Sustainability and IChemE – a 25 Year Journey

IChemE was the first UK professional engineering institutions to seriously engage with sustainable development when in 1997 it published a report to commemorate the 75th anniversary entitled “Future Life” and sub-titled “Engineering Solutions for the Next Generation”. It featured a foreword by Prime Minister Tony Blair in which he said “Scientific progress has helped us to increase our understanding of the damage that human activities can cause to the environment. Economic and social progress are just as important as protecting the environment. We must rise to the challenge of making the goal of sustainable development a reality”. And further “Chemical engineers working in the public and private sector all over the world have a vital role to play in helping us develop and implement the solutions”

The report was compiled under the direction of an advisory panel of eminent experts following extensive research and interviews with several leading authorities within industry and the academic world. The report recognises that the Earth’s human population is now so large that it can only be sustained using advanced technologies. Engineers must provide these technologies but must also carry the responsibility of telling the rest of human society why we cannot treat the earth as a perpetual motion machine. The document sets out some ideas on how chemical engineering and those who use this intellectual discipline can contribute to sustaining a human society which provides security for all humans and indeed for all living species. 

The ideas under the headings of water, energy, waste, agriculture, healthcare, miniturisation and consumer choice are all still relevant and are mostly being pursued today. What is disappointing is that whilst the report states “In the next 20 years a paradigm shift will be needed if we are to sustain or improve humankind’s quality of life” the rate of implementation of the ideas over the elapsed 24 years has fallen short of a paradigm shift.  

Also, as part of the 75th anniversary activities the Institution published the London Communiqué enshrining its commitment to sustainable development in the education and training of its members.  

The Institution followed this up in 2001 with the publication of the Sustainable Development Progress Metrics recommended for use in the Process Industries. The objective was to provide engineers with the tools to assess the sustainability performance of an operating unit and enable companies to set targets and develop standards for internal benchmarking and monitor progress year-on-year. The metrics are presented in three groups namely Environmental Indicators, Economic Indicators and Social Indicators representing the three components of sustainable development.

In 2001 IChemE, in partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Chemical Industries Association, successfully applied for government Faraday Partnership funding to establish the Crystal Partnership to be the lead organisation for the research, development and implementation of green chemical technology and practices in the UK chemical and allied industries. In 2004 Crystal produced a roadmap to develop a strategy for green chemical technology research and development based on the future needs of the industry out to 2025. It identified the opportunities, gaps and the key actions that needed to be taken to ensure the potential of green chemical technology is delivered to develop a vibrant and sustainable chemical industry in the UK.

As part of the 6th World Congress of Chemical Engineering in Melbourne in 2001 the IChemE led the publication of the Melbourne Communiqué which expanded the commitments to sustainable development contained in the London Communiqué to include the other international chemical engineering learned societies.

In 2004 the Sustainability Special Interest Group was established and in late 2005 IChemE Council identified a need for greater clarity in the technical positioning of the Institution on key issues of public concern. A strategy task force was convened to identify a set of priority topics and this work was supplemented by the key messages arising from the 7th World Congress of Chemical Engineering held in Glasgow earlier in the year. The roadmap project was launched at the 2006 Assembly and in 2007 celebrating 50 years since the granting of its Royal Charter the Institution published A Roadmap for 21st Century Chemical Engineering. The roadmap addressed the question “What does society need; what are the desirable outcomes and how can chemical engineers work in partnership with others to make it happen”. At the roadmap’s core were 20 position statements underpinned by a series of action plans describing an extensive range of projects and initiatives that required IChemE support. The sustainability challenges were clearly stated throughout the roadmap.

In 2012 the roadmap for 21st Century Chemical Engineering was reviewed and a different approach in favour of a more open-ended look at options for progress was implemented. The result was Chemical Engineering Matters which is now in its 3rd edition published in June 2016. The open-ended approach of the document, whilst ideal for promoting discussion, results in a “pot pourri” of potential outcomes with a weakened focus on sustainability which in the 3rd edition was even more obvious.

The work of the Energy Centre established in 2017 and the development of the Position on Climate Change in 2020, following a wide member consultation, has brought sustainability back to the top of the IChemE agenda. The donation of a large source of external funding has enabled the development of the Sustainability Hub which will develop and publish on-line training material in sustainability. The Hub has been live since February 2022.

The climate change action plans developed by the Special Interest Groups and Member Groups to underpin the actions in the Position on Climate Change will further emphasise the importance of sustainability in chemical engineering thinking.