Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals
Unit 1 - A New Perspective
2: What has led to a lack of Sustainability?
develop an understanding of the core reasons for
the current unsustainable situation. To also cover
some of the reasons why there are ever increasing
pressures on the planet’s ecosystems and natural
resources to provide enough for the increasing global
population. Fundamentally, modern society’s
development is unsustainable, as the real cost of
these increasing pressures - and further increasing
negative social and environmental impacts in the
future - are not included in the price of goods
K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage
of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and
Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan,
1: 'Externalities: Who Pays?' (2 pages), pp 22-23.
4: 'Collaborative Approaches' (2 pages), pp 60-61.
11: 'The tragedy of the commons: 35 Years on'
(3.5 pages), pp 178-181.
1. One reason why our economy is essentially on
an unsustainable trajectory is because nature has
not been directly valued in the marketplace and
therefore has not been given prominence by classical
economics in the decision making processes of governments
the Australian Treasury department stated,
Inappropriate behaviour can also arise where
government policies fail to provide appropriate
incentives. For example, pricing water below the
full cost (i.e. including the environmental cost)
will lead to overuse, with a resultant increase
in salinity and decline in river quality.
2. Classical economics has not been able to adequately
consider the effects of industry on ecosystems,
biodiversity and natural resources, especially the
impacts of industrial waste. There are real challenges
in properly costing the value to the economy of
ecosystem services. The classical economics of Adam
Smith was a significant step forward but it analysed
society as a closed system where natural ecosystems
were considered to be an infinite source of resources
and services and an infinite sink for wastes, which
is obviously a false assumption.
3. When the industrial revolution began, it was
perhaps understandable that nature was not valued
appropriately, because there was so much of it,
and our activities seemed so small in comparison.
Impacts on the world’s ecosystems were largely
ignored, as the concept that we could damage the
earth’s primary systems through our activities
was unfathomable. However, as we are now seeing,
this is no longer the case.
4. Environmental degradation has also been exacerbated
by difficulties in managing the public ‘commons’,
which are resources that are common to everyone.
This has led to the ‘tragedy of the commons’:
fisheries for example - since everyone has access
to the same fishing grounds, there are no incentives
not to overfish, since there is only a
finite amount of fish and it is in your interest
to ensure that your competitors do not take more
fish than you.
5. Additional reasons for a lack of Sustainability
Short-term market pressures for business profits.
of capacity building of professionals, such
as engineers, architects, and accountants in
how to achieve sustainable development.
Lack of information for the consumer, such as
independent trustworthy labelling, to determine
what products are environmentally friendly.
Lack of collaboration between various groups
actively seeking sustainable outcomes.
Lack of market incentives for innovation to
achieve sustainable technologies and practices,
while government continues to subsidise existing
Lack of partnerships amongst the peak bodies
of society to help build the political will
for sustainable development.
The short term political cycle of four years
tends to provide little reward for long term
thinking and planning.
following information provides a brief overview
of the related background material, from Chapter
3 of The Natural Advantage of Nations.
Role of Externalities in the Problem Definition
Fundamentally, current modes of development are
ecologically not sustainable because the real costs
of damage to the environment are largely externalised
from the marketplace. Economists call these externalities.
Externalities are present whenever an individual
or a firm can take an action that directly affects
others and for which it neither pays nor is paid
compensation. It therefore does not bear all the
consequences of its action. The effect of the action
is ‘external’ to the individual or the
firm. Externalities are widespread. Anything from
a child creating a mess in a home, to someone smoking
in a restaurant, to a factory emitting CO2 into
the atmosphere are all creating externalities.
Whenever a firm produces pollution and does not
have to pay for it, it is creating an externality
that someday will have to be dealt with. Impacts
will be felt both at a local level - through costs
of soil remediation, waste treatment and toxics
storage, to the international scale where for instance,
UNEP and Munich Re estimate that the direct costs
of global warming will be US$500 billion per annum
to the world economy by 2050.
go about our lives making many decisions based
on cost. All of us base many decisions on a formal
or informal cost benefit analysis. When the market
price does not reflect the true costs of our decisions
these are called externalities. In these situations
there is much government can do. Government policies
in keeping the price of water for farmers low
globally has led to excessive use of water, draining
water from underground basins built up over centuries,
lowering the water table, and in some cases, leaching
out of the soil. For instance, in many countries,
much of the timber lies on government lands and
the government, in making the land available,
has paid less attention to concerns about environmental
impacts than it has to the pleading of timber
Ken Henry, Secretary to
the Treasury, Australia, 2004
As the Australian Treasury Department has stated,
‘people generally are unlikely to produce
socially optimal environmental outcomes when they
do not face the full benefits and costs of their
actions’. Under these circumstances,
individuals are likely to place greater weight on
the costs they bear themselves, rather than the
costs their purchases impose on others.
It would therefore make sense to properly value
the importance of ecosystem services to the economy
and communities. However, valuing the costs of these
externalities is a difficult task. What price is
a stable climate worth? How can one put a price
on access to drinkable, unpolluted water or breathable
air? The challenge of defining values for what are
public goods, often not in the marketplace, is in
essence what has prevented governments and business
(i.e. the marketplace) from properly internalising
environmental costs into their decision making processes.
Valuing Nature’s Services and Environmental
Millions of conservationists around the world
find motivation every day in the beauty, spirit,
and extra-human value of the world. And, as long
as life and humans remain on earth, there will
be a need for conservationists.
William Lines, Australian philosopher
Why is applying a financial value to ecosystems
so difficult? Because the services nature provides
humanity and our economy are ‘priceless’.
When a group of experts in the field calculated
the value of nature's ecosystem services they found
it was worth a combined value of at least US$36
trillion annually. That figure is close to the annual
gross world product, which is approximately US$39
trillion - a striking measure of the value of natural
capital to the economy. Ecosystem services in Australia
have been valued by CSIRO at AU$1,327 billion per
annum. In addition:
calculate the current cost to American agriculture
of the decrease in pollination services through
the impact on the population of bees at around
US$5 billion per year. In the mid-USA the single
biggest cost to alfalfa growers is the provision
of beehives for crop pollination.
A recent study showed that the provision of
adequate clean water to New York City by forests
in the Catskill Mountains was equivalent to
a capital investment of US$6-8 billion and an
annual $1-2 billion operating cost for a plant
to carry out the same service.
Even calculating the financial cost of the damage
currently being done to ecosystems is very difficult,
as these systems are highly complex and dynamic.
In addition, it is hard to measure the decline of
ecosystem resilience because environmental problems
are interrelated and often feedback on each other,
hence as Professor Norman Myers, an Oxford University
ecologist, points out, ‘when one problem
combines with another problem, the outcome may be
not a double problem, but a super-problem’.
When different phenomena feedback on each other
scientists call these ‘coupling effects’.
The impacts of the greenhouse effect alone may be
significantly mitigated, but when these are combined
with deforestation and erosion, biodiversity and
species loss, intensive modern agriculture with
chemical fertilisers and pest control, and increasing
urban waste streams, then the stress on the Earth’s
ecosystem can no longer be ignored. Rather it can
lead to events that are becoming known as ‘environmental
surprises’, when thresholds are reached.
’Everyone is aware of the environmental
problems of global warming and deforestation on
the one hand and the social problems of increasing
poverty on the other hand’, says Astrid
Heiberg, President of the International Federation
of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
‘But when these three factors collide,
you have a new scale of catastrophe.’
The 2001 Red Cross report pointed out that 1 billion
people live in unplanned shanty towns, and that
40 of the 50 fastest growing cities are at risk
of earthquakes. Rainforests cover only seven percent
of the globe, yet 50 percent of the world's rain
falls on these areas. Hence deforestation makes
these areas highly prone to floods, loss of topsoil,
mudslides and general erosion the rainforests would
have otherwise mitigated. The impact of Hurricane
Mitch on the Honduran economy in 1998 was estimated
at equivalent to three-quarters of annual GDP. For
small island economies, the relative magnitude of
losses can be higher again.
Other Examples of Environmental Surprise include:
The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, once
the most abundant land bird on the planet -
due to habitat loss, forest fragmentation, hunting,
and disturbance of nesting.
Introduced Species, such as the explosion of
population experienced in ‘Cane Toads’
in Queensland brought in from Hawaii to eat
the ‘Cane Beetle’. The toads didn’t
even eat the beetles and now reproduce at around
30,000 eggs per pair of toads spawning.
Impacts on the reproductive system of the Bald
Eagle in the 1960s and 1970s from the pesticide
DDT accumulating at the top of the food chain.
The hole in the earth's ozone shield over Antarctica
in the late 1980s caused by chemical reactions
involving chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the
atmosphere and thus increasing the amount of
dangerous ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching
Global Warming & Environmental Surprise
Dr Colin Butler, Australia’s representative
for the UN Millennium Assessment writes that,
the more distant future, yet not so far away that
it can be safely ignored, climate change may have
even more drastic adverse effects on civilisation.
Three such risks are massive sea level rise from
the collapse of the Greenland or Western Antarctic
runaway greenhouse gas accumulation from the failure
of the terrestrial carbon sink (for example as
forest ecosystems change from net sinks to net
sources of carbon);
and a significant weakening of the oceanic ‘conveyor
belt’ currents which warms Western Europe.
Furthermore, few people appreciate that it is
the loss of ecosystem services from global warming
that may end up being the largest cost of global
Why? Simply because so few appreciate the stress
the planet’s ecosystems will be under once
climate change occurs more significantly. While
it is true that the earth has gone through climate
change before of 1-6 degrees Celsius, in the past
ecosystems and species could migrate and move
to cope with that stress. By contrast, our ‘wilderness
areas’ are rapidly reducing and becoming
largely unconnected pockets. If global warming
is allowed to continue, and all the fossil fuel
reserves are burnt, the concentration of CO2 and
other Greenhouse Gases will increase six-fold.
Ecosystems and species will not be able to migrate
as they did during the previous times of climate
change. Scientists are already forecasting global
warming of 1-6 degrees Celsius, with a doubling
of the concentration of CO2. Already climate change
thus far has led to the bleaching of a significant
percentage of the world's coral reefs. It will
be impossible for ecosystems to migrate while
we undertake this experiment with the planet.
The key point then is that different pressures
on the world’s ecosystems from different
sources have a compounding effect on each other.
The impacts of the greenhouse effect alone can
be mitigated, but when these are combined with
deforestation, the conversion of vast land masses
to modern agriculture, increasing poverty, and
urban development, the stress on our remaining
ecosystems will soon be hard to ignore.
In 2003, a report by the World Bank listed the
risks of environmental damage and social unrest
as major factors that, if not addressed and significant
progress made, will limit the extent to which
the world economy can grow. It has been argued
by research organisations such as Rocky Mountain
Institute and the Wuppertal Institute, that we
are facing a new form of ‘limiting factor’
today, unlike anything our economies have faced
before - soon it will be forests not mills, fisheries
not boats, that will be the limiting factor for
economic growth. Herman Daly, a leading academic
ecological economist, previously working at the
World Bank, advanced similar arguments over ten
Recognising the problem of potential global climate
change the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) in 1988. The role of the IPCC is
to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic
information relevant for the understanding of
the risk of human-induced climate change. It does
not carry out new research nor does it monitor
climate related data. It bases its assessment
mainly on published and peer reviewed technical
scientific literature. The reports from the IPCC
are used in global climate negotiations and their
findings have been corroborated by the USA National
Academy of Sciences.
Bright, C. (2000) State of the World Report,
Worldwatch Institute, W.W. Norton & Company,
New York, London, Chapter 2: Anticipating Environmental
Surprise, pp 22-38.
Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring, Houghton
Hughes, D. (1975) Ecology in Ancient Civilizations,
University of New Mexico Press.
McNeill, W. (1975) Plagues and Peoples,
Anchor/Doubleday, New York.
Scheffer, M., Carpenter, S., Foley, J., Folke, C.
and Walker, B. (2001) ‘Catastrophic Shifts
In Ecosystems’, Nature, vol 413,
Tainter, J. (1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies,
Cambridge University Press, London.
Students may be interested in two movie options
that explore through images and music, the history
of the planet and modern day implications of human
'Koyaanisqatsi' (or ‘Life out of Balance’)
Australian Treasury Department (2001) Public Good
Conservation and the Impact of Environmental Measures
Imposed on Landholders , Economic Roundup - Centenary
Edition, CanPrint Communications, Canberra . Available
. Accessed 25 Nov 2006. (Back)
Henry, K. (2004) Head of Treasury Australia's
Speech to the 30th Anniversary of the ANU Masters
Program, Canberra. (Back)
Lines, W.J. (2001) Open Air essays, New
Holland, Sydney. (Back)
Red Cross (2001) Red Crescent World Disasters
Report 2001. Available at www.ifrc.org/publicat/wdr2001/chapter8.asp.
Accessed 7 June 2006. (Back)
Available at: Science Net Links (2004) Changing
World 1: Endocrine Disrupters. Available at www.sciencenetlinks.com/lessons.cfm?BenchmarkID=7&DocID=407.
Accessed 7 June 2006. (Back)
Bacon, S. (1999) 'Decadal variability in the outflow
from the Nordic seas to the deep Atlantic Ocean ',
Nature, vol 394, pp 871-4. (Back)
O'Neill, B. and Oppenheimer, M. (2002) 'Dangerous
climate impacts and the Kyoto protocol', Science,
vol 296, pp 1971-2. (Back)
Cox, P. Betts, R., Jones, C., Spall, S. and Totterdell,
I. (2000) 'Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle
feedbacks in a coupled climate model', Nature,
vol 408, pp 184-7. (Back)
IPCC (2001) Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report,
Synthesis of the Third Assessment Report, Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, United Nations Environment
Program/World Meteorological Organisation, Cambridge
University Press. (Back)
Committee on the Science of Climate Change, National
Research Council (2001) Climate Change Science:
An Analysis of Some Key Questions, National Academic
Press. Available at http://books.nap.edu/html/climatechange/climatechange.pdf.
Accessed 7 June 2006). (Back)
Natural Edge Project Engineering Sustainable Solutions
Program is supported by the Australian National Commission
for UNESCO through the International Relations Grants
Program of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.