The term sustainable development is cited regularly by politicians, investors and economists, but rarely followed by a clear definition, or how the principle has been applied to a particular activity.
The United Nations define sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) expose the dichotomy between economic growth and the need to stay within ecological boundaries. SDG 8 calls for improving ‘global resource efficiency’ and ‘decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation’. Yet, despite numerous commitments from member nations, global material extraction and consumption continues to rise (doubling over the past 30 years, and accelerated since 2000), mostly driven by overconsumption in developed countries.
Over the last 100 years, chemical engineers have played a major role in delivering the high standard of living enjoyed in developed countries. They will be equally vital in developing the solutions required to address the complex challenges that lie ahead.
The climate change challenge
The impacts of climate change are being witnessed the world over through extreme weather events. The consensus is clear, that unless we make some radical reductions to carbon emissions, we will irreversibly damage our ecosystems, with the impacts disproportionally affecting poorer nations, potentially leading to massive population movements.
Sadly, despite science providing many engineering solutions to clean energy and manufacturing over the last few decades, a lack of momentum has meant that the technology has not been deployed at the pace required. This lack of investment and commercialisation means we are likely to pass the IPCC target of 1.5°C atmospheric temperature rise in the next 10 years.
To avoid catastrophic climate change associated with greater than a 2°C atmospheric temperature rise, it is imperative that governments commit to greater reductions and invest and promote technology that can achieve this.
Balancing the food/water/energy nexus
As populations and their living standards continue to increase against the backdrop of a deteriorating climate, food and water security must play a key part in any discussion on a sustainable future. The challenge is feeding the world, sharing resources equitably, and reducing the enormous waste generated by countries, all while practicing sustainable agriculture. To achieve this, food, water, and energy need to be viewed as a whole system, and, for example, priority given to food production over the production of biomass for energy.
Chemical engineering applied to food production and water conservation can address these challenges and improve the management and distribution of the world’s water and food resources.
Quite simply, the world cannot afford to continue the current rates of materials consumption. Yet, the transformation technologies needed to reduce emissions in the resource intensive industries, including steel, cement, mining and minerals, plastics and petrochemicals, are expensive and consumers will need to pay.
Systems engineering needs to apply the principles of the circular economy to ensure that we limit the extraction and use of virgin raw materials and maintain resources in circulation much longer by reuse, repurpose and recycle.
A carbon neutral and circular economy will be expensive, but it stands as our only option if we wish to honour the UN sustainability goals. To ensure the use of novel materials and recycling/re-use are holistically beneficial, internationally standardised Life Cycle Assessment based on continuous monitoring, field data generation and evidence-based analysis must be used.
What about the economics?
Solutions to building resilient systems, for example a circular economy with its focus on resource productivity rather than labour productivity, lie at the intersection of politics, policy and society. This represents a shift to scientists and engineers, who must become involved in the policy debates.
The problem is not for technology alone. Consumer behaviour must adapt to balance the economy, and this will come at a cost. Governments will need to find a mechanism to pay for the underlying infrastructure needed for sustainable systems, such as power grids which allow renewables to be incorporated effectively. Currently, conventional GDP / GNI measures fail to take the environment into account. A more holistic measure, e.g. a Natural Capital approach, along with placing a price on the environment (e.g. a carbon tax), are required.
Our future chemical engineers
Education programmes need to reflect the changing environment in which chemical engineers will have to operate. This means recognising that achieving a sustainable world is not merely about doing the things we do more efficiently. It requires a fundamental shift in approach. The systems perspective needs to be broadened beyond the process itself to develop new ways of delivering essential products and services within the limits set by planetary boundaries.
Most importantly, we have a responsibility to succeed in implementing this dramatic change within a time horizon of one or two generations. This is a challenging and exciting task, which will take us into new areas of activity beyond technology. Future chemical engineers can influence governments, industry and consumers to commit the changes necessary.
Sustainability and Environment Blog
Read this blog from IChemE member Dr Nikolay Cherkasov who picks out his choices of elements to celebrate, communicate and inspire from this theme.