have consumed more fuel than using locally-sourced materials.
Similarly, in developed countries, electric cars were touted as “sustainable”. But how sustainable is it if the electric cars are using electricity produced in coal power plants as the main source? It would of course be more sustainable if the source of electricity used 100 percent renewable energy sources.
Or better yet, it would be more sustainable for the city if the residents take public buses using bio-fuel or used cooking oil, as is the case in some cities in Japan.
Organic food is now becoming a household name as a more sustainable alternative. Although it is pesticides-free, chemical-free and was labeled as such, consumers must also consider from where the organic foods originated. Again, it is an issue of locality. When living in Japan, I lived in an apartment in front of an organic agricultural field.
The farmer was a Kyoto University graduate in agricultural science. I learned that he sold his vegetables locally, but within a specific association, and the members of this association were well-informed regarding how the vegetables were planted.
The French thinker René Descartes philosophically proposed: Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Consumers have the power. Think before we consume.
Aretha Aprilia is an environmental consultant who served as a technical expert at the GIZ company.