UNEP Launches New Life-Cycle Initiative

UNEP Launches New Life-Cycle Initiative

The United Nations Environment Program has announced a new collaboration with the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, aimed at helping governments, businesses, and consumers to adopt more environmently friendly policies, practices, and lifestyles.

UNEP says that the new program, called the Life-Cycle Initiative, is a response to growing environmental risk created by rapidly rising consumption patterns around the world. The program will develop and disseminate practical tools for evaluating the opportunities, risks, and trade-offs associated with products and services over their whole life-cycle.

"As the world population grows - and it is poised to expand 50% by 2050 - it will be accompanied by an extraordinary growth in consumption," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s executive director. "Meeting the growing consumption demands of all people while at the same time preserving Earth's natural resources requires new ways of thinking, innovation of new technology and new business models."

According to "Tomorrow's Markets", the money spent on household consumption worldwide increased 68% between 1980 and 1998. The bulk of this was in "high-income" countries. Purchases by consumers in low-income countries represented less that 4% of all private consumption. However, purchases in low-income countries are rising and the impacts could be dramatic. For example, television ownership increased five-fold in the East Asia and Pacific region from 1985-1997. And, 200 million vehicles would be added to the global fleet if car ownership in China, India and Indonesia were the same as the current world average of 90 cars per 1,000 population.

"Based on the 'from cradle to grave' or even better, 'from cradle to cradle' approach, the Life-Cycle Initiative will help address problems such as finding alternatives to hazardous substances in products like lead, as well as better systems of eco-labelling and product design,” Toepfer said. "With its focus on sharing of information and closing the knowledge gap between developed and developing countries, the initiative will critically help translate life-cycle thinking into practice.”

According to UNEP, there are many examples of what has been achieved through the cleaner production approach. In Denmark, five plants on an industrial estate have cooperated with one another, with local authorities, and with local farms to utilize each other's wastes, making savings in energy and water worth $12 to 15 million a year. In Brazil, liquid effluent per ton of production from one particular factory is now less than 5% of what it was in 1990 - a 20-fold improvement.

"The high, unsustainable consumption of the world's affluent consumers can have a negative impact on the environment that is disproportionate to their numbers," said Toepfer. "Our challenge is to change consumption practices in richer countries while at the same time bringing new tools to the table, like the Life-Cycle Initiative, that will ultimately help tackle poverty and ensure a safe and secure environment for long-term sustainable development."