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Sustainable consumption for policymakers: measuring, learning and acting

Time: Fri 2019-12-06 13.00

Location: F3, Lindstedtsvägen 26, Stockholm (English)

Subject area: Planning and Decision Analysis

Doctoral student: Elena Dawkins , Hållbar utveckling, miljövetenskap och teknik, Stockholm Environment Institute

Opponent: Professor Paul Ekins, UCL

Supervisor: Adjungerad Professor Viveka Palm, Hållbar utveckling, miljövetenskap och teknik; Professor Mattias Höjer, Hållbar utveckling, miljövetenskap och teknik; Docent Åsa Persson, Stockholm Environment Institute

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Current patterns and levels of consumption are a key driver of unsustainable resource use and pollution, which contributes to global environmental degradation. Rapid reductions in environmental pressures are required to avoid irreversible loss of fragile ecosystems and social and economic crises. Consumption must become sustainable. Governments have an essential role to play in delivering this. The aim of this thesis is to examine three aspects of the policymaking process on sustainable consumption – measuring, learning and acting – and the links between them. Each aspect has a linked objective.

  1. Measuring: Assess existing and novel techniques for calculating the environmental pressures of consumption that enable government to measure and monitor a country’s progress towards sustainable consumption
  2. Learning: Determine whether – and, if so, how – consumption-based indicators might better support policymaker learning on sustainable consumption
  3. Acting: Identify ways in which governments can enhance their actions to support sustainable consumption

The research is presented in six papers and organised in three parts: one for each objective. Parts 1 and 2 investigate current and future opportunities for policymakers to measure the environmental pressures linked to their country’s consumption, what these mean for achieving sustainable consumption and whether consumption-based indicators support learning about sustainable consumption. These parts are based on the Swedish experience of sustainable consumption. Part 3 examines various sustainable consumption interventions and what these could mean for government action in the future. This part draws on examples from several countries. Qualitative and quantitative methods are used to answer these questions. These comprise systematic review and mapping, macro-environment economic modelling and analysis, interviews, workshops and focus groups.

The results provide a number of insights. First, novel consumption-based measurements for Sweden highlight the scale of the challenge involved in achieving sustainable consumption and the importance of increasing the policy applicability of indicators. Second, while indicators provide some learning for policymakers, their contribution to changing existing practices and navigating political or institutional barriers is limited. The learning potential of indicators is constrained by institutional environments. Instead, learning must be structured and enabled by institutions. Third, with regard to the actions studied, increased government involvement appears a necessary and, to some actors, desirable option. Nonetheless, a number of barriers to and enabling factors for policy action to promote sustainable consumption must be considered. In terms of the connections between the three elements of measuring, learning and acting, what might first appear to be a linear relationship is in reality far more complex. Measurement does not necessarily lead to learning – and learning is not always followed by action. Policymakers act without the level of knowledge they would like while indicators remain unused and, in some cases, are even rejected. Learning comes from practitioners’ involvement in action, as well as research into the actions themselves, the problem and solutions. Understanding government efforts on measuring, learning and action to promote sustainable consumption offers insights into how these multiple factors might contribute, separately and together, to more sustainable consumption.