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Sustainable living space in a world of limits: a need for dialogue

Challenges to ecological and social sustainability require us to integrate limits to resource consumption into all areas, including residential space

By: EBR - Posted: Friday, August 27, 2021

"Multiple socio-ecological crises challenge our societies to reconfigure patterns of resource consumption."
"Multiple socio-ecological crises challenge our societies to reconfigure patterns of resource consumption."

by Doris Fuchs*

Challenges to ecological and social sustainability require us to integrate limits to resource consumption into all areas, including residential space, write Doris Fuchs, Sylvia Lorek, Pia Mamut and Nils Blossey.

Multiple socio-ecological crises challenge our societies to reconfigure patterns of resource consumption. As we are increasingly approaching the exhaustion of planetary boundaries, sustainability and a societal dialogue about how to achieve it need to be introduced to all spheres of human life.

Next to nutrition and mobility, housing is the major driver of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to switching to renewable energies and energy-saving refurbishment measures, recent studies suggest that also limits to residential space might be required to sufficiently reduce energy consumption.

Importantly, the introduction of such measures does not pursue an introduction of lower standards of living, but rather careful planning and inclusive political processes to ascertain what sustainable living spaces that take account of social minima and ecological maxima can look like.

Clearly, humans need to be endowed with a minimum amount of material resources and space to be capable of attaining physical and psychological wellbeing – for many people especially in the Global South this would correspond to more, rather than less space and resources.

Thus, scholars and practitioners have outlined a range of minimum space standards for basic needs satisfaction regarding housing, which are partially based on context-specific parameters in terms of location and building.

Rao and Min, for instance, define a household space of 30m2 for up to three inhabitants and an additional minimum of 10m2 per each further person as a minimum threshold to provide decent living conditions.

The NYC Building Code, in turn, identifies as a standard that at least one room in a dwelling unit must have a size of 13,9 to 20m2, for example. Societal minima for living space may also vary depending on cultural and regional contexts.

Finally, discussions of minimum housing requirements are also driven by rising real estate prices and rents as well as shrinking space in metropolitan areas.

On the other end of the spectrum, the average size of residential homes in advanced economies has generally increased despite declining household size. As home size increases, so does the associated consumption of energy and other resources.

From a perspective of planetary boundaries, therefore, it becomes clear that we also need to engage in a societal dialogue about consumption maxima with respect to residential space.

In this vein, recent studies have calculated how much space an individual could use from a one-planet-perspective and assuming intra- and intergenerational justice. In such calculations, Lettenmeier arrives at an estimated target of 20m2 of residential space per capita.

Grubler et al. attribute more potential to improvements in energy efficiency and arrive at an estimate of 30m2 per capita (in 2050), which equals the present average in the Global North. For a family of four, then, estimates of residential space beyond which ecological boundaries are endangered range between 80-120m2.

Thinking about both social minima and ecological maxima is important for the future wellbeing of humans on this planet. Indeed, they belong together, as the concept of consumption corridors delineates.

However, whereas social minimum standards for housing easily evoke broad approval, thinking about upper limits to residential space is considerably more challenging. Maxima to residential space inevitably lead to conflicts of interest between members of society, which need to be balanced out in democratic processes.

Importantly, such upper (and even lower) limits should therefore not be envisioned as being based solely on scientific estimates and top-down enforcement. On the contrary, broad societal dialogue is necessary to generate an improved understanding of social and ecological conditions and needs, conflicts between them, and options for their joint pursuit.

Moreover, policies supporting the availability of adequate and affordable housing and addressing rising structural inequalities in the housing market need to be implemented alongside any focus on consumption minima and maxima with respect to residential space.

In addition, appropriate infrastructural measures need to ensure that potential contributions to one-planet lifestyles, which may result from current trends towards co-living, smaller home sizes, and cooperative house ownership can be realised.

Challenges to ecological and social sustainability require us to make complex decisions and to integrate limits to resource consumption into our practices and policies across consumption fields. We need to openly discuss social minima and ecological maxima with respect to residential space – just as in any other consumption field.

*German political scientist- professor of international relations& sustainable development at the University of Munster, Chair of International Relations& Sustainable Development
**first published in: www.euractiv.com

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