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Shifting policy gears to effect a global transition towards sustainable lifestyles

Fifty years since the Stockholm conference when the global community recognized the effects of human intervention on environmental degradation, the world continues to use resources and generate waste beyond our planet’s capacity to sustain. In this paper, the authors argue that resource-intensive lifestyles of the global rich and rising inequality underpin these issues and that reimagining the way people consume and their lifestyles is integral to solving this intricate problem.

Published on 18 May 2022
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Agrawal, S. and Kalra, S. (2022). Shifting policy gears to effect a global transition towards sustainable lifestyles. Stockholm+50 background paper series. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm.

A global shift to sustainable lifestyles would require building an overarching culture of sustainability and an underlying infrastructure of sustainable products and services. Based on a review of the literature, Agrawal and Kalra propose three levers of change that can guide the transition to sustainable living – nudging individuals towards sustainable choices, enabling markets through green policies and redefining social norms to make sustainability aspirational.

The authors discuss case studies that have worked in diverse geographies and also acknowledge the challenges and risks that could hinder the desired transition to sustainable living. An integrated approach to using the proposed levers across key lifestyle domains combined with international cooperation to share finance, technology and best practices, and leadership by countries with high lifestyle footprints would be essential to accelerate action at national and sub-national levels across the world.

The transition to sustainable lifestyles would have to be facilitated by a socio-technical shift to a world where sustainable choices are convenient, aspirational and embedded in the societal norms.

The unprecedented economic growth that the world has witnessed over the past two centuries has significantly helped improve the quality of life for a vast section of the global population. The average global GDP per capita has grown by nearly 15 times between 1820 and 2018. However, this economic transition has been accompanied by the phenomenon of ‘global ecological overshoot’ since 1970, implying that the global demand on natural resources (ecological footprint) exceeds our ecosystems’ capacity to regenerate (biocapacity).

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 recognized the effects of human intervention on environmental degradation. As part of the conference, for the first time in human history, it was accepted on a global platform that humans are responsible for irreversible and unprecedented change caused to the natural environment, faster than the scale at which Earth can regenerate itself. The declaration provided a framework of mutual dependency between humans and the planet while establishing that each human being has a right to dignity of life supported by a healthy environment. The Stockholm declaration laid out the principles for international cooperation on environmental issues, and paved the way for the emergence of a global agenda and institutions for sustainable development.

This paper is part of a series that supports the Stockholm+50: Unlocking a better future report.


Download the background paper / PDF / 1 MB

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