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10 Basic Conditions for Approaching Sustainability

1. The extension of current patterns of Western consumption and resource use to the whole of the world’s population is not possible because of insufficient natural resources and the environmental impacts of their mobilisation through the human economy. Already natural thresholds for ecological security have been exceeded, in respect especially of greenhouse gas emissions, the extinction of species, and the depletion of renewable resources such as water, forests and fish. For these reasons, the most fundamental requirement for moving towards a sustainable human economy is to dematerialise (5) human economic activities and reduce as far as possible the environmental impacts of resource use. A vast range of technical possibilities to achieve this already exist, but they remain largely unimplemented because of a lack of economic incentives to do so.

2. The human economy must be constrained to function within the limits of the environment and its resources and in such a way that it works with the grain of, rather than against, natural laws and processes. This argues for a strong conception of sustainability, whereby the economy respects and adapts to ecological imperatives, rather than seeking to substitute manufactured for natural capital where the former fails to deliver the full range of functions and services of the latter.

3. Consideration of current material flows and their ecological implications, and taking account of expected population growth, has led us to conclude that by 2050 the total global mobilisation of natural resources for human use should not exceed 5-6 tonnes per person per year, while the emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases should be limited to 2 tonnes of CO2-equivalent per person per year. These goals imply an enormous increase in the resource productivity of industrial economies: in Germany, for example, a Factor 10 improvement in resource productivity, at a rate of approximately 5% p.a. from now, would need to be achieved. Only by dematerialising their economies in this way will the industrial countries free up the necessary resources and ecological space to allow an economic growth in developing countries that does not exceed the natural limits of the global environment.

4. Incremental resource-saving innovations related to existing technology are important but will not deliver these long-term targets. Radical eco-innovations (6) are required that not only replace existing with completely new technologies, but which rethink whole systems to deliver the services that are the goal of economic activity with a small fraction of the natural resources. Those who pioneer these innovations must be assured that it is to them that the markets of the future, and associated profits, will belong.

5. Policies must therefore be urgently reoriented towards material-saving technical progress. The whole direction of technical change in industrial societies, which has been focused on increasing labour productivity, must change to promote resource productivity. This implies a fundamental change in the economic incentives that drive technical progress, both to squeeze out the manifold inefficiencies in the use of resources by current technologies, and to kick-start the radical eco-innovation that is required.

6. The Lindau Group has a preference for economic instruments – environmental taxes and tax reform, trading schemes and other measures that give explicit prices to the use of natural resources and the emission of pollutants – because of the way they work with the grain of markets and give transparent incentives for increased resource productivity without specifying particular technologies. However, because of market failures and political considerations, such instruments will often need to be complemented with other policy measures, such as information and coordination policies, voluntary agreements and regulation of outcomes, products and processes. In particular, policies complementary to economic instruments will be required to ensure that the required increases in resource productivity are achieved in ways that are fair and do not bear disproportionately on those who are relatively poor or otherwise disadvantaged.

7. The way human societies treat and use the environment and its resources ultimately reflects their value-systems as expressed in their lifestyles and environmental behaviours. Social values change slowly, but such change can be promoted and supported by education. It is vital that, through education, human societies become much more aware than at present both of the fundamental role of the environment and its resources in underpinning economic activity and generating human welfare more broadly, and of the extent of the threats to the environment that may prevent it playing that role to the necessary extent in the future.

8. The monitoring of progress towards greater resource efficiency, and the comparison of the ecological performance of countries, regions, systems, firms, products, services, processes and procedures, will require a range of appropriate indicators (7) that are robust, informative, cost-efficient, practicable and internationally recognised. They must also take account of the full life-cycle impacts of their subject, and be available on a per capita and per product and per service unit basis, to link the impacts being indicated directly to population levels. Extensive further data generation, research and development will be required to make the necessary indicator framework fully operational.

9. Many (especially economic) institutions will need to be reformed in order to take account of and pursue the new imperative of resource productivity: government departments, educational and research institutions, and statistical offices. However, there is a case for the creation of a major new public institution, that generates, validates and publishes relevant data and information, and state of the art developments and experiences, and that carries out policy analysis and gives policy support. It should also support educational and training measures and could administer an award scheme for outstanding ecological performance or developments that promote resource productivity.

10. Because of the time lags associated with technological innovation and diffusion, the large-scale dematerialisation of economic activity may take several decades. Because of this, and because of the strains on natural systems that are already apparent, it is essential that measures, policies and processes to begin large-scale dematerialisation at the necessary rate are developed and adopted without further delay.

Osnabrück, September 12th., 2008

  • Prof. Paul Ekins, PhD., Kings College, London
  • Prof. Dr. Lorenz Hilty, Empa, St. Gallen
  • Prof. Dr. Harry Lehmann, Umweltbundesamt, Dessau
  • Prof. Dr. Bernd Meyer, Universität Osnabrück
  • Prof. Dr. Friedrich Schmidt- Bleek, Factor 10 Institute, Carnoules
  • Prof. Dr. Friedrich Schneider, Universität Linz
  • Prof. Dr. Ulrich Witt, Max Planck Insitut für Ökonomik, Jena


(1) Factor 10 Institute, Carnoules, France; www.factor10-institute.org
(2) University of Osnabrück, and Gesellschaft für Wirtschaftliche Strukturforschung (GWS), Osnabrück, Germany. Diese E-Mail-Adresse ist vor Spambots geschützt! Zur Anzeige muss JavaScript eingeschaltet sein!, www.gws-os.de.
(3) F. Schmidt-Bleek: Nutzen wir die Erde richtig? Von der Arbeit des Menschen und den Leistungen der Natur. Fischer Taschenbuch. Frankfurt 2006. Chinese Translation 2007, English edition in 2008.
(4) B. Meyer: Wie muss die Wirtschaft umgebaut werden? Perspektiven einer nachhaltigeren Entwicklung. Fischer Taschenbuch, Frankfurt 2008. English edition in 2009.
(5) Dematerialisation in this context is taken to mean the radical reduction in the use of all materials by humans, where materials comprise, metals, non-metallic minerals, fossil fuels, water (marine, fresh, renewable and non-renewable), the atmosphere, and renewable resources such as ecosystems, forests and fish. With respect to the latter especially, a very important additional consideration is the limitation and regulation of land-use by humans.
(6) Eco-innovation was defined in the INNOVA EUROPE Report of the European Commission as: "The creation of novel and competitively priced goods, processes, systems, services and procedures that can satisfy human needs and bring quality of life to all people with a life-cycle-wide minimum use of natural resources (material, including energy carriers and surface area) per unit output, and a minimal release of toxic substances".
(7) Such indicators include TMR (Total Material Requirement of an economy in tonnes); MIPS (Material Intensity Per unit of Service, in kg.); and the ecological rucksack (total natural material needed for the manufacturing of a product, minus the mass of the product, in kg.)


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