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Cover Story

August 18, 2008
Volume 86, Number 33
pp. 70-77

Sticks and Carrots

From individuals to international governmental bodies, moving toward sustainability requires policy

Cheryl Hogue

"GOVERNMENT" and "sustainability" aren't words often uttered in the same breath. Yet from towns and counties to states to federal agencies, and even at the United Nations, governments are grappling with how to integrate environmental concerns into policies that affect people and the economy.


Governments face the challenge of translating the "elegant concept" of sustainability—or sustainable development, as it was first called—into concrete actions, says Janet Ranganathan, vice president for science and research at the World Resources Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "How do you 'do' sustainability? It's an elusive thing," she says.

Governments are taking a stab at it, nonetheless.

An important component in this work is recognizing that not every effort on sustainability will be perfect, says Eric Friedman, who heads Massachusetts' sustainability program. Programs are based on the best information available, as well as on fiscal, resource, and time constraints. Eventually, if a program isn't working, government needs to modify or stop it, he says. For example, biofuels have been hailed as a promising, sustainable choice. But as the impacts of growing corn for ethanol have become obvious, including strains on water supplies and rising food prices, policymakers are rethinking this option. The solution can become the problem.

Many governments are seeking to set an example for the rest of society by making their own operations more sustainable. They have their work cut out for them. One big challenge is building bridges among government agencies with nonoverlapping, specific mandates. Separate mandates handed down by legislatures can make it difficult for governments to have coherent programs promoting sustainability. Most government efforts on sustainability start in environment departments, which generally don't have a lot of power compared with other agencies. This is the situation at all levels, from local governments through national ones, Ranganathan says. Even internationally, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) has far less sway than do other parts of the UN, she says.

UNEP can be viewed as leading the global organization's push for sustainability, even though other UN agencies are also involved in sustainable development. Most notable among these is the UN Development Program, which focuses on poverty reduction.

As UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner sees it, his agency "is the lead authority within the UN system looking at issues of environment and sustainability of our resources on the planet." Among the issues UNEP grapples with are renewable energy, water resources, climate change, biodiversity, and chemicals policy.

UNEP's role in sustainability is twofold, Steiner tells C&EN. It brings scientific information to policymakers to make them aware of what is happening to the world's "natural capital," the environmental resources on which people depend, he says. In addition, Steiner says, "We translate that into policy advice for transforming our economies into greener economies." For instance, UNEP promotes cleaner industrial production and helps developing countries increase their ability to ensure safe use of chemicals.

The UN can arguably lay claim to bringing forth the idea of sustainability. In 1987, at the behest of the UN General Assembly, the UN Commission on Environment & Development released a highly influential report, "Our Common Future." The commission, led by Norway's former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, described sustainable development as ensuring that humanity "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The report, issued as a book, sparked the international discussion that led to the watershed UN Conference on Environment & Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Setting the stage Brundtland, (in green), shown here at the 1992 Earth Summit, headed the UN commission that defined sustainable development.

At that conference, also known as the Earth Summit, world leaders from U.S. President George H. W. Bush to Cuba's Fidel Castro formally embraced sustainable development as a goal before a global audience. At the gathering, heads of governments signed two international environmental treaties, one to address climate change and the other to protect the diversity of life on Earth. They also endorsed the concept of sustainable development, which has repercussions for the entire chemical enterprise, in a pronouncement called the Rio Declaration on Environment & Development. And they sanctioned a policy road map, called Agenda 21, to lead the world to sustainability in the 21st century. Agenda 21 covers a swath of issues from chemical policies to the state of the oceans to poverty alleviation.

Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration continue to guide international efforts on sustainable development. These documents most recently led countries, through the UN, to establish the 2006 Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management. That agreement lays out policy tools that developing countries can use to govern the manufacture, transport, use, and disposal of chemicals while protecting human health and the environment. These tools include a new global system for labeling and classifying substances, which features internationally agreed upon cautionary statements and symbols for chemical properties such as toxicity.

Although the Earth Summit was a meeting for heads of state, it attracted many business and activist groups. The conference synergized connections among environmental, women's rights, poverty-fighting, and other organizations from around the world. And it led to the creation of several organizations focused on sustainable development, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. This association of some 200 companies from 35 countries includes chemical makers such as 3M, Air Products & Chemicals, Asahi Glass, Bayer, China Petrochemical, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Henkel, Mitsubishi Chemical, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Procter & Gamble, Rohm and Haas, S. C. Johnson & Son, Syngenta, and Unilever. The council is active in boosting energy efficiency of buildings and establishing sustainable value chains, which involve looking at the cradle-to-grave eco-efficiency of a product from its manufacture, through use, to disposal. For the council, eco-efficiency is the quality of being both environmentally benign and economically beneficial.

PLANTING IDEAS Steiner says UNEP brings scientific information about the environment to the attention of government officials and translates that data into advice for greening national policies.

After the Earth Summit, individual national governments turned to crafting domestic policies to foster sustainable development. In the U.S., President Bill Clinton chartered the President's Council on Sustainable Development to advise the U.S. government. Its two dozen or so members included representatives of chemical makers Dow Chemical and S. C. Johnson. The council, which met from 1993 through 1999, was in part an awareness-raising group; for example, it held a "national town meeting" to spread the word about green activities occurring around the U.S. It also set goals for a sustainable U.S. These goals include ensuring the health of people and the environment, economic prosperity, sustainable communities, and moving toward stabilizing the U.S. population. One of the specific steps the council called for to reach those goals is for companies and the government to proactively investigate emerging risks to health and the environment, including those caused by chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system.

IN CONTRAST to Clinton, President George W. Bush has put little emphasis on sustainability during his Administration. Nonetheless, many federal agencies have programs related to sustainability, some of which either affect the chemical enterprise directly or influence the market for its products.

For example, the Commerce Department has a sustainable manufacturing initiative that promotes the development and use of cleaner, more energy-efficient technology. The Interior Department is greening its operations in various ways, from buying more environmentally friendly cleaning products for its facilities to preventing pollution in marinas. The Department of Energy works on energy efficiency and renewable energy, especially for buildings. Both the General Services Administration, which is responsible for design, construction, renovation, and rental of most federal buildings, and the Department of Veterans Affairs have implemented standards for reducing energy use and for constructing greener buildings, including the use of environmentally preferable building materials. These federal efforts are creating strong drivers for the chemical community to make the materials and products necessary for all of this greening action.

Unlike these other agencies, the State Department has no internal sustainability program. Yet its diplomats provide the official U.S. government position on sustainable development to the rest of the world. Chemical industry lobbying groups often consult with the State Department on international environmental issues related to sustainability.

The sustainability movement suffers from ambiguities in its definition. Some U.S. agencies embrace narrow meanings of sustainability outside of environmentally friendly ones and more within financial and economic contexts. For instance, the Department of Housing & Urban Development is concerned with a sustainable housing market and the sustainability of home ownership, whereas the Department of Health & Human Services worries about the financial sustainability of Medicare. The Treasury Department assesses the sustainability of debt. The chemical industry also is striving for several types of sustainability that collectively involve economic viability, financial health, resource consumption and reduction, and health and pollution issues.

The Defense Department, a huge user of fuel and chemical products and the nation's largest polluter, also takes a multifaceted view of sustainability. For it, sustainability has three main goals: maintaining military readiness, protecting the environment, and ensuring the health of communities near defense installations.

STILL OTHER DEFINITIONS come from various groups. For example, the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN, also embraces the concept of sustainability. According to an ACS position statement, "Sustainability presents a path forward that allows humanity to meet current environmental and human health, economic, and societal needs without compromising the progress and success of future generations." Furthermore, the society says, the chemical enterprise "has an ongoing obligation to ensure that the benefits arising from its products, processes, and services are not unduly compromised by inherent hazards or harmful practices."

Not surprisingly, in the U.S. government the modern notion of sustainability is most fully developed at the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA makes it clear that "sustainability" is today's lingo for last-century's "sustainable development." Its definition of sustainability is almost word-for-word the same as the Brundtland Commission's description of sustainable development.

EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson links the goal of sustainability to personal accountability. "Sustainability begins with the premise that environmental responsibility is everyone's responsibility," he says. "It needs to be an everyday commitment."

Johnson is optimistic. He says the U.S. is stepping up to the challenge and "is shifting to what I'd refer to as a green culture." He tells C&EN: "Whether you are on Wall Street or on Main Street, we're seeing people are changing the way they think and the way they act in regard to environmental protection. And everyone is now working toward and sees the need of becoming a more sustainable society."

Much of the agency's work on sustainability focuses on collaborations with businesses and other governments. "EPA can't solve all the problems" by itself, Johnson says.

THE AGENCY CLASSIFIES many of its voluntary, nonregulatory programs as promoting sustainability, especially those aimed at energy or water conservation or designed to prevent, rather than limit, pollution. These programs run the gamut from environmentally preferable purchasing by universities, local governments, and other institutions, to EPA's product stewardship effort that encourages companies to look at what they sell, starting at manufacturing and running through sales and use to disposal. These nonregulatory efforts include green chemistry and green buildings programs and the Design for the Environment program, through which EPA works with various industrial sectors, including the chemical industry, to improve the performance of and decrease the health and environmental risks from products, processes, and practices. The agency even considers one of its newest research efforts???computational toxicology, a field blending molecular biology and chemistry with computing power???a sustainability program.

Both voluntary efforts with industry and a tough enforcement program to ensure that environmental lawbreakers don't get a competitive edge are needed to advance sustainability, Johnson says. Enforcement is a "critical component" for a regulatory agency, he says, noting that the goal of legal actions against violators is environmental improvement. "The key is it's not one or the other. It has to be both," he says of voluntary program "carrots" used to reward progressive companies and enforcement "sticks" to punish offenders.

The agency's activities to promote sustainability go beyond its walls. EPA sponsors an annual design competition for college students called People, Prosperity & the Planet. The awards aim to develop, and in some case implement, scientific and technical solutions to environmental problems. Winners in 2008 included a University of California, Davis, project to produce plastic with bacteria from wastewater and Loyola University Chicago students' construction of a laboratory to make biodiesel from the college cafeteria's waste oil. This competition is part of that shift toward a green culture that Johnson speaks of. In this vein, the agency also presents Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards each year to individuals, groups, and organizations to recognize cleaner, cheaper, and smarter chemistry innovations (see page 59).

In addition to working with businesses and academe, EPA engages other levels of governments, from local to national, in seeking sustainable solutions to environmental challenges.

EPA also works with other countries through international organizations. For instance, EPA works with its counterpart agencies in Canada and Mexico through the Commission on Environmental Cooperation established under the North American Free Trade Agreement. The three countries exchange data about commercial chemicals under the Security & Prosperity Partnership begun in 2005.

EPA also participates in an effort by more than 30 industrialized nations under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development to assess the potential risks and benefits of nanomaterials. In this case, nations are choosing to preempt what otherwise could become widespread environmental catastrophes, such as the release of chemicals that depleted stratospheric ozone through much of the 20th century. Instead, the technical community has a chance to leverage nanomaterials for the good they offer without unleashing the bad they could harbor if not managed well.

Eric Vance/EPA
ACCOUNTABILITY "Environmental responsibility is everyone's responsibility," according to EPA's Johnson.

In addition, EPA works closely with states that carry out federal programs to control water and air pollution and waste, Johnson notes. State regulatory activities, he says, are a key component of achieving sustainability.

Although states have major responsibility for running environmental protection programs, only a few have dedicated efforts on sustainability, and they represent a hodgepodge of ideas. That is probably because states also have different views on what constitutes sustainability. "There's difficulty in defining what sustainability is," says R. Steven Brown, executive director of the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), a coalition of U.S. states' top pollution control officials.

According to data assembled by ECOS, sustainability projects in states run the gamut from a single project "repurposing" existing programs to initiatives involving the entire state government. For example, in its plans to add rest stops along highways, Montana is incorporating recycled products, alternative energy, and xeriscaping—landscaping that does not require watering in the state's arid climate. New Mexico, meanwhile, has deemed that its work on pollution prevention now falls under the rubric of sustainability. Illinois has given communities grants to address environmental challenges and to plan for a sustainable future. California, which has led in many areas of environmental policy, has, under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), a Green California initiative for green building, green purchasing, and conservation practices.

Two states, Oregon and Massachusetts, have extensive programs to make state government operations more sustainable.

Oregon has what is likely the most sweeping effort among states. Its initiative, which began with a 2000 directive from former Gov. John A. Kitzhaber (D), got a push from the State Legislature via a 2001 state law, and continues under a 2003 executive order from Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski (D). For Oregon, reaching sustainability requires simultaneously meeting environmental, economic, and community needs now and in the future.

When a state government acts, there is often a ripple effect to communities, says Elin Shepard, Oregon's statewide resource and sustainability coordinator. For instance, school districts and local governments may choose to adopt the state's practices, she says.

AMONG THE CHANGES adopted by Oregon is a green building policy that requires all newly constructed state buildings and all major renovations to meet U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification. In addition, new buildings and major renovations must exceed Oregon's already high energy savings requirements by 20%, Shepard says. Plus, the state hopes to install photovoltaic panels on public buildings where it is practical.

Meanwhile, Oregon's procurement policies require consideration of life-cycle costs, including the dollars needed to purchase, use, and dispose of goods ranging from computer equipment to janitorial supplies. Vendors have to supply laboratory results verifying the most sustainable attributes of products, such as biodegradability and low toxicity, Shepard says. For the chemical enterprise, this requirement creates a demand for greener chemicals used in new formulations and products. "We're trying to drive the market and innovation," Shepard says.

The Massachusetts effort, meanwhile, started in 2002 as the State Sustainability Program and is now called Leading By Example. Friedman, who heads the program, says much of the effort has focused on implementing energy-saving technologies and measures at the thousands of buildings the state owns. In addition, the state is installing photovoltaics at a number of its facilities and soon will have a total photovoltaic capacity of 1 MW, he says.

The Massachusetts program includes a strategy to reduce the use of toxic chemicals, which could open a market for new substances and mean the loss of a big institutional customer for older compounds. The state's procurement policy for greener cleaners includes standards similar to those developed by the third-party certifying group Green Seal, Friedman says. In addition, Massachusetts is encouraging the use of biobased lubricants in equipment used around sensitive areas where an oily spill could wreak environmental havoc, such as lawn mowers cutting grass near a drinking water reservoir, he says. Plus, Massachusetts is reducing use of water treatment chemicals in building heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation systems and of chlorine in swimming pools at state parks.

Nanotechnology, which could be an important element in reaching sustainability and is dear to many involved with the chemical enterprise, is another issue states are working on. Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy and of environmental policy at the University of Michigan, says most states are encouraging the development of a nanomaterials industry within their borders to help build their economies. Some states are even pouring public money into nanotechnology research and development or helping fund start-up ventures. They recognize the enormous promise of nanomaterials for improving energy efficiency, cleaning up pollution, and launching new technology, Rabe says. And in the absence of federal regulation of nanomaterials, Rabe says, some states, such as California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, are also beginning to scrutinize safety concerns about the products of nanotechnology.

Local governments are doing their part too. Cities, towns, and counties from around the world work together through ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. The concept for the group emerged in 1989 when local government leaders from the U.S. and Canada met and pledged to enact laws to phase out chemicals that deplete stratospheric ozone. They organized in 1990 as the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives and changed the group's name in 2003 to reflect its broader mandate. Members of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability include some 815 local governments and their associations in 68 countries.

IN THE U.S., more than 450 cities and counties in 49 states and the District of Columbia are members. Their actions to promote sustainability range from decreasing garbage to encouraging a broad range of transportation choices, such as bike lanes, telecommuting, and car-sharing services. Many of their actions are directed at the products of the chemical industry and related sectors. For instance, in 2007, San Francisco became the first major municipality to ban plastic grocery bags in supermarkets and pharmacies. Santa Barbara, Calif., stopped buying bottled water and now serves tap water at city functions to save money and to reduce the use of plastic. And Chattanooga, Tenn., is using an environmentally friendly paving material that contains up to 50% recycled asphalt and costs about 20% less than new asphalt.

In the past five years, the U.S. chapter of ICLEI, based in Berkeley, Calif., has shifted its emphasis from a broad view of sustainable development to a more focused look at a single issue that is vital to sustainability—addressing climate change—says Annie E. Strickler, a spokeswoman for the group.

Local governments have been leaders and innovators in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Strickler says. As states, such as California, and eventually the U.S. Congress pass legislation to curb these emissions, local governments will also shoulder much of the responsibility for implementing the laws. For instance, local building-code standards for energy efficiency of new construction will be a vital part of reducing emissions, she says.

Massachusetts Leading by Example Program
JUICING UP The Massachusetts Maritime Academy sports a 660-kW wind turbine and an 82-kW solar installation.

As an international organization, ICLEI has attended UN negotiations on climate change, including a major meeting in December 2007 in Bali, Indonesia. Local governments "don't want to see their work discarded or disregarded," Strickler says, so they are providing input to the international negotiations. ICLEI, in partnership with the California Air Resources Board and the Climate Registry, is developing standardized methods for local governments to follow as they quantify and report the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their government operations.

Yet, as EPA's Johnson says, environmental responsibility is everyone's responsibility. The governance of the self is one of the most powerful forces in the push toward sustainability. Decisions individuals make about their behavior—such as whether to buy a push or gasoline-powered mower, to turn lights off, to do laundry in cold water, to eat meat or not—can, collectively, influence the market and affect the environment. People's decisions, in turn, can sway the buying and behavioral choices of others, including neighbors and friends, or, if you're an entertainer like Ed Begley Jr., fans and viewers who may emulate your green lifestyle.

Likewise, individuals respond to markets and their gyrations—witness the slowing demand for gasoline as the per-gallon price soars—as well as to government mandates.

When governments ban plastic bags, consumers will opt for paper sacks or bring cloth bags on their shopping trips. When governments require environmentally friendly building materials, consumers will demand them. And that demand will spur producers including chemical makers to find ever greener products to stock in retail shelves. What governments do by example or by fiat to promote sustainable living can generate big financial rewards to inventors and manufacturers of greener materials.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society

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