Sustainable Development – The Implications

Human activity is stressing the resilience of all-natural systems and stretching them to the point of failure and that impacts on every aspect of the environment, not just climate. The current rate of world-wide consumption of resources is way beyond the capacity of the planet to sustain and we are getting to the point where the scarcity and price of materials will affect future development. The intense strain that we're putting on the biodiversity of the planet is increasing year by year as the population grows, consumption increases, and our finite resources are being used up and discarded. 

Extraction and use of virgin raw materials must be minimised by replacing the linear economy with a circular one retaining the stock of material in circulation by reuse, repurpose and recycle and system resilience must become a key design principle. Resilient solutions will lie at the intersection of politics, policy, and society. Reflecting the governments imposition of resilience on the banks following the financial crisis similar resilience is likely to be imposed on companies in future. This will force shorter supply chains and more reshoring of manufacturing which is good for local employment but is inflationary.

Consumer behaviour will need to be addressed by fiscal measures. For a sustainable lifestyle the purchase of high quality more expensive items which last longer is better for the environment. We must move from cheap and throw away to luxurious and retain but at minimal additional cost over the life cycle. Extending product life is key to the circular economy. 

Continuing to improve the lives and livelihoods of the world's population whilst lessening our impact on the environment is an immense challenge for society. Aiming for ever increasing wealth fuelled by continued economic growth implies an infinite amount of resource to fuel it. Clearly minerals, metals, energy, water, land etc. are ultimately finite so this makes no sense. Advanced thinkers are now saying that the measure of economic prosperity should not be dominated by GDP growth but rather be based on a different view of well-being which will allow living within our planet’s ecological boundaries. This thinking is not framed through an anti-development lens but proposing a more sophisticated measure that deals with the concept of sustainability.

Sustainable development raises many conundrums with objectives often difficult to reconcile, and palm oil production is a classic example. Expansion invariably requires the destruction of rain forests which leads to greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction in CO2 absorption potential and loss of biodiversity and is inherently unsustainable. But expansion is the economic life support for the communities dependent on its production. Chemical engineers can make the production process more efficient, but this doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. Merely improving production efficiency does not address sustainability what is required is a fundamental analysis of the overall system maximising societal benefits and minimising environmental impact.