Across the global economy, there is an urgent need to tackle unsustainable patterns of consumption. The planet’s capacity to support human consumption is finite, and a recent assessment reveals serious imminent threats to multiple physical and biological systems that are key to human well-being. Consumption practices must change for this pressure to ease.
There is broad global agreement on the need for action. ‘Ensuring sustainable consumption choices’ is Target 16 of the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) agreed under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a treaty to which 196 states are party.
Accounting for ‘offshore’ impacts of consumption
Yet to move from target to action, government policymakers need an accurate picture of how consumption in their economies relates to environmental impacts both at home and abroad. The effects of consumption are often felt some distance from where it takes place. Pig farms in China, hungry for feed, contribute to the clearance of forests and other ecosystems in South America. Rice eaten in Belgium puts pressure on water supplies in India and Pakistan. And the wood pulp plantations that threaten Indonesian forests supply cellulose for fashion retailers all over the world.
Some countries ‘offshore’ more of their impacts than others, with a greater proportion of the environmental damage linked to their consumption taking place outside their own territory. For government interventions in national consumption patterns to address sustainability outcomes where they are most material, these offshore impacts must be properly accounted for.
An accurate accounting of the overseas impacts of consumption can also support interventions that promote fairness. This is an explicit concern in the language of Target 16, which aims not only to “reduce the global footprint of consumption”, but to do so “in an equitable manner”.
The overseas footprint of a country arguably amounts to a subsidy of its economy and standard of living by ecological destruction which is most keenly felt by the populations of other countries. With this in mind, it is troubling that many of the nations with larger offshore impacts are wealthier (whether in absolute or per capita terms) than those which most directly experience the environmental impact of their consumption.
Aligning on measurement
Since accounting for trade dynamics is crucial to the overall goals of Target 16, it is important that parties to the CBD reach alignment on frameworks, methods and data sources for measuring these effects. To date, they have not yet agreed on a headline indicator to serve as the main metric for progress, though four component indicators were selected in December 2022 at a Conference of the Parties (COP15).
Among these is the Global Environment Impacts of Consumption (GEIC) indicator, developed by a partnership of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Defra, the GCRF Trade Hub, SEI York and Trase. Previously, it provided principally an estimate of the overseas tropical and subtropical deforestation associated with a country's consumption of crop, cattle-related and timber commodities. These impacts, as well as water and biodiversity related results, could be broken down by commodity.
A new version of GEIC has just been released. It now goes beyond tropical and subtropical forests to consider impacts on temperate and boreal forests, and incorporates additional spatially explicit data to connect crop expansion to forest loss with greater precision. The new version also provides access to information on the impacts of consumption of over 140 individually distinct economies, up from 44 in a previous version, with other economies represented in aggregated groupings. These updates bring GEIC closer to addressing the needs of state parties for a comprehensive, trade-informed measure of progress on Target 16.
From measurement to action
The holistic measure provided by GEIC data – accessible online through the Commodity Footprints dashboard – offers a starting point for governments in assessing their trade-related consumption footprints. As a hotspotting tool, it highlights agricultural commodities and producing countries of particular interest, and reveals trends in their significance over time.
Used in combination with other data sources, such as industry disclosure, this can guide and support investment in more detailed assessments, deeper engagement by policymakers with key sectors, and the design of consumer-focused campaigns and interventions.
A nuanced understanding of overseas consumption impacts can also support governments in putting sustainability on the diplomatic and trade agenda. This could include collaborations with other importing countries which are linked to similar impacts in the same regions, as well as engagement with and material support for the countries bearing the brunt of an economy’s overseas impacts.
GEIC data can be accessed at the Commodity Footprints dashboard.