Working Group III: Mitigation

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It is clear from the preceding discussion that governments’ commitments to sustainable development require indicators by which decision makers can evaluate their performance in achieving specific goals and targets. Furthermore, such indicators are essential, first to capture the complex interlinkages between the basic building blocks of sustainable development (environment, economic activity, and the social fabric), and second to balance the unavoidable trade-offs between the main policy issues related to each of these blocks (development, equity, and sustainability).

It is difficult to generalize about sustainable development policies and choices. Sustainability implies and requires diversity, flexibility, and innovation. Thus, there cannot be one “rightful” path of sustainable development that leads finally to a blissful state of sustainability (Bossel, 1998). Depending upon differences among individual countries (size, level of industrialization, cultural values, etc.) as well as on the heterogeneity within countries, policy choices are meant to introduce changes in:

  • Technological patterns of natural resource use, production of goods and services, and final consumption. These encompass individual technological options and choices as well as overall technological systems. Sustainable development on a global scale requires radical technological changes focused on the efficient use of materials and energy for the sufficient coverage of needs, and with minimum impact on the environment, society, and future. This is of particular importance in developing countries, in which a major part of the infrastructure needed can avoid past practices and move more rapidly towards technologies that use resources in a more sustainable way, recycle more wastes and products, and handle residual wastes in a more acceptable manner. As discussed in Chapter 3, the range of opportunities is extensive enough to cope with different development styles and national circumstances, but what is even more important, economic potential increases as result of the continuous process of technological change and innovation. A number of technologies that less than 10 years ago were at the laboratory-prototype stage are now available in the markets. Issues on barriers and opportunities for technology development, transfer, and diffusion at the national level are discussed in Chapter 5 and Section 10.3.3 below.
  • Structural changes in the production system. Economic growth continues to be a widely pursued objective of most governments and, therefore, policy decisions on development patterns may have direct impacts on both raw material and the energy content of production. Structural changes towards services or a low energy-intensity industrial base may or may not affect the overall level of economic activity, but could have significant impacts on the energy content of goods and services.
  • Spatial distribution patterns of population and economic activities. Country-wide policies on the geographical distribution of human settlements and productive activities impact on sustainable development at three levels: on the evolution of land uses, on mobility needs and transport requirements, and on the energy requirements. These factors are of utmost relevance for most developing countries, in which spatial distributions of the population and of economic activities are not yet settled. Therefore, these countries are in a position to adopt urban and/or regional planning and industrial policies directed towards a more balanced use of their geographical space.
  • Behavioural patterns that determine the evolution of lifestyles. Consumption behaviours, and individual choices in general, have a critical influence on sustainable development. After all, sustainability is a global project that requires big and small daily contributions from almost everybody (Bossel, 1998). Personal opportunities and freedom of choices are embedded in cultures and habits, but these are also shaped and supported by the products and services provided by the economic system, as well as by the organization and administration at all levels. Within the boundaries of individual freedom, government policies can discourage unsound consumption styles and encourage more sustainable social behaviour through the adoption of financial incentives (subsidies), disincentives (taxes), legal constraints, and the provision of wider choices of infrastructure and services. This point is elaborated further in Section

The set of specific policies, measures, and instruments to mitigate climate change and consequently promote sustainable development is quite large. These include generic policies oriented to induce changes in the behaviour of economic agents, or control and regulatory measures to achieve specific targets at the sectoral level. A comprehensive discussion of various aspects of different types of policies and measures is presented in Chapter 6. Here it is important to note, first, that sustainability issues cannot be addressed by single isolated measures, but they require a whole set of integrated and mutually reinforced policies. Second, weights assigned to different policies depend on individual countries according to their national circumstances and specific priorities. Third, the cause–effect reaction in the process of policy implementation is not linear. Except in trivial cases, policies tend to disrupt existing patterns, social systems create and respond to changes within themselves through feedback loops, and new patterns emerge as social, economic, and environmental aspects interact in the process of convergence towards the desired goals.

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