Griffith Hack Clean & Sustainable Technologies

Sustainability: A growth industry by Justin Blows
September 17, 2010, 4:04 pm
Filed under: Feature

It is nice to be sustainable because it is good for the environment. But sustainability is much more important than that. The demands on earth by us – principally economic demands – are greater than earth can maintain. Physical limits can not be beaten. If we can not make our actions sustainable then earth will brutally enforce sustainability upon us.

 It is physically impossible for humanity to continue exploiting energy, materials, and water resources as it recently has. The economy is drawing resources from the earth faster than is replenished and expelling pollution faster than earth can process.  Social, Economic and military crises are a likely, if not present, by-product.

Sustainability is typically framed as a policy problem for governments. But some of the biggest companies act far above minimum sustainability standards enforced by governments.  These companies include the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer Toyota, the world’s biggest retailer Wallmart, the world biggest beverage company Coca-Cola, and GOOGLE.  The reason for their action is simple. Each of these companies understood that their respective business could not be economically sustained unless they made their use of energy, water, materials, and waste disposal more sustainable.  They also understood that reducing consumption and operating efficiently saves lots of money, making a more profitable and competitive business.  This teaching is universally applicable. Individuals, companies and nations can all materially benefit from becoming more sustainable.

Compared to companies like Wallmart, governments are acting more slowly but their sentiments are clear: you will be increasingly compelled to be more sustainable.  Europe and New Zealand, for example, enforce a price on carbon. China is now aggressively reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output. By 2020 twenty percent of Australia’s electricity will be from renewable sources. 

Unsustainable energy use 

Energy is essential to our economy and life. According to the International Energy Agency, around 70% of the primary energy used in 2008 was from fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels support almost every aspect of our modern life. This is not sustainable. 

Energy security 

Reserves of fossil fuels are finite but the economies powered by them are growing fast.  Energy consumption doubled between 1971 and 2008.  

Some people believe that between now and 2020 oil production will peak and then start to decline.  Others believe that coal production will peak between now and 2048. If our economies still depend on fossil fuels when ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak coal’ occur then energy prices may greatly increase. 

Demand for fossil fuels will exceed supply under a Business As Usual scenario.  You can’t beat physical limits. Ultimately, Business As Usual means that we will not have the power to do things we do everyday. 

Becoming less reliant on fossil fuels is essential to ensure long term energy security.  

Energy and climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that continuing on our present path will increase the concentration of green house gases in the atmosphere from a 1990 concentration of 400 ppm to a 2100 concentration of 1500 ppm.  They predict a global mean temperature rise of greater than 6 degrees centigrade is then likely.  Humanity has never experienced earth that hot.  Supported by geological records, scientists say 6 degrees of warming would transform the earth.  It is not clear that today’s societies would survive such a transformation. 

World leaders are proposing that we change the way we do things to peak the concentration of green house gases to either one of 450 ppm and 550 ppm.  The former is likely to warm to earth by greater than 2 degrees.  The latter is likely to warm the earth by greater than 3 degrees.  No agreement has been reached.  Scientists predict that even 2 degrees of global warming would be devastating to some societies, especially poor countries, because of one or more of inundation by rising sea water, reduced agricultural output, or resulting water scarcity.  Everyone will be forced to adapt. 

A UK government report “Prosperity Without Growth?” states that with economic growth of 1.4% – a reasonable expectation, many would say – the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per dollar of economic activity must drop from 768 g to 36 g by 2050 in a world of 9 billion people.  This would be a 95% reduction in green house gas emissions per dollar.  This reduction would be for all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, not just from the combustion of fossil fuels. 

Energy and pollution 

It is estimated that around 300,000 premature deaths annually are caused by pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels for electricity generation.  The pollution produced from cargo ships is estimated to cause 60,000 premature deaths. 

Making energy sustainable

Fortunately, the reduction of fossil fuel dependency is progressing at an accelerating rate.  The capacity of plant that can generate electrical power from the wind exceeds 159 GW.  Because a typical coal fired power station has a capacity of roughly 1 GW the wind powered plant is roughly equivalent to 159 coal fired power stations.  The wind power industry has a recent growth rate of 30% per annum and in 2009 turned over thirty billion Euros. The capacity of plant that can generate electrical power from sunlight exceeds 22 GW, with a recent growth rate of 70%.  In Indonesia, there are plans to have plant that can generate electrical power from geothermal energy with a total capacity of 9.5 GW by 2015. The Toyota Prius – a highly efficient petrol-electric hybrid car – is the best selling car in Japan.  The Green Building Council of Australia has certified over 250 Green Star commercial buildings with lower energy requirements. Incandescent light globes and electric hot water heaters, which are energy inefficient, have legislation against them. 

Unsustainable material use 

Globally, the production of cement accounts for around 5% of all carbon dioxide emissions.  Concrete is the second most used material, after water.  Steel production accounts for around 4% of all carbon dioxide emissions.  The current production of either one of concrete and steel appears to emit more greenhouse gas than the total allowable emissions under either one of the 450 ppm or 550 ppm scenarios.  Demand for steel and concrete, especially in the developing and emerging economies, is increasing further accelerating the need for a response. 

Some materials used in electronics will become scarce.  IndiumTimOxide, a transparent conductor, is used extensively in the production of flat panel displays. Indium may be scarce from 2020.  Tantalum is used to make compact and light electronic components such as those found in mobile phones and other portable devices. Tantalum may be scarce after 2030.  Even copper, one of the most commonly used conductors, may be scarce after 2100 if everyone attained the same levels of affluence as the people of North America. 

Unsustainable water 

We use most of the usable water available to us.  Using increasing amounts of water is unsustainable. So much water is extracted from the Colorado, Murray-Darling, Ganges and Yellow rivers that they often do not flow.  The World Water Council estimates that on our current trends by 2020 we will need 17% more water than available to feed everyone.  Four billion people will face water shortages by 2050.  

Mind boggling amounts of water are used to make everyday thing.  Production of a glass of orange juice requires 850L of water.  A hamburger requires 2,400L.  A kilogram of microchips requires 16,000L. 

Options to increase water supply include more efficient use of water, desalination, water recycling, and more efficient capture of rain water. 

Unsustainable waste disposal 

Countries like Austria, The Netherlands, and Switzerland have banned the disposal of untreated waste in landfills.  In Europe, electronic waste must be recycled.  It is the original equipment manufacturer that must pay the recycling fee and so the pressure is on them to make their products amenable to recycling. 

Dangerous materials that are or have been in common use are being phased out.  Solder, a common material in the electronics industry, must be free of lead in the European Union.  The US and China have similar requirements.  Industries using phased out materials must adapt.

Companies moving towards sustainability 

Some of the biggest companies have moved away from unsustainable practices.  The world’s biggest company Wallmart believes that “being an efficient and profitable business and being a good steward of the environment are goals that can work together”. They state their environmental goals as being supplied 100% by renewable energy, to create zero waste and to sell products that sustain people and the environment.  Apparently, by reducing packaging they have saved over $3.4 billion.  Their supply chain has had to bend to Wallmart’s packaging standards or risk being replaced. But to whole supply chain has saved over US$10 billion. Wallmart strengthening the sustainability of packaging may have been a win for everyone. 

Between 2005 and 2008 Wallmart increased its fleet efficiency by 38%.  Wallmart installed fuel-saving technologies on its trucks, loaded tracks more efficiency, improved routing, and reduced the distance travelled by trucks not carrying goods.  This saved US$200 million in 2008 alone. 

Coca-cola sells 1.6 Billion serves of beverage a day.  Apparently, Coca-Cola uses 2.43L of water to make 1L of beverage.  They want to reduce water usage by 20% by 2012, and have achieved more than a 9% reduction. 

Apparently, Unilever consumed 1% of global domestic water supplied in 1995.  Because their products – like detergent – needed water to be used they were in danger of destroying their market.  Since 1995 they have reduced water used in their factories by 63% and reduced green house gas emissions from their factories by 39%. 

On current trends, by 2020 all the data centres and tele-communication networks in the world will consume more electricity than used by France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined. Google has purchased 114 MW of electricity from wind power to reduce its carbon footprint.  Google is also building energy efficient data centres.  Google realised early that their stakeholders would find it unacceptable to consume electricity generated from fossil fuels.  Facebook, on the other hand, is now facing a campaign against them because they plan to build the world’s biggest data storage centre. Google’s early adoption of renewable energy now looks very smart. 


Moving towards sustainability is a must, not an option.  There are plenty of opportunities for innovation, and so become more efficient, more competitive and to win the hearts of stakeholders.  Sustainability is a growth industry.  Embrace it.

Justin Blows


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