A Socio-economic Metabolism Approach to Sustainable Development and Climate Change Mitigation

Timothy M. Baynes and Daniel B. Müller

Abstract Humanity faces three large challenges over the coming decades: urbanisation and industrialisation in developing countries at unprecedented levels; concurrently, we need to mitigate against dangerous climate change and we need to consider finite global boundaries regarding resource depletion.

Responses to these challenges as well as models that inform strategies are fragmented. The current mainstream framework for measuring and modelling climate change mitigation focuses on the flows of energy and emissions and is insufficient for simultaneously addressing the material and infrastructure needs of development. The models' inability to adequately represent the multiple interactions between infrastructure stocks, materials, energy and emissions results in notable limitations. They are inadequate: (1) to identify physically realistic (mass balance consistent) mitigation pathways, (2) to anticipate potentially relevant co-benefits and risks and thus (3) to identify the most effective strategies for linking targets for climate change mitigation with goals for sustainable development, including poverty eradication, infrastructure investment and mitigation of resource depletion.

This chapter demonstrates that a metabolic approach has the potential to address urbanisation and infrastructure development and energy use and climate change, as well as resource use, and therefore to provide a framework for integrating climate change mitigation and sustainable development from a physical perspective. Metabolic approaches can represent the cross-sector coupling between material and energy use and waste (emissions) and also stocks in the anthroposphere (including fixed assets, public and private infrastructure). Stocks moderate the supply of services such as shelter, communication, mobility, health and safety and employment opportunities.

The development of anthropogenic stocks defines boundary conditions for industrial activity over time. By 2050 there will be an additional three billion urban dwellers, almost all of them in developing countries. If they are to receive the level of services converging on those currently experienced in developed nations, this will entail a massive investment in infrastructure and substantial quantities of steel, concrete and aluminium (materials that account for nearly half of industrial emissions). This scenario is confronted by the legacy of existing infrastructure and the limit of a cumulative carbon budget within which we could restrain global temperature rise to <2 °C.

A metabolic framework incorporating stock dynamics can make an explicit connection between the timing of infrastructure growth or replacement and the material and energy needs of that investment. Moreover, it provides guidance on the technical and systemic options for climate mitigation concurrent with a future of intense urban development and industrialisation.

Keywords Climate change • Cross-sector coupling • Embodied energy and emissions • Flows • Infrastructure • Metabolic framework • MFA • Socio-economic metabolism • Stocks

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