After 5 decades environmental materiality has become systemic
December 2017 User View by Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel, former Assistant Executive Director of UN Environment and former Director of its Division of Industry, Technology and Economics
PERCEPTIONS of what are the most relevant environmental themes have changed in many ways over the last five decades. Early on it was an awakening as a result of eye opening studies, visible pollution, industrial accidents and pressure from non-governmental organizations. It further developed as an evolutionary process, leading to greater consensus on the need for paradigm change. Today we are at the point where the systemic nature of what is involved is evident. While for some this may cause a sense of paralysis, there are the Davids among us willing to take on new Goliaths with a sense of historical opportunity. We have to act with speed, or soon it will be too late.
When I completed an MBA at INSEAD business school in 1969, I was one of only four women in a group of over one hundred men. Since then I have always been working in the environmental field, initially in a consulting firm and later in the French Government (which was starting to develop environmental policies and legislation). At the time there was a clear divide between government and industry. People were only starting to discover environmental issues as they saw increasing smoke from factory chimneys and rivers polluted by waste and sewage. Non-biodegradable detergents polluting rivers were also the first “product” issue. Initial attempts to address these problems were end-of-pipe solutions and dilution of the emissions in air or water. We saw the emergence of environmental regulation, addressing air and water pollutants as well as waste. While the initial response from industry was negative, managers progressively began to understand that pollution was also something that was costing them money. They started to think about recycling and preventing. Cities also started to build often costly waste water treatment facilities, waste incinerators, and later initiated recycling schemes.
During that period the Limits to Growth report (1972) was published by the Club of Rome and René Dubos coined the popular maxim “think globally, act locally.” Earlier an eye-opening publication was Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring (1962), a book that put pesticides and chemicals on the agenda. Environmental awareness began to grow and Environment Ministries / Departments were established in various countries. At international level, the UN Environment Programme was created in 1972. Later during the eighties, the debate shifted to focus on the need to promote economic and social advancement in ways that avoid environmental degradation, over-exploitation of national resources and pollution. The concept of Sustainable Development was born. The work today on the Circular Economy is building on that legacy.
Sadly, it often takes dramatic accidents to drive home the significance of an issue. Consider how the chemical industry was hit in the 1980s by the Bhopal accident in India (1984), when thousands of people were exposed to toxic gasses and many died. This showed the risks of irresponsibly cutting costs and gave a strong incentive to industry to do proper risk analysis. It led to the development of voluntary programmes such as Responsible Care by the chemicals industry. The attitude of business and industry changed and some began to adopt voluntary Codes of Conduct. Companies started to establish environmental departments (albeit at low level) and to develop environmental management systems. It was often more “green marketing” than real commitment.
Awareness of the full consequences of products and production processes reached a new level in the 1980s with the debate on the ban of ozone depleting substances (ODSs) as scientists discovered the global problems associated with the hole in the ozone layer. The adoption of the Vienna Convention in 1985 and its Montreal Protocol in 1987 were key milestones. ODS production at the time were in the hands of a few chemical companies. They realized that they could not go against the science, and developed alternative technologies. By 1989 when the UN General Assembly agreed to initiate the negotiation of a global climate convention, it was evident that this was more than just an environmental problem. The economic dimension was evident. The adoption of the Climate Change Convention at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and its Kyoto protocol in 1997 confirmed the arrival of a more dominant issue in the public debate. The climate change issue is also linked with all other environmental problems such as desertification, soil degradation, water scarcity, biodiversity loss and extreme weather events. It has has tremendous impacts on communities. Today we speak of climate refugees. And while ecosystems are disrupted as a whole, environmental policies still tend to be designed in “silos” and without a systems perspective.
By the early 1990s the financial sector was starting to realize the financial impacts of the climate and environment agenda. We launched the UNEP Finance Initiative, from which evolved principles for sustainable insurance and responsible investment. A number of industry and business leaders established the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). However, some industry sectors and companies, such as the coal industry and some petroleum firms, were still lagging behind. This happened even as more and more companies were beginning to sense the “business case” and adopting formal environmental management systems.
As scientist and MBA, I always knew that “what you don’t measure you don’t manage”. This is why we decided to join forces with John Elkington, a young British environmental author at the time, to publish a report on environmental disclosure (Company Environmental Reporting, 1994). In the following years we jointly launched a global benchmark survey of corporate non-financial reporting. At one of our UNEP annual consultative meetings with industry representatives, a participant was Bob Massie, at that time President of CERES. The event left him more interested in non-financial reporting, following which he joined forces with Allen White of the Tellus Institute to initiate a process to develop guidelines for environmental or sustainability reporting. I brought the international support of UNEP. Between us we managed to get early funding from private and public donors to establish the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) as an independent organization eventually located in Amsterdam. Its role is to regularly update and publish sustainability reporting standards, prepared by various stakeholders, which would allow companies to monitor their progress and ensure transparent accountability.
It was also in the 1990s that Bio Schmidt-Bleek convened in Carnoules, France, a small group of people involved in promoting environmental policies. Together we adopted the “Factor 10 Declaration“ in 1994, proposing improvements in resource productivity with the objective that material flows should be reduced by 90% over a period of 30 – 50 years. Ernst Von Weizsaecker and Emery Lovins came up afterwards with the more realistic target of Factor 4. But reaching such targets requires action, which is why we launched the UNEP Cleaner Production programme. It was followed by a Consumption programme, supported by life cycle approaches to the whole chain of production and consumption. Industry itself also launched eco-efficiency activities.
By 2002, the time of the Johannesburg (Rio+10) Summit, the need for change in patterns of production and consumption was recognized. The Summit also recognized the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships as highlighted in 22 industry sector reports “Industry as a Partner for Sustainable Development” that UNEP produced with international industry associations. A publication called Tomorrow’s Markets (2002), jointly prepared with the WBCSD and World Resources Institute, highlighted opportunities for business and industry, as did a report SustainAbility did with us on the business case called The Buried Treasure (2001). In the following years UNEP launched the International Resource Panel (IRP), convening latest science on the flow of materials used globally and its international trade dimensions.
Over the last five decades thinking has evolved from looking at the impacts of our production and consumption patterns to looking at managing the world’s natural resources in a circular mode. Work since the 2010s by for example McKinsey on the Resource Revolution confirmed the growing waste problem of affluent societies and the need for circularity. Plastics waste in the oceans and food waste today reminds us of the failures of non-circularity in how we design, produce, use and consume. The concept of the Ecological Footprint is a good tool for visualizing the resources required to sustain our households, communities, regions and nations. The Global Footprint Network reported that the 2nd of August 2017 marked Earth overshoot day. As of this date, shifting earlier every year, humanity has consumed all the resources that the planet can renew in one year. Evidently the economic and social aspects of sustainable development cannot be sustained if they are not built on a healthy environmental base.
We know the problem all too well today. We need to develop systemic approaches, involving all partners. While there is incremental progress, solutions at massive scale are required. Plenty of innovations have been made. Plenty of cleantech and product solutions do exist, but many fiscal and financial incentives are fostering business as usual. Evidently, we lack the political will for the transformative change required.
The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org