Chemical engineers worldwide see sustainable development as the most significant issue facing society today.
The approach to sustainable development is encapsulated in the London Communiqué of 1997 (a statement signed by the leaders of 18 chemical engineering societies throughout the world): “We will work to make the world a better place for future generations” and to “provide the processes and products which will give the people of the world shelter, clothing, food and drink, and which will keep them in good health.”
These societies have thus been working, along with other bodies, to encourage progress to a more sustainable world through the activities of its members and the organisations for which they work.
The laws of conservation of mass and energy are basic principles utilised by engineers. However the results of manipulating the resources of the planet through these principles have consequences for the global eco-system.
Engineering for sustainable development means providing for current human needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is clear that we have to be less profligate in our use of non-renewable resources if the planet is to be fit for future generations to live on. We must also be more aware of the consequences of our activities for society at large.
The process industries have made significant progress over the last decade, particularly in improving their efficiency of production and their environmental performance, and the learned societies have lent support to this improvement. However, moving towards the goal of sustainability requires us also to examine and improve other aspects that have not traditionally been given much attention, at least by practicing engineers.
Broadly, the impact of industry can be summarized in the “triple bottom line”, covering the three components of sustainable development which are environmental responsibility, economic return (wealth creation), and social development. Many companies now recognize and monitor these three parallel strands, using their own assessments to guide their product, process and personnel development. These assessments, also called performance metrics, are useful in securing their position in the rapidly changing climate of environmental legislation and stakeholder concerns.
The learned societies would like to encourage more companies to follow this lead. This would require more engineers to have the tools to assess the sustainability of their operations. There is a need therefore to introduce a set of indicators that can be used to measure the sustainability performance of an operating unit.
If comparable statistics are gathered from a number of operations, they can be aggregated to present a view of a larger operation, on a company, industry or regional basis for example. The operating unit envisaged is a process plant, a group of plants, a whole or partial supply chain, a utility or other process system.
I believe that these metrics will help engineers address the issue of sustainable development, and learn about the broader impact of company operations. They will also enable companies to set targets and develop standards for internal benchmarking, and to monitor progress year-to-year.
I shall welcome your comments on these metrics, which we hope to develop in the light of experience with their use.
Anup Bagla, Environment, Energy & Sustainability Specialist