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Enlightened self-interest is key to reducing consumption, expert says

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohan Munasinghe favors a bottom-up approach to achieving sustainable consumption that appeals to the self-interest of wealthy individuals and communities.

A foot print in the sand

Munasinghe appeals to the self-interest of the world's richest

Sri Lankan economist and physicist Mohan Munasinghe chairs the Munasinghe Insitute of Development and serves as professor of sustainable development at the University of Manchester's Sustainable Consumption Institute. In 2007, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize as Vice Chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Munasinghe talked with Deutsche Welle about his agenda known as the Millennium Consumption Goals and how he hopes to achieve them.

Deutsche Welle: The Milliennium Consumption Goals (MCG) are well known, but what ideas are you proposing for meeting consumer goals?

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Mohan Munasinghe: I proposed the Millennium Consumption Goals at the UN six months ago as an item to be taken up at Rio+20, the 2012 UN conference on sustainable consumption. The idea is very simple. The world is facing problems because of unsustainable consumption and production, like the financial economic crisis, energy and water shortages, climate change and so on.

If you look at the structure of consumption and production, you'll find that the top 20 percent of the global population - 1.4 billion people - are responsible for 85 percent of consumption. So in a nutshell, we are saying these are the people who are putting the greatest burden on the world's resources and are causing the problem.

Therefore instead of looking at them as a problem, let us see them as part of the solution. If we can reach them and, through voluntary mechanisms, make their consumption more sustainable, we can reduce the burden on carbon emissions, water, energy, waste products, food and so on.

How do you want to do that?

The MCG is a multi-level initiative. It has been engaged at the UN and government level, but these processes are slow because leaders are taking a lot of time to make the changes. We are finding a tremendous response at the lower level, which is the level of cities, businesses, communities and individuals. We are appealing to the 1.4 billion richer consumers, who are better educated, better motivated and more able to do things. We tell people: We are moving into a world of resource scarcity, so if you learn to live in a more efficient way, you'll be better equipped when you go into the future.

We're telling the businesses the same thing, and they accept it. The enlightened leaders of big businesses now find that if they make their businesses more energy efficient, more climate efficient and so on, they will be able to compete better in the future. So, that's where enlightened self-interest comes in. This is at the intermediate and lower level, so it's very much bottom-up voluntarism.

Do you have concrete goals like reducing a certain number of items or a certain amount of energy consumed?

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Yes, we do, but they're flexible. I want to avoid the impression that we're the consumption police coming to tell everyone what they can and cannot consume.

At the global level, we have the concept of what is called the ecological footprint of humanity. At the moment, we are consuming as a human race 1.2 times the regenerative capacity of the planet earth. By 2030, we will be consuming two planet earths, so it is unsustainable. We can set clear targets for carbon emissions, for water, energy, food and so on, which are sustainable at the global level. But it can also apply at lower levels. Every city can work out that they will reduce their carbon footprint in 10 years time by 50 percent, and they can use renewable energy.

I have talked to major cities in Germany - for example, Munich, Frankfurt, Bonn - and they're willing to do this. And there are companies saying they will reduce water use or carbon emissions in their production process. There's a tremendous response at various levels, and each person can look at what they're consuming or producing to set their own target.

There's an old argument that underdeveloped or un-developed countries need to consume more first before they can worry about climate change control mechanisms and so on. What do you tell all these millions of Chinese people and Indian people who want to drive cars now?

Well very briefly, this is not a north-south type of debate because there are also rich people in the poor countries who are trying to imitate the unsustainable consumption patterns of the rich countries. And there are poor people in rich countries as well.

We're appealing to these richer people, not only in richer countries but also in poorer countries. Because we still feel that the poor must increase their consumption levels in a more sustainable way, not by way of the same path as the rich.

In your vision, when will the poor people who are supposed to benefit from this concept really benefit from it?

Well, this is only a start. The MCG are one brick in a building that we call sustainable development, and there are many other bricks that have to go in, like equitable growth, a green economy and so on.

But it is nevertheless a new way of thinking of the problem. It is a way of telling the rich that they also have a responsibility for the way the world is, and they have to bring about predictable change. Because unpredictable change can be good, but it can also be very bad. What we're saying is: Before we go off the edge of the cliff, let us stop and try to make smaller corrections starting with the rich and the influential who should know better. This is enlightened self-interest.

Interview: Anke Rasper / gsw
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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