Sustainability and Environment Webinar Reflections

Sustainability is best defined as being the art of living well within ecological systems. To understand how we might do this we need to look at models of 3 different types of capital: natural, social & human, financial & asset. If we can balance these sources of capital, then we can claim to be living sustainably, but maximizing efficiency of wealth creation does not meet this need. Today wealth creation is based around the unsustainable depletion of natural, and arguably also social & human capital.

Meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to eliminate poverty and enhance human and social capital without depleting and destroying natural capital, necessarily implies a shift away from GDP growth as our primary economic objective. Bringing about this change is inherently a political, economic and social challenge, but will rely on engineering input at a fundamental level.

This should be seen as a wake-up call for Chemical Engineers – we are uniquely well positioned to address many of the challenges. We need to accept our ethical responsibility as professional engineers to learn to design and build systems that sit in balance point of capital systems. We also have a duty to communicate effectively as honest and unbiased brokers of information.


What are the most important issues for Chemical Engineering to address?

As a profession we need to learn how to better understand uncertainty – in particular the role and impact of our activities and products in affecting change. This should include consideration of existential (e.g. rising sea levels) as well as catastrophic (e.g. explosion) risks and the development of robust design methodologies that encompass and mitigate these existential risks.

Many of us work in the most resource intensive industries on the planet – industries which generate great benefit, but need to shift to doing so with the minimum impact of the environment. The IChemE position on Climate Change and the IChemE’s Sustainability Hub are great vehicles for learning and exploring how to do this. Finally, the IChemE Energy Centre’s Energy and Resource Efficiency Good Practice Guide is an invaluable resource for those wanting to understand how to improve the processes that we operate today.

Early-stage engineers are well placed to take the lead to help guide their more-established colleagues, and the businesses that they work in, to better understand how to operate more sustainability. To do so they need to understand how to express both the economic and technical rationale for changes.

Inclusivity and ethics are both critical considerations and as a profession we need to learn how to engage with and incorporate these concepts into our everyday work. Glocalization – which would include ideas around process intensification and miniaturization – is one potentially powerful lever that could make meaningful opportunities more accessible to average consumer. For example engaging on a societal capital level to balance energy demand – taking a systems approach to community projects – could enable a lot more renewable generation capacity to be introduced much faster. A key enabling capability for chemical engineers is to better understand financing, the distribution of finance & investment and the role of local & national regulation and legislation.

In summary, we are facing a 3-part problem:

  • consumption of resources (this year the planet went into resource deficit on July 29th, and this date gets earlier every year)
  • inefficiency in the systems that we operate (less than 50% of raw material and energy extracted is used for constructive ends)
  • handling and dealing with the waste that is produced as a result

These need to be considered together - they cannot be addressed in isolation. One implication of this is that cleaning up existing systems needs to become a badge of honour that is worn with pride by chemical engineers – by contrast, today we typically reserve our greatest celebrations for the creation of something new. There might be a significant role for the IChemE in facilitating this.


What can we learn from how we successfully tackled safety to address sustainability?

You can’t get rid of the complexity, or the unknowables of the system that we are dealing with. It’s interesting to note that in the case of safety and HAZOPs, the movement started with a very high-level desire and determination to do better. In the case of sustainability, a key difference is not to let perfect become the enemy of the good – it is much better to do 80% really well with easy management and investor support, than to wait and argue for the perfect solution to be accepted and available, and accomplish nothing while you do.

As engineers we are great at understanding complexity, and design around it to mitigate it. Tools can be helpful, and one that is particularly useful in this context is VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) analysis – like SWOT – which can help understand and define a project and its context.

One specific area of opportunity is to link our teaching to the skills need to address these types of societal challenge – essentially find a way to expand the scope and considerations of our university design projects to encourage students to think and collaborate beyond their technical training. The  IChemE accreditation criteria are under constant review and are moving in the right direction, but there needs to be much more holistic thinking to empower students to be able to meaningfully tackle these challenges.


What is the role of the market in driving change, and what needs to be done with those markets to make them more effective?

Markets are a huge driver for change. One thing that needs to change is that It’s not about finding a balance point any more – we are now just trying to avoid catastrophe. Inability to access finance, insurance etc. is definitely driving behavior.

The single biggest challenge is lack of clarity and definition on the comprehensive outcome we are looking for – if we can define the outcome we want then we are good at interacting with complex systems, including markets, to achieve what we want to achieve. Today we focus on growth as the single dominant measure of economic success – but a 6% GDP growth rate with today’s level of recycling at only 7% drives a doubling of consumption every 15 years! “Prosperity Without Growth” authored by Tim Jackson offers an interesting alternative to this growth-led mindset.

This raises the challenging question of what society really wants. Economy has historically been driven exclusively around GDP growth, but that is changing. Climate change and biodiversity loss are both gaining more traction. Another invaluable resource for those wanting to explore this further is “Doughnut Economics” by Kate Raworth, and the resources available from the Doughnut Economics Action Lab.

OGCI provide a valuable example of how investment markets can drive change. $60 billion in new climate related funds have been raised in the last 12 months – but there is no agreed way to measure progress against targets for these funds. OGCI have made their Reporting Framework on how to measure carbon reductions from financial investments publicly available.

Next generation of engineers is much more societally and sustainability aware. Being sustainable is trendy – it’s increasingly attractive – driven by social media and societal pressure in general. One dynamic that we should explore is the power that comes from a sense of belonging to being connected to something at a personal level – revisiting the idea of “glocalization” it would be interesting to explore how making the best use of local resources and providing for local communities could be developed as an underlying principle in process and business design.


What examples have you seen that make you optimistic about the future?

OGCI have recently invested in a company with a novel process for making cement that reduces CO2 emissions by 70% and water by 80%. Globally cement is most used material by mankind after water and 6-7% of global CO2 emissions come from the cement industry with 0.75 te Co2 per te cement being produced.

The principle of “Reduce, Reuse & Recycle” is accelerating, as demonstrated by Carbon8 – which produces building materials from waste and CO2. There are a variety of interesting developments that do similar for plastic and organic waste – not least the great example recently described in The Chemical Engineer of a domestic pyrolysis waste converter.

15 years ago there was very little off-shore wind generating capacity in the UK. Top-side design and development expertise from the O&G industry has powered a huge expansion, and now off-shore is a huge part of the energy mix. It’s a great positive example of translation of core competency and expertise from a traditional industry enabling a new sustainable sector.

Over the last 100 years chemical engineers helped society to fundamentally change the face of the planet. We shown that we can do it – we just need to do it again!