Sustainability in 2018 – the year ahead


The new year is upon us

The start of the new year brings the usual plethora of resolutions and predictions on what the New Year will bring.  Sustainability is no different. Here are some topics I believe will receive more focus in the coming year than they received in years past.

Zero waste

When people think about climate change, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the contribution of fossil fuels. However, the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) generated from the trash we produce cannot be underestimated.

Landfills are the clearest manifestation of the impact of waste. Landfills produce large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas created by decomposing organic materials. Methane has a global warming potential at least 20 times greater than carbon dioxide.

Before our trash even reaches the landfill, a considerable amount of greenhouse gases are created. Extracting raw materials, manufacturing products, and distributing products all use energy and produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Zero waste has been proposed as a method to reduce the material targeted for landfills by reducing the materials we consume, and utilizing recycling and reuse as option when the products we use are no longer useful.

The zero waste concept encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills or incinerators, which is similiar to the way resources are reused in nature.

Sustainable landscape

The impact of green building on greenhouse gas emissions and energy saving cannot be overstated.  Various certifications for green buildings have been created including Green Globe and Leadership in Environment and Design (LEED). These certifications are designed to be applied to commercial buildings. These do not account for the landscape and, more importantly, the people who will inhabit the buildings since our planet is much more than commercial buildings.

In contrast to buildings, built landscapes and green infrastructure have the capacity to protect and even regenerate natural systems, thereby increasing the ecosystem services they provide.

Buildings that, combined with the landscape, feature productive ecosystems that conserve the physical and biological processes occurring on that landscape. These are referred to as sustainable landscapes.

Sustainable landscapes create communities that are better able to withstand and recover from episodic floods, droughts, wildfires, and other catastrophic events. Furthermore, they benefit the environment, property owners, and local and regional communities and economies.

Ecoservices are the benefits humans freely gain from the natural environment and from properly-functioning ecosystems. Examples include trees, which help regulate local climate by providing shade and acting as windbreaks. Through evaporation, transpiration, and the uptake and storage of carbon, plants moderate the planet’s climate and provide a breathable atmosphere.

These services, including sequestering carbon, filtering air and water, and regulating climate, are the beneficial functions of healthy ecosystems. Their economic value is highly significant, even though these benefits are not accounted for in typical accounting practices.

Carbon tax at last

The reason for society’s reluctance to move away from relying on fossil fuels, in part, is because carbon remains the most cost-effective method of producing the power needed to operate a technical society.

There are four ways to price carbon. The first is to regulate carbon, which entails creating laws by the federal government to limit generation. Presidents have the authority to sign executive orders mandating federal policy. An example was President Trump undoing the order implemented by the Clean Power Plan by the Obama administration to fight climate change.

The second method is to place a tax on emissions. A tax would directly establish a price on carbon dioxide releases.  Polluters would be taxed a pre-specified amount based on their emissions.

The third route to decreased discharges would be the implementation of a cap-and-trade program that would limit total emissions, and issu­e tradeable allowances for those who exceed the limit. Emitters need to purchase enough permits or allowances to cover their emissions. The advantage of cap-and-trade programs is that they ensure a given level of reductions.

The last proposed method is described as fee and dividend. In this case, a fee is added to carbon-based fuels based on the amount of carbon they contain. The fee is collected upstream, at the source where the carbon enters the country. The plan is “revenue neutral”, which means the government doesn’t keep any of the revenue. This is also true in the case of a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade program.  The money collected using this type of pricing is returned to households on an equitable basis.

Green chemistry

Throughout my time in the chemical industry after completing my studies in chemical engineering, one fact is very clear: chemistry is nowhere near as “green” as it could be.

Chemical developments tend to bring new environmental problems and harmful unexpected side effects, which result in the need for ‘greener’ chemical products.

Green chemistry is a philosophy that reduces or eliminates the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and application of chemical products.

The main areas of focus are the minimization of waste products and using non-toxic reagents, renewable resources, and solvent-free or recyclable environmentally benign solvent systems.

Sustainability in 2018

These are four trends you should keep an eye out for as we head into 2018. Time will if my predictions come to fruition. On the other hand, how many people take the effort to double back at year’s end to see if their prediction came true? Then again, that would take away a lot of the fun.