Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Environmental Sustainability – Aiming Higher

In the second of his Guest Posts for the Communicate Science Blog, Kieran Lettice talks engineering and environmental sustainability.

One interpretation of the much used watchword “sustainable” is the capacity to endure. A related phrase, “sustainable development”, was defined in the 1987 Brundtland Report as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Report, rightly, places a special emphasis and priority on the needs of the world’s poor.

I think that both of these definitions are lacking in ambition for the protection of our natural environment and the development of mankind which is so inextricably linked to it. While meeting the needs of the world’s poor is a spectacularly ambitious target, the overriding tone of these definitions is one of just getting by, surviving, enduring and not making things any worse. It could mean doing just enough not to completely self-destruct. This definition of sustainability could include an existence similar to that endured by the characters of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road where an environmental catastrophe has befallen the Earth and what remains of the human race scrapes out subsistence. 

All significant technical projects have associated environmental impacts, for example a novel, energy efficient mobile phone battery may contain cadmium, lead and nickel which all have associated environmental costs which manifest themselves (though, in terms of financial cost, are not necessarily internalised) throughout their life-cycles. On the other hand, all environmental problems can be solved, at least in part, due to the application of the art and science of engineering. A familiar example of this is the development and use of low-flow toilets which can now accomplish the same function using less than half of the water used two decades ago .

It is true that some solutions can produce new problems, often unpredicted, which must then be tackled. We can improve the situation by bringing about more environmental improvements and fewer new environmental problems. Nevertheless, replacing one environmental problem with another, marginally less harmful (or less obvious), problem can be a slow way of achieving the kind of development which can take people out of poverty and reduce our impact on the environment.

We can truly protect the environment when we develop and employ technologies which decouple human and economic development from scarce, costly, finite or difficult to source environmental resources such as fossil fuels, clean water, rainforest or destructively mined metals. Examples of such developments could be the use of renewable bio-polymer materials to construct the majority of passenger aircraft rather than relying on mined and energy-intensively produced aluminium or the use of on-site generated zero-carbon electricity.

Critics may recognise this argument and dismiss it, depending on their point of view, as that of a technological optimist. They might argue that, though relative decoupling e.g. decreasing carbon intensities, can be achieved, absolute decoupling e.g. a global decrease in carbon emissions, can never be achieved as long as the human population continues to increase. They might even discuss the apparent paradox of resource use actually increasing as efficiency increases. But these arguments would ignore the radical advances that have occurred in the past half century in the areas of information technology, energy use, and agricultural sciences.

We all have a responsibility to put our skills to the service of mankind in developing technologies, processes and solutions that improve the living conditions of others while protecting our environment.

Our assessment of mankind’s environmental sustainability should not just look at our capacity to endure the worst that nature can throw at us or the results of our own short-sighted decisions. Rather, it must consider to what degree we have ensured an ongoing standard of living for all people that befits their human dignity and safeguards our inherited environment.

Kieran Lettice is an engineer and renewable energy consultant. 


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