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Axiom 5. Sustainability Requires that Substances Introduced into the Environment from Human Activities Be Minimized and Rendered Harmless to Biosphere Functions

Axiom 5. Sustainability Requires that Substances Introduced into the Environment from Human Activities Be Minimized and Rendered Harmless to Biosphere Functions

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concluded that, “fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for

achieving global sustainable development. All countries should promote sustainable consumption and

production patterns.” They also called for the development of a 10-year plan to accelerate SCP

patterns and to promote social and economic development while minimizing environmental

degradation. This UN effort is known as the Marrakech process.

The Marrakech process recognized the need to encourage sustainable lifestyles to achieve

sustainable patterns of consumption. The UNCSD shares best practice examples in this area, and had

developed awareness-raising campaigns, consumer education, and guidelines and manuals indicating

possible designs for sustainability. The UN has asked member nations to develop national action

plans on SCP, the integration of SCP into urban development planning, and the mainstreaming of SCP

in poverty eradication efforts. These activities aim to enable developing countries to leapfrog existing

practices to achieve SCP patterns through the implementation of sustainability across the life cycle of

products and services.

The goals of the Marrakech process are threefold:

• Assist countries in their efforts to “green” their economies

• Help corporations develop greener business models

• Encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable lifestyles

Sustainability requires a reduction in the amount of material we all consume. In some areas, such

as electronics and communication, great reductions are being seen. In the past, copper wires were

used to link telephones to the telephone grid. Today, these wires are being replaced with fiber-optic

devices that are lighter and more energy efficient. The fiber-optic devices are constructed out of a

silica material that is made from sand, one of the most abundant materials on the face of the Earth.

This is an example of material substitution, where we are substituting an abundant resource, sand, for

a scarcer resource, copper.

The UNCSD meets annually in New York, in two-year cycles, with each cycle focusing on

clusters of specific thematic issues and issues that cut across traditional themes. The commission

welcomes broad participation from both governmental and nongovernmental actors, and it supports a

number of innovative activities, such as the Partnerships Fair, the Learning Centre, and a series of

panels, roundtables, and side events. The high-level segment of the UNCSD facilitates dialogue

among ministers representing the UN’s member countries.

A multiyear Program of Work was adopted by UNCSD at its eleventh session in 2003. Based on

two-year cycles of review and policy years, the current program of work extends from 2004 to 2017

and is organized around clusters of issues.

2004–2005: Water, sanitation and human settlements (UNCSD 12/13)

2006–2007: Energy for sustainable development, industrial development, air

pollution/atmosphere, and climate change (UNCSD 14/15)

2008–2009: Agriculture, rural development, land, drought, desertification, and Africa (UNCSD


2010–2011: Transport, chemicals, waste management, mining, and 10-year framework of programs

on consumption and production patterns (UNCSD 18/19)

2012–2013: Forests, biodiversity, biotechnology, tourism, and mountains

2014–2015: Oceans and seas, marine resources, small island developing states, and disaster

management and vulnerability

2016–2017: Overall appraisal of UNCSD efforts

The last UNCSD conference (Rio+20) took place in Brazil in June 2012 to mark the twentieth

anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de

Janeiro, and the tenth anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in

Johannesburg. The objectives of the Rio+20 Conference were to secure renewed political

commitment for sustainable development, assess the progress made to date and the remaining gaps in

the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits on sustainable development, and address

new and emerging challenges. Attendees focused on two themes: (1) a green economy in the context

of sustainable development and poverty eradication and (2) the institutional framework for

sustainable development.

From the various UNCSD conferences, it has become clear that sustainability affects three

intertwined areas: the economy, society, and the environment. These intertwined areas are known as

the triple bottom line. Because consumption of natural resources is a central issue to all three areas,

the UN is encouraging the world’s economies to begin to practice resource and impact decoupling.


Resource decoupling means reducing the rate of use of primary resources for each unit of economic

activity. This “dematerialization” uses less material, energy, water, and land resources for the same,

or greater, economic output. Resource decoupling leads to an increase in the efficiency with which

resources are used. Such enhanced resource productivity can usually be measured: it can be

expressed for a national economy, an economic sector, or a certain economic process or production

chain, by dividing added value by resource use (e.g., gross domestic product [GDP]/domestic

material consumption, as can be seen in Figure 16.3). If the quotient in this expression (added value)

increases with time, resource productivity is rising.

Resource decoupling is particularly important in the following scenarios:

• A specific resource is scarce and its further depletion could impede economic progress (such as

oil, rare Earth metals, or fertile land).

• A specific resource poses high environmental risks that cannot be alleviated by modifying the way

we use it. Eliminating its use is the only solution (e.g., asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons).

• The use of a resource poses immediate threats to human and ecosystem health (such as toxic

emissions, persistent organic pollutants, or actions that reduce soil fertility).

• Technological solutions have substantial potential to prevent harm to humans and ecosystems.

Free market economists have argued that resources are easily substituted and that depletion of one

resource is not so great a problem. They point out that in the past some resource substitutes were

superior to those they replaced—for example, the discovery in the late 1880s that kerosene could be

made from petroleum allowed kerosene to be substituted for whale oil as a fuel for lamps. Today,

however, things are different. When a critical resource becomes scarce, its substitutes are almost

always inferior to it. A good example is oil from tar sands, which will be used in the future as a

substitute for conventional petroleum. Oil from tar sands is of poorer quality than conventional

petroleum, processing it requires more energy than processing conventional petroleum, and carbon is

emitted in its extraction and isolation. As a general rule, societies will exhaust sources that are

superior and easy to get at first and then move to those that are inferior substitutes to replace these

necessary natural resources—unless rates of consumption are reduced.

Figure 16.3 Decoupling seeks to improve human and economic well-being while slowing resource use and decreasing environmental

impact. Reproduced from UNEP (2011) Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth, A Report

of the Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel. Fischer-Kowalski, M., Swilling, M., et al.

Impact decoupling, by contrast, requires an economy to increase its economic output while

reducing its negative environmental impacts. Such impacts are caused by many factors—for example,

pollution produced by extraction of the natural resources (such as groundwater pollution caused by

mining or agriculture), by production processes (such as land degradation, wastes, and emissions),

and in postconsumption waste. These impacts can be estimated by life-cycle analysis in combination

with various input–output assessment techniques. Impact decoupling means that negative

environmental impacts decline while value is added in economic terms (Figure 16.3). On a large

scale, such as a national economy, it is very difficult to measure impact decoupling.

Impact decoupling requires a society to use resources more efficiently, more wisely, and more

cleanly. Reducing environmental impacts does not necessarily reduce resource scarcity or production

costs, and it may even increase them. An example of this is installing carbon capture and storage

technology to capture CO2 from coal-burning power plants; because this impact-decoupling

technology currently requires more energy to be input to capture the CO2 than is released from burning

the coal, resource decoupling does not take place. Because CO2 is no longer released into the

atmosphere, the environmental impact over the life cycle is reduced, but with a great increase in

costs. While some specific economic activities negatively impact the environment, other economic

activities are deliberately designed to have positive environmental effects—for example, buying land

for park or forest reserves or agricultural buffer zones. It follows that it may be difficult to design a

systemwide set of interventions capable of decoupling resource use from all negative environmental

impacts simultaneously.

UN International Resource Panel

The International Resource Panel was officially launched by the United Nations Environment

Programme (UNEP) in November 2007 and is expected to provide the scientific impetus for

decoupling economic growth and resource use from environmental degradation. It has two objectives:

• Provide independent, coherent, and authoritative scientific assessments of the sustainable use of

natural resources and their environmental impacts over the full life cycle

• Contribute to a better understanding of how to decouple economic growth from environmental


The resource panel provides independent scientific assessments conducted by an international

panel of experts on the sustainable use of natural resources, and in particular their environmental

impacts over the full life cycle. A fundamental question the International Resource Panel needs to

answer is how different economic activities currently influence the use of natural resources and the

generation of pollution. Its reports answer this question by undertaking a broad review of existing

studies for countries, country groups, or the world as a whole. The Panel looks at the economy from

three perspectives:

• Production: Which sectors have the highest impacts? This perspective helps identify where clean

and efficient technologies are most needed.

• Consumption: Which products and consumption clusters have the highest life-cycle impacts? This

perspective points out where shifts to low-impact products and sustainable lifestyles can most

reduce impacts.

• Resources: Which materials have the highest impacts? This perspective is relevant for material

choices and sustainability policies on resources.

Through different studies, and different points of view, the reports of the International Resource

Panel paint a consistent overall picture:

• Agriculture and food consumption are identified as one of the most important drivers of

environmental pressure, especially habitat change, climate change, fish depletion, water use, and

toxic emissions.

• The use of fossil fuels for heating, transportation, materials production, and the production and use

of electrical appliances is of comparable importance, causing the depletion of fossil energy

resources, climate change, and a wide range of emissions-related impacts.

• Per capita impacts to the environment increase with higher wealth. Population and economic

growth will lead to higher impacts, unless patterns of production and consumption can be changed.

• Impacts and resources embodied in trade are already significant compared to national impacts and

resource use, and they are increasing steadily.

• There is a need for analysis to evaluate trends to develop scenarios and identify the complicated

trade-offs and “linkages” (e.g., between clean energy technologies and material consumption) in

changing our patterns of consumption and production, so that unintended consequences do not undo

the overall good intended.

To date, the International Resource Panel has issued the following reports. These reports are

available on the International Resource Panel website at www.unep.org/resourcepanel.

• Recycling Rates of Metals (2011)

• Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth (2011)

• Priority Products and Materials: Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and

Production (2010)

• Metal Stocks in Society: Scientific Synthesis (2010)

• Assessing Biofuels: Towards Sustainable Production and Use of Resources (2009)

The UN recommends that intergovernmental organizations explore the potential of practical

collaborative actions in this field. Only through intergovernmental cooperation will a new paradigm

for sustainable production and consumption emerge.

Life-Cycle Thinking

A product’s life cycle is made up of all that goes into making, using, transporting, and disposing of it.

The life cycle is commonly shown as a series of stages, in which the product is manufactured,

transported, installed, used, maintained, disposed, and either reused, repurposed, or sent to waste

(Figure 16.4).

Life-cycle thinking seeks to avoid burden shifting, which requires focusing on the entire cycle and

not just one stage. For example, making a product that uses energy more efficiently, while it is a

preferred outcome, may not be environmentally sensible if it takes the addition of asbestos in the

manufacturing step to make a more energy-efficient product. In the past, each industry involved a

particular product’s life cycle focused on reducing environmental damage in its operations, which

was only one step in the cycle. Although these actions helped achieve reductions in energy use and

emissions from a specific industrial operation, they did not necessarily reduce the negative

environmental impact related to the consumption of materials and resources as a whole. They also did

not stop the shifting of burdens—that is, solving one problem in the cycle while creating another

somewhere else. Solutions to problems at one step in the process may seem optimal, but in the long

term they may be detrimental or even counterproductive.

Figure 16.4 The elements of a product’s life cycle.

Wind power is a good example of how life-cycle thinking is used. Wind power, which can help us

meet our demand for energy from a sustainable source while minimizing climate change, requires

large stable structures that are made from materials such as steel. These materials give the turbines

both strength and durability. Building large, taller wind turbines that can reach higher, faster winds

and, therefore, may be more efficient in converting wind into electricity has been a goal of electric

utilities. A wind turbine itself emits no CO2 while in use, and its carbon footprint (i.e., the amount of

CO2 released) can be calculated by adding together the CO2 created in its manufacture, maintenance,

and disposal. While in operation, it produces no CO2. Thus, because it is replacing electricity that

would have been generated by burning fossil fuels, it offsets CO2 that otherwise would have been


A life-cycle approach can be used to calculate the carbon payback for the wind turbine. An audit

of the energy consumption in manufacture, operation, and end-of-life steps reveals that this amount of

energy required will be offset by the energy produced in the wind turbine’s operation. Usually it takes

6 to 9 months of operation for a wind turbine to pay back the energy used to manufacture, maintain,

and dispose of it. During the last 10 years, however, new designs have reduced the amount of steel

needed for wind towers by more than 50%. This reduction in weight also reduces the associated

energy needed for manufacture. As a consequence, carbon payback for the new towers will occur in a

much shorter time than it did for the older towers. Life-cycle thinking makes one aware that the choice

of materials will lead to a reduction in energy needed for manufacture, which in turn will lead to a

turbine that has a bigger positive impact on climate change and the consumption of natural resources.

Life-Cycle Assessment

Although industry first started to be concerned about the life cycle of manufactured materials in the

1970s, only in the past several years has the methodology to perform a life-cycle assessment (LCA)

evolved sufficiently to permit its widespread use. This evolution has largely been led by the Society

of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. An international standard for LCA is now being

produced by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as part of the ISO 14000

Standards for Environmental Management Systems.

As LCA methods evolve, they are becoming able to accommodate a wide variety of products,

including petrochemicals, electronics, printing, carpets, packaging, and automobiles. Data from past

assessments can now be used to apply LCA methods to new products. In addition, computer-based

tools have become available that can lead the user through LCA. One of the best LCA methods has

been developed by Environment Canada. The following section describes the four steps that

Environment Canada follows when doing LCA.

Product Life-Cycle Mapping

Step 1 is to create a life-cycle map for the product. This map also serves as a basis for understanding

and communicating about LCA, both within a company and with others in the life cycle. A life-cycle

map can be seen in Figure 16.5 for the production of sandwich spread made from soybean oil. It

begins with the steps that must be taken to grow the soybean (cultivation, fertilizer, insecticides) and

then shows the steps involved in extracting the soybean oil. Next, the oil is blended with milk

products to make a spread. It is then packaged and transported to the consumer, it is consumed by the

end user, and finally its packaging and any unused spread are discarded.

Life-Cycle Stages

Extracting/harvesting of raw materials—primary extraction of resources by mining or harvesting

Formulating/processing—refining, smelting, milling, or other processing of raw materials

Manufacturing/packaging—forming, combining, and/or assembling finished materials into end-use

products; includes primary packaging

Transportation and distribution—transportation, warehousing, and retailing, as well as other

activities required to get the materials or product to market (may occur at various points in the

life cycle)

Use—operation of the product, including maintenance/repair (servicing)

Reuse and recycling—management of useful components/materials remaining at the end of the

product’s life

Disposal—final disposal of waste remaining at the end of the product’s life

Identifying Inputs and Outputs

Step 2 is to identify the inputs and outputs associated with the product life cycle.

Figure 16.5 A life-cycle map for the production of sandwich spread made from soybean oil. It begins with the steps that must be taken

to grow the soybean (cultivation, fertilizer, insecticides) and then shows the steps involved in extracting the soybean oil. Next, the oil is

blended with milk products to make a spread. It is then packaged and transported to the consumer, it is consumed by the end user, and

finally its packaging and any unused spread are discarded.


Main materials, products, and equipment—used to produce the intended product

Supplementary materials—such as packaging, consumables for production machinery (e.g.,

lubrication and engine oil), or replacement parts that wear out (e.g., belts, filters)

Energy—including electricity and/or fuels

Transportation-related energy—to deliver materials or final products or to move workers

Water—for industrial processes, steam, to be consumed by humans or animals, cleaning, or



Marketable products—main products and useful co-products

Air emissions from fuel combustion and electricity generation—include greenhouse gases, acidforming or ozone/smog-generating gases, hazardous air pollutants, and particulates

Water effluents—discharges to lakes, rivers, or groundwater (e.g., specific regulated pollutants,

acidic compounds, nutrients, heavy metals, domestic sewage, oxygen demanding organic

materials, and waste heat)

Solid and liquid wastes—collected and disposed of in landfills or hazardous waste facilities

Land/wilderness/wildlife—wildlife habitat damage, soil disturbances, land clearing, vegetation

control, clearing wilderness areas

Accidental releases—release of chemicals or biological agents that may pose significant

environmental, health, or safety risks, and may require emergency response training, planning,

or equipment

Design Checklist

Step 3 is to identify environmental improvements to the product and product system within a life

cycle. The design checklist suggested by Environment Canada can be seen in Table 16.1.

Table 16.1

Design Checklists

Engage Suppliers

Step 4 is to identify suppliers and ask them if they will participate in the LCA. Some information for

life-cycle management can be obtained from industrial average inputs and outputs associated with the

raw material. In addition, it can be valuable, and sometimes necessary, to obtain information for LCA

directly from suppliers.

Leapfrog Technology

The term “leapfrogging,” when used in the context of a country’s sustainable development, is a

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Axiom 5. Sustainability Requires that Substances Introduced into the Environment from Human Activities Be Minimized and Rendered Harmless to Biosphere Functions

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