The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development

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The Engineering Sustainable Solutions Program

Critical Literacies Portfolio


Introduction to Sustainable Development for Engineering and Built Environment Professionals

Unit 1 - A New Perspective


Educational Aims

Lecture 1: The Call for Sustainable Development

To provide the context within which the call for sustainable development arose. In its 2003 report, ‘Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World’, the World Bank summed up why so many people are now concerned about achieving sustainable development,[1]

The next 50 years could see a fourfold increase in the size of the global economy and significant reductions in poverty, but only if governments act now to avert a growing risk of severe damage to the environment and profound social unrest. Without better policies and institutions, social and environmental strains may derail development progress, leading to higher poverty levels and a decline in the quality of life for everybody.

Lecture 2: What has lead to a lack of Sustainability?
To 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 and services.

Lecture 3: Sustainability as a Driver of Innovation
To present theory regarding the next ‘wave of innovation’ and the emerging critical mass of enabling technologies that will achieve business competitiveness, improved economic growth and a more sustainable world. To explain that the transition to a sustainable economy, if focused on improving resource productivity through innovation, may actually lead to higher economic growth than business-as-usual. At the same time, it may also reduce environmental pressures and enhance employment. To also show that the rapid uptake of this next wave of innovation in sustainable development (to ensure development occurs within ecological limits) will depend significantly on the action of engineers. Hence it is vital that engineers are literate and trained in all these new methods to help society achieve sustainable development in the near future.

Lecture 4: Emerging Technological Innovations
To provide some examples of technological innovations that are beginning to drive what we have referred to as ‘the next Industrial Revolution’, for sustainable development. To also note the importance of existing innovations that may have the potential to be dramatically transformed.


The engineering profession will play a significant part in moving society to a more sustainable way of life. Recognising this, the Engineering Sustainable Solution Program (ESSP) seeks to provide engineers and built environment professionals with a basic understanding of sustainability issues and opportunities as they relate to their practice. The ESSP is designed to facilitate the effective incorporation of key pieces of information, or ‘critical literacies’, relating to sustainability into engineering curricula and capacity building. This program provides an alert to sustainability principles and activity in the engineering profession.

In the preparation of any education program, and in particular an introductory course, it is a challenge to cover all possible questions or uncertainties that may arise during delivery of the material. In response to this challenge, this program will be supported (in its critical academic rigour and structure) by engineering related material in the publication, The Natural Advantage of Nations, and its companion web site ( along with other key texts.

Required Reading

Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London.

The Text Book along with each of the units has an online companion to provide additional supporting material. Optional reading material is provided after each lecture for those who wish to explore the content in more detail.

The development of the Engineering Sustainable Solutions Program – Critical Literacies Portfolio has been supported by grants from the following organisations:

  • UNESCO, Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences, Natural Sciences Sector (with particular support and mentoring from Tony Marjoram, Senior Programme Specialist - Engineering Sciences, and Françoise Lee).

  • The Institution of Engineers Australia, College of Environmental Engineers (with particular support and mentoring from Martin Dwyer, Director Engineering Practice, and Peter Greenwood, Doug Jones, Andrew Downing, Tim Macoun, Julie Armstrong and Paul Varsanyi).

  • The Society for Sustainability and Environmental Engineering (with particular support and mentoring from Terrence Jeyaretnam).

Expert review and mentoring has been received from Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, The Biomimicry Guild (USA); Paul Anastas, Green Chemistry Institute (USA); Alan Pears RMIT University (AUS); Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute (USA); Tom Conner, KBR (AUS); and Mia Kelly, TNEP Working Group (AUS). We would like to add a special thank you to the Engineers Australia review panel Trevor Daniell, Thomas Brinsmead and David Hood.


Smith, M., Hargroves, K. and Paten, C. (2007) Engineering Sustainable Solutions Program: Critical Literacies Portfolio, The Natural Edge Project, Australia (TNEP).

Brief Background Information

Where Has Sustainability Come From?

A Geological Perspective
The following text excerpts are drawn with permission, from a presentation delivered by Molly Harris-Olsen to the 2005 Outdoor Education Conference (Tallebudgera, Australia, July 2005).

Today I want to challenge you to ‘Think like a Mountain’, to look back over the last 4.5 billion years, and forward to the next 1000 years of planet Earth. I want to challenge you to step out of your comfort zone, to contemplate the evolution of the planet that brought you here and grapple with the enormous challenges we face today. I want to challenge you to imagine what a sustainable civilisation will look like in the year three thousand (3000). Humanity in all its wonderful diversity, living on an ecologically rich, climate stable, healthy, peaceful planet Earth.

John Seed and Joanna Macy in their ground breaking book titled Thinking Like a Mountain created one of the earliest modern methods of changing the way we look at the world and humanity’s place in it. The workshops that they began in the 1980s called ‘Towards a Council of all Beings’ included a meditation of ‘Evolutionary Remembering’, it begins:

Let us go back, way back before the birth of our planet Earth, back to the mystery of the universe coming into being. We go back to a time of primordial silence… of emptiness… before the beginning of time… the very ground of all being. From this state of immense potential, an unimaginably powerful explosion takes place… energy travelling at the speed of light hurtles in all directions, creating direction, creating the universe. It is so hot in these first moments that no matter can exist; only pure energy in the form of light… thus time and space are born. Using a compressed time scale (one day = 750, 000, 000 years), the Earth is formed out of the solar nebula Sunday at midnight, the beginning of the 1st day. All day Monday is spent getting geologically organized. There is no life until Tuesday noon. Amazingly, life, beginning with that first prokaryote cell in the primordial oceans, lifts itself by its own bootstraps, and survives!

About Wednesday at midnight, photosynthesis gets going into high gear. Early Thursday morning in the wee hours, the eukaryote cells appear. Life begins then to really flourish and evolve into more complex forms. By Saturday morning (the sixth day, the last day of creation) there’s finally enough oxygen that the amphibians come onto the land, and there’s been enough chlorophyll manufactured for the fossil fuels to begin to form. Around four o’clock Saturday afternoon, the giant reptiles begin to appear. They hang around for quite a long time as species go, until 9:55pm, nearly six hours. Humanity should be so lucky.

About 20 minutes after they are gone, at 10:15 pm Saturday night, the primates appear. The Grand Canyon begins to take shape 16 minutes before midnight. Australapithecus, the first species on our branch off the main primate tree, shows up at 11:53 pm, seven minutes ago. Homo Sapien Sapien arrives at 11:59:54 pm – that is us!

Arriving on the scene just six seconds ago! ‘Let the party begin!’ with just a little over one second to go, 1.2 seconds in geologic time, we (i.e. our forbearers) throw off the habits of hunting and gathering to become farmers, and begin to change and sacrifice the environment to suit, and feed our appetites... one fortieth of a second ago, the industrial revolution ushers in the age of technology; an eightieth of a second ago, we discover oil (the party picks up steam); one/two-hundredth of a second ago, we learn how to split the atom. The party gets very dangerous indeed. And now it’s midnight, the beginning of the seventh day.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, numbering some 2000 (including more than 100 Nobel Laureates), say we have ‘one to a few’ decades to reverse course. In other words, the next 200th of a second will be decisive; the time since we learned to split the atom, that short span of time projected not backward, but into the future, will decide our fate.

John Seed and Joanna Macy, 1998[2]

Looking Back at Sustainability Discussions
When was the first articulation of engineering for sustainable development? Most would expect this occurred sometime during the 1960s or 1970s. In fact, the first documented articulation about the need for engineers to design sustainably and with awareness of the needs of future generations (intergenerational equity), comes from Professor Svante August Arrhenius (1859–1927) in his work, Chemistry in Modern Life (1925).
[3] Arrhenius was the Director of the Nobel Institute in Sweden at the time that he wrote,

Engineers must design more efficient internal combustion engines capable of running on alternative fuels such as alcohol, and new research into battery power should be undertaken… Wind motors and solar engines hold great promise and would reduce the level of CO2 emissions. Forests must be planted… To conserve coal, half a tonne of which is burned in transporting the other half tonne to market… so the building of power plants should be in close proximity to the mines… All lighting with petroleum products should be replaced with more efficient electric lamps.

Professor Svante August Arrhenius, 1925[4]

Arrhenius called for the amount of waste from industry to be reduced, to ensure that future generations could also meet their needs for living. He argued that the industrial world had given rise to a new kind of international warrior, who he called the ‘conquistador of waste’. Arrhenius wrote,

Like insane wastrels, we spend that which we received in legacy from our fathers. Our descendants surely will sensor us for having squandered their just birthright… Statesman can plead no excuse for letting development go on to the point where mankind will run the danger of the end of natural resources in a few hundred years.

Arrhenius invoked the chemist’s commandment ‘Though Shall Not Waste’ to argue that legislation be enacted aimed at both reducing consumption and promoting conservation. Arrhenius above all believed in humanity’s capacity for innovation and foresight to solve these problems:

Doubtless humanity will succeed eventually in solving this problem… Herein lies our hope for the future. Priceless is that forethought which has lifted mankind from the wild beast to the high standpoint of civilized humanity.

He also saw the danger of resource wars, fearing a return to ‘dark times’ after the end of World War One:

Concern about our raw materials casts its dark shadow over mankind. Those states which lack [them] throw lustful glances at neighbours, which happen to have more than they use. Still more tempting is the desire for gain from lands on the other side of the seas, inhabited by uncivilized natives, with interest unawakened in guardianship.

Recognition of Ecological Limits
There have been many interesting findings about the way forests and trees were managed by villages in India in ancient times, and their careful methods of harvesting medicines, firewood, and building material in accordance with natural renewal rates. There is now a database being built of these 'sacred groves' across India. The Indian (Indus-Sarasvati) Civilisation was the world's first to build planned towns, with underground drainage, civil sanitation, hydraulic engineering, and air-cooling architecture. Oven baked bricks were invented in India in approximately 4,000 BC. From complex Harappan towns to Delhi's Qutub Minar and other large projects, India's indigenous technologies were very sophisticated in design, planning, water supply, traffic flow, natural air conditioning, complex stone work, and construction engineering.

Comparatively, it was a fuel crisis which led Ancient Greeks to use passive solar energy by orienting toward the sun. Greeks planned whole cities (Priene for instance) so all homes had access to sunlight during winter. John Perlin and co-author Ken Butti have written a history of passive solar design in A Golden Thread - 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology;
[5] an approach to heating and cooling homes through simple devices and architectural design rather than mechanically operated systems.

Note: Students may be interested in exploring the successes and failures of past civilisations in Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’[6]. The chapter on Australia’s journey and the final chapters provide a good snapshot of his argument - that there is nothing inevitable about the survival of a civilisation, and that population and material consumption are currently outrunning the planet’s capacity. Diamond’s hypothesis is that a common factor in civilisation decline is environmental decline that is ignored by the population and its leaders.

Past Developments Powered by the Sun
Before the industrial revolution, many societies used renewable solar energy from the Sun as the cheap energy source. For instance, wind-driven mills were used as early as 700 AD in Persia for irrigation and milling grain. Solar power was used in everything from sailing boats and ships, to passive solar designed homes/buildings, to the drying of bricks for buildings, to the burning of biomass for the refining of metal and the making of swords.

In the early 1600s the rising cost and scarcity of wood led to authorities in England looking for alternative energy forms as well as a cheaper and more efficient means of transporting them to the capital. Engineers, politicians and the general public became aware that the amount of forests being cut down for building materials, furniture, heating fuel, and for the needs of industry and the military was unsustainable.

In 1603 James the First of England ordered that clean burning anthracite coal be burned in the fireplaces of his household. With the King of England setting the example, by 1700 London had made the transition from a wood burning city to one that relied mainly on imported coal. In 1784 when Benjamin Franklin visited Europe, he noted that the switch from wood to coal had saved what remained of England’s forests and he urged France and Germany to do the same. Scientists and engineers at the time were not aware of the scale of impact that the burning of coal could contribute to climate change.

Early Alarms over Burning Fossil Fuels
Guy Challender, a coal engineer, was one of the first to sound the alarm over increasing CO
2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Challender measured Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels in his spare time during the 1930s-1940s as well as researching historic CO2 levels. When he realised they were increasing in the Earth’s atmosphere he warned that burning fossil fuels would contribute to global warming. In the 1950s scientists explored the science behind why CO2 was not being significantly absorbed by the oceans and with Challenger’s empirical results, began recent efforts to understand and address climate change.

But it was not until 1987 that a critical mass of people round the globe realised how far greenhouse gas emissions were overshooting the planet’s ecological limits. In 1987 Antarctic results showed that the Earth’s atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and another greenhouse gas, methane (CH4), were well above the historic levels of the last 160,000 years. It was concluded that significant ‘Factor 10’[7] type reductions in these emissions would be needed to bring the planet back within its ecological limits.

Why Do We Need to Think ‘Sustainably’?

A key aspect to understanding why sustainability is so important, is understanding ecological system limitations and thresholds, so we can design within these systems. Although the planet is a complex system, our understanding has improved by orders of magnitude in the last two centuries. Raymond J. Cole, from the University of British Columbia cautions that, ‘irrespective of the social and economic context, the health of the biosphere is the limiting factor for sustainability’.

The following information provides a brief overview of the related background material. For a detailed description on the content of this part refer to Chapter 2, pages 36-42 of The Natural Advantage of Nations.

The State of the Atmosphere
According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), effects on climate due to pollution, land clearing and the industrial economy are now very apparent. As shown in Figure i and Figure ii below (based on air extracted from ice cores drilled in the Antarctic ice-cap), we appear to be experiencing a peaking of the natural cycle of greenhouse gases and temperatures, and to this peak we are adding more greenhouse gases from human activities.

Figure i. Changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in the atmosphere, in the last millennium.

Source: Etheridge et al (1996), pp 4115–4128[9]

Figure ii. Plot of CO2 Concentrations and Temperature from 400,000 years ago to 1950

Source: Petit, J. et al (1999), pp 429-436[10]

When considering Figure i and Figure ii, two points can be made:

  1. In 2006, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were at 380 parts per million (ppm) - they have not been above 300ppm for at least 400,000 years. Further, data based on isotope ratios in marine micro fossils suggests strongly that CO2 levels have not, in fact, been much above 300ppm for around 23 million years.

  2. CO2 pumped into the atmosphere will remain there for 80 to 100 years and so will influence temperature and contribute to the greenhouse effect long after its release. This means that even if new emissions of carbon dioxide are reduced the overall concentration of CO2 will continue to increase as the continuing emissions combine with background levels.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded in their 2001 report that at whatever level global warming is stopped, it will require a 70 percent cut in global emissions to do so. According to Dr Pearman, former chief of the CSIRO's Atmospheric Physics Division and Australia's representative on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ‘we don't have that much longer’. These conclusions may seem extreme but they come from a detailed understanding of atmospheric science and the future global trends in development, material and energy flow.

Stabilising concentrations at double the pre-industrial levels will require deep cuts in annual global emissions, eventually by 60 percent or more. To achieve stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 550 ppm (double the ‘natural’ levels of CO2) it is necessary to reduce emissions by 40-60 percent by the end of the century, and 65-85 per cent by 2150. Further reductions will be required beyond 2150.

International Panel on Climate Change, 2001[11]

Climate Change Scenarios
Some students may have seen fictional dramas like the movie The Day After Tomorrow directed by Roland Emmerich.[12] Although climate change in these types of fictional movies is often highly dramatised for viewer entertainment, the possible consequences of planetary climate change are increasingly popular topics of discussion and the IPCC has developed a number of climate change scenarios to evaluate future impacts. These scenarios show that even if it is assumed that rapid changes in economic structure and technology are adopted, CO2 concentrations will double by the end of the century, resulting in an increase in average global temperatures of around 2°C and a sea-level rise of 30cm.

The IPCC sums up by stating, ‘the climate system is subject to great inertia so that stabilization of CO2 concentrations, at any level, requires eventual reduction of global CO2 net emissions to a small fraction of the current emission level’.[13] Therefore it is vital that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions start sooner than later. The IPCC clearly states that, ‘the greater the reductions in emissions and the earlier they are introduced, the smaller and slower the projected warming and the rise in sea levels’.[14] Doubling of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 is forecast to cause a rise in global warming in the range of 1.4-2.6°C by the end of the century.[15] The loss of ecosystem services from global warming may well be the largest hidden consequence and cost of greenhouse gas emissions to the global economy.

When talking about global temperature rises in the order of 1-2°C it is easy to think that this is negligible and the impacts will be minor. However as the following table from the CSIRO shows, small increases in global temperature are expected to have massive impacts across a range of ecological and social areas in Australia.

Table i. Summary of climate change impacts on Australia across selected areas
Source: CSIRO Marine & Atmospheric Research (2006)[16]

The 2006 Stern Review states, ‘Carbon emissions have already pushed up global temperatures by half a degree Celsius. If no action is taken on emissions, there is more than a 75% chance of global temperatures rising between two and three degrees Celsius over the next 50 years. There is a 50% chance that average global temperatures could rise by five degrees Celsius.’ The following Figure (iii) from the Review correlates to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere with the expected impacts across a range of factors such as food, water and ecosystems.

Figure iii. Stabilisation levels and probability ranges for temperature increases.
Source: Stern, Sir N. (2006)[17]

Research published in Science in 2005 indicates that for 650,000 years Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels have been at, or less than, 260 parts per million (ppm).
[18] Up until the Industrial Revolution, CO2 was the most significant contributor to global warming of the various types of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) - although methane has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 21 times that of CO2 it has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime. Since the Industrial Revolution, industrial processes have created and emitted new forms of potent GHG’s such as Nitrous Oxide (with a GWP 310 times that of CO2 lasting 150 years), Hydrofluorocarbons (GWP x11,700, lasting 264 years), Perfluorocarbons (GWP x9,200, lasting 10,000 years) and Sulfur Hexafluoride (GWP x23,900, lasting 3,200 years). The research indicates that in 2006 CO2 was at 380ppm. When combined with the other GHGs being emitted, the equivalent level of CO2 (shown as CO2e) is currently 430ppm and is rising at more than 2ppm each year.[19]

George Monbiot, in his 2006 book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Boiling,
[20] argues that ‘to avert catastrophic effects on both humans and ecosystems, we should seek to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, as two degrees is the point at which some of the most dangerous processes catalysed by climate change could become irreversible’. Monbiot suggests that these impacts include the drying out of many parts of Africa, and the inundation of salt water into the aquifers used by cities such as Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Mumbai, Karachi, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Lima. Researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact (Germany) have estimated that holding global temperature change to below two degrees means stabilising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at or below 440ppm equivalent CO2 (CO2e). Therefore if the Stern Review estimate of 430ppm of CO2e is accurate then greenhouse gas concentrations cannot increase much more than they are today if we are to avoid serious damage to the world’s ecosystems.

How likely is this to happen based on current trends? Monbiot points out that ‘according to a paper published by scientists at the Met Office we currently produce around 7 billion tonnes per year of carbon dioxide’,
[21] let alone the other five types of GHG. The Meteorological Office paper suggests that, ‘the current total capacity of the biosphere to absorb this CO2 is 4 billion tonnes a year’.[22] Therefore we need to at least reduce our emissions from seven billion tons to four billion tonnes (i.e. by 43 percent) to stay within the current biospheres capacity. One of the many complicating factors when considering climate science is that the capacity of the biosphere will reduce non-linearly as the impacts of global warming affect the planets ecosystems. The Met Office paper goes on to suggest that ‘by 2030 the capacity of the biosphere will reduce to 2.7 billion tonnes’. Therefore we need to reduce the current seven billion tonnes produced per year down to 2.7 billion tonnes a year (i.e. by 62 percent) by 2030.

The Stern Review states that most climate models show a sobering reality: that we will actually increase rather than decrease levels and reach approximately 560ppm CO2e sometime between 2030 and 2060 - effectively a doubling of the pre-industrial levels. This is expected to result in a warming of at least 5°C.

On a global scale [this] would be far outside the experience of human civilisation … such impacts as the Greenland or West Antarctic Ice Sheets melting [would commit] the world to a sea level rise of between 5 and 12 metres.

Sir Nicholas Stern, 2006[23]

As Al Gore points out with vivid clarity in his acclaimed film, An Inconvenient Truth, information such as this tends to have two effects on people, either denial or despair, both resulting in little or no action. The main risk is that people will shift quickly from denial to despair and miss the opportunity space in between. What will help, is every person in a position to influence doing all they can as fast as they can, in the hope that what survives our development experiment is capable of maintaining life as we know it.

Addressing Global Warming
Hunter Lovins, President of Natural Capitalism Solutions, dedicates her life to demonstrating that a wide array of opportunities exists to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and save energy in ways that reduce cost and confer substantial competitive advantage to companies that embrace them. However she has found that too few corporate executives are aware of such opportunities; let alone how to capture them. Working with our team from The Natural Edge Project on strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Chicago and European Climate Exchanges Hunter Lovins has concluded that the struggle to understand the science of complex carbon cycles has afforded business leaders and politicians the luxury of waiting. And, for better or for worse, that time has passed.

In the report to the climate exchanges in March of 2005 Hunter Lovins and The Natural Edge Project highlighted the following points:

  1. Science has revealed deeper trouble and shorter timelines for solving global warming problems than had previously been thought. In January, 2005, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international scientific body charged with establishing the science of climate change, told an international conference in Mauritius attended by 114 governments that global warming has already hit the danger point that international attempts to curb it are designed to avoid. Pachauri stated that he personally believes the world has ‘already reached the level of dangerous concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,’ and called for immediate and ‘very deep’ cuts in emissions.

    Pachauri cited a multi-year study by 300 scientists which showed that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and that its ice cap have shrunk by up to 20 percent in the past three decades. Remaining ice is 40 percent thinner than it was in the 1970s and is expected to disappear altogether by 2070. The levels of carbon dioxide have leapt abruptly over the past two years, suggesting that climate change may be accelerating out of control. Pachauri stated that because of inertia built into the Earth's natural systems, the world is now only experiencing the result of pollution emitted in the 1960s, and much greater effects will occur as the increased pollution of later decades work their way through. Carbon released into the atmosphere today will still be insulating the earth for decades. Pachauri concluded: ‘we are risking the ability of the human race to survive.

  2. To adopt an aggressive climate strategy is equally important for business, as competent greenhouse gas management is becoming a proxy for competent corporate governance. Leaders already capturing the sustainability advantage often start because they realise that acting now is actually a ‘no regrets’ strategy - if climate change turns out to be real, they will already be in a leadership position in dealing responsibly with it, but even if the scientists are wrong and there is no threat to the climate, these are actions they want to take anyway, because doing so is profitable. In a world that overwhelmingly recognises climate change as a serious threat, behaviour that ignores it is becoming seen as irresponsible.

Far from being a burden, recent studies in the United Kingdom and Australia show that deep cuts in carbon emissions are achievable and affordable. Organisations in the U.S. have also undertaken studies on how to reduce greenhouse emissions significantly over the next 30-50 years,
[25] while in the U.K. the Blair Government has released a detailed plan for how a 60 percent reduction in emissions might be achieved. There are now over 13 major studies showing how nations could achieve deep cuts in greenhouse emissions cost-effectively and even profitably.[26]

In a landmark speech, Tony Blair remarked that,

[The Scientists have] said that by using known technologies, or those very close to market, the world could reduce emissions by over 60 percent. This would not involve huge shifts in the economy, or enormous changes in lifestyles. It would allow developing countries to increase emissions, in the medium term, on a conventional development path. And it could be achieved gradually, over a period of years by 2050. There is huge potential from wind, wave and other renewable technologies. Improving the efficiency with which we operate our energy processes also offers enormous savings - up to half our energy use could be saved by the use of known efficiency techniques.

Tony Blair, PM Great Britain, 2003[27]

Even a cautious study by the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry concluded that the economic costs of reducing emissions in the UK would be small, costing approximately six months of GDP between now and 2050.
[28] And these calculations made no effort to tabulate the benefits of climate action. The study found that, if phased in over 50 years, the economic impacts do not impose significant costs on the economy but rather, it can create more energy-efficient businesses, less congested traffic in cities, and new export opportunities for firms and nations that lead the charge. European nations such as the UK, Sweden, France, Denmark, and The Netherlands have already made significant reduction commitments of approximately 60 percent by 2050.

Sweden, for example, has called for a European-wide target of 60 percent by 2050. France has also taken a very aggressive position regarding its longer-term commitment, promising to reduce emissions by 75 percent by 2050. Denmark, meanwhile, has renewed its commitment to a 21 percent reductions target by 2010, with wind already generating 20 percent of its electricity needs.

Globally, numerous companies and communities are achieving their GHG reduction targets ahead of schedule, and are achieving higher than expected returns on investment. In the UK, a range of companies, many from the heaviest industrial sectors, have committed to 12 percent reductions by 2010. The UK Government signed 10-year Climate Certification Agreements (CCA) in 2000 with 44 industry sectors, representing more than 5,000 companies. They include the UK's most energy-intensive industries: steel, aluminium, cement, chemicals, paper, and food and drink. Of 12,000 individual sites covered by CCAs, 88 percent met their targets and have had their reductions renewed.

The most successful climate change companies (i.e. from energy-intensive DuPont and BP to consumer product companies like Nike and Interface) are using climate mitigation strategies to conduct profitable transformations in their businesses. With the advent of carbon dioxide trading through the Kyoto Protocol and the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, and the capabilities of the Chicago and European Climate Exchanges to mitigate risks through futures markets and derivatives, business and government organisation managers have the opportunity to explore the business case for systematic approaches to climate change. Such strategies make sense, and make money.

Far from being a burden, strategically addressing Green House Gases (GHGs) can be a catalyst for dramatic improvements for business performance, facilities management, and brand enhancement. In effect, a strategy to identify opportunities to reduce emissions will lead to the discovery of opportunities to achieve multiple benefits throughout the organisation.

What are the Opportunities in ‘Sustainability’?

The following information provides a brief overview of the related background material, from Hargroves, K. and Smith, M. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations, Chapter 1: Natural Advantage of Nations, ‘A Critical Mass of Enabling Technologies’, pp 16-22; Chapter 6: Natural Advantage and the Firm, ‘What will be the major driver of innovation in the 21st century?’ pp 83- 84; and Chapter 13: National Systems of Innovation, pp 244-271.

Looking at the Waves of Innovation

Figure iv. Waves of Innovation Model
Source: Hargroves, K. and Smith, M. (2005), p 17.[29]

Nations and firms are increasingly aware of being ahead of the next so-called ‘waves’ of innovation in order to increase prosperity and maintain economic growth. Recent developments and studies in economics now place innovation and better technical design at the heart of sustained economic growth over long periods. Increasingly everyone, from business leaders to policy makers, to politicians, to academics, are now asking, ‘what will give rise to the sustainable areas of innovation?’ In the past, major breakthroughs in innovation have occurred when there have been enough effective technologies complementing each other, and providing more efficient ways to meet people’s needs. In order for a wave of innovation to occur there needs to be a significant range forming a critical mass of relatively new and emerging technologies and a recognised genuine need in the market that will lead to a market expansion. As discussed in Natural Capitalism,
[30] the first industrial revolution began with the steam engine and the new machines made to increase the labour productivity of cotton spinning and the production of steel. This was followed by further industrial shifts with the engineering that evolved out of advances in the understanding of, for instance, electro-magnetism.

A focus on mass production of the automobile and electrification of cities ensued, a wave that lasted until the 1940s. The rise of semiconductors and electronics provided just some of the ‘enabling technologies’ that helped create new business opportunities throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the case of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) wave of innovation, it is easy to identify the technologies that were driving the growth of capacity in the industry. Innovations in computer processing power, network bandwidth and data storage have all helped achieve the predictions of Gordon Moore in the 1970s, that ‘computing power will continue to double every 18 months, while costs hold constant’. This last wave of industrial activity was largely based on semiconductors, fibre optics, networks and software.

Many of the applications in the previous IT wave of innovation were based on the idea of reducing transaction costs.
[31] In the book, Unleashing the Killer App, Downes and Mui[32] suggest that the market for the many internet applications was in the reduction of transaction costs. For instance, e-mail is a cheap and fast means of communication, finding information in general is now much faster and cheaper online with internet booking, purchasing and banking, significantly reducing the costs of customer transactions.

The ICT revolution is just one in a series of long waves of industrial innovation first noted in the 1940s by Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-born economist. In his work, Schumpeter tracked the rise and flow of economies with respect to technology. There is now a critical mass of enabling eco-innovations making integrated approaches to sustainable development economically viable. As reported in Small is Profitable,
[33]these developments form not simply a list of separate items, but a web of developments that all reinforce each other. Their effect is thus both individually important and collectively profound.

If the last wave of innovation, ICT, was driven by market needs such as reducing transaction costs, many believe there is significant evidence that the next waves of innovation will be driven by the need to simultaneously improve resource productivity while lightening our environmental load on the planet.

Looking at Opportunities
The examples that will be featured throughout this portfolio provide evidence and add weight, to what many have already sensed; namely, that the problems are serious but there are exciting efforts and solutions being developed around the world through many industry sectors.
[34] Not only do we now have solutions to many problems, but we are also gaining insight as to which solutions are the most cost-effective and profitable. Hence, nations and companies that work together to address sustainable development can position themselves to be at the forefront of the next waves of innovation.

Consider some interesting points:

  • The recent Australian Federal Government’s white paper on energy stated that there was at least AU$5 billion worth of energy efficiency savings possible in the Australian economy, and maybe as much as AU$15 billion. Studies in the USA show there is over US$300 billion worth of potential energy efficiency savings yet to be realised.[35]

  • The Institution of Engineers Australia writes,[36]

  • It appears that some Australian businesses have made the assumption that compliance with Kyoto will increase business costs, and fail to acknowledge that many opportunities for improving efficiency are presented. For example, mining company MIM has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output by around 50 percent since 1990. Participants in the NSW Sustainable Energy Development Authority’s Energy Smart Business program are saving millions of dollars at internal rates of return of 40 percent per annum or better. Transfer of cement production from the old ‘wet’ process to the ‘dry’ process has halved energy consumption per tonne, while blending blast furnace slag and fly ash with cement (emerging) can again halve energy consumption per tonne of cement.

  • The Lighting Council of Australia explains that, ‘in 1999, Australia had spent approximately $15 billion on electricity. Of this, lighting accounted for some $5 billion. Well-designed, energy-efficient lighting and lighting controls can slash $1.25 billion a year off this bill’.

Hargroves and Smith in The Natural Advantage of Nations
[37] argue that such a new wave of innovation will significantly assist economic growth, in line with the work of Stanford University Professor of Economics Professor Paul Romer.

We now know that the classical economic suggestion that we can grow rich by accumulating more and more pieces of physical capital is simply wrong… Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe. The cooking one can do is only limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance.

Human history teaches us however that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking. New recipes generally produce fewer unpleasant side effects and generate more economic value per unit of raw material. Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We constantly fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered.
Prof. Paul Romer, Stamford University, 1994[38]

Earth Systems Engineering
Earth Systems Engineering (ESE) was first used by Dr Braden Allenby in 1998 with reference to industrial ecology. Industrial ecology is an emerging field of engineering defined as ‘the multidisciplinary study of industrial systems and economic activities, and their links to fundamental natural systems’.

The success of industrial ecology motivated the National Academy of Engineering to organise a meeting on Earth System Engineering in 2000, from which ‘Earth Systems Engineering’ was defined by the US National Academy for Engineering (NAE) as, ‘a multidisciplinary (engineering, science, social science, and governance) process of solution development that takes a holistic view of natural and human system interactions’. The goal of ESE (defined during a NAE meeting on ESE in 2000) is to better understand complex, nonlinear systems of global importance, and to develop the tools necessary to implement that understanding.

Earth System Engineering emphasises five main characteristics that apply to all branches of engineering:

  1. Many engineering decisions cannot be made independently of the surrounding natural and human-made systems because modern engineering systems have the power to significantly affect the environment far into the future. Our ability to cause planetary change through technology is growing faster than our ability to understand and manage the technical, social, economic, environmental, and ethical consequences of such change.

  2. The traditional approach that engineering is only a process to devise and implement a chosen solution amid several purely technical options must be challenged. A more holistic approach to engineering requires an understanding of interactions between engineered and non-engineered systems, inclusion of non-technical issues, and a system approach (rather than a Cartesian approach) to simulate and comprehend such interactions.

  3. The quality of engineering decisions in society directly affects the quality of life of human and natural systems today and in the future.

  4. There is a need for a new educational approach that will give engineering students (undergraduate and graduate) a broader perspective beyond technical issues and an exposure to the principles of sustainable development, renewable resources management, and systems thinking. This does not mean that existing engineering curricula need to be changed in their entirety. Rather, new holistic components need to be integrated, emphasising more of a system approach to engineering education.

  5. Multi-disciplinary research is needed to create new quantitative tools and methods to better manage non-natural systems so that such systems have a longer life cycle and are less disruptive to natural systems in general.

In concluding this introduction, we provide a cautionary note to the opportunities presented. It is important that we use a common language. For example, we need to be careful with regard to what we call ‘sustainable’ practices, versus practices that are progressively improving their position along the ‘sustainability journey’. The parts of this course on ‘Learning the Language’ explore the language of sustainability in more detail, providing students with critical tools to discuss, debate and research in this field.

Additional Reading Material

Further to the footnotes provided within this document, the following references are provided in full, for students wishing to explore some of them in further detail (an optional activity):

- Arrhenius, S. (1925) Chemistry in Modern Life, Library of Modern Sciences, D. Van Nostrand company. A bibliographical summary of Arrhenius’ life is available at: Accessed 7 June 2006.

- Cole, R. (1999) ‘Building environmental assessment methods: clarifying intentions’, Building Research & Information, vol 27 (4/5), pp 230-246, Routledge Publishing, London.

- Commonwealth of Australia (2004) Securing Australia's Energy Future, produced by the Energy Taskforce. Available at Accessed 7 June 2006.

- Downes, L. and Mui, C. (1998) Unleashing the Killer App, Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

- Etheridge, D. M., Steele, L. P., Langenfelds, R. L., Francey, R. J., Barnola, J.M. and Morgan V. I. (1996) ‘Natural and anthropogenic changes in atmospheric CO2 over the last 1000 years from air in Antarctic ice and firn’, Journal of Geophysical Research, vol 101(D2), pp 4115–4128.

- 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, London.

- Lovins, A.B. et al. (2002) Small Is Profitable, Rocky Mountain Institute Publications, Old Snowmass. Available at Accessed 7 June 2006.

- McDonough, W. and Braungart, M. (2002) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, North Point Press, New York.

- Monbiot, G. (2006) How to stop the planet burning, Allen Lane, Penguin Press, New York.

- Perlin, J. and Butti, K. (1980) A Golden Thread - 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, Cheshire Books, Palo Alto.

- Petit, J.R., Jouzel, J., Raynaud, D., Barkov, N.I., Barnola, J.M., Basile, I., Bender, M., Chappellaz, J., Davis, M., Delaygue, G., Delmotte, M., Kotlyakov, V.M., Legrand, M., Lipenkov, V.Y., Lorius, C., Pepin, L., Ritz, C., Saltzman, E., and Stievenard, M. (1999) ‘Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica’, Nature, vol 399, pp 429-436.

- Price Waterhouse Coopers (1999) Report from the Prime Ministers Science Engineering and Innovation Council. Read about the Council’s work. Accessed 7 June 2006.

- United Nations Environment Program (2002) Industry as a partner for sustainable development - 10 years after Rio: the UNEP assessment, UNEP, United Kingdom. This UNEP report documents sector-specific progress in implementing Agenda 21, building on the 22 industry-driven sector reports of the ‘Industry as a Partner for Sustainable Development’ series.

- von Weizsaecker, E., Lovins, A. and Lovins, L.H. (1997) Factor 4: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Earthscan, London.


[1] World Bank (2003) World Development Report 2003: Sustainable Development in a Dynamic World, World Bank, Washington D.C. (Back)

[2] Seed, J. and Macy, J. (1998) Thinking Like a Mountain, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia. (Back)

[3] Arrhenius, S. (1925) Chemistry in Modern Life, Library of Modern Sciences, D. Van Nostrand Company, New Jersey. (Back)

[4] Ibid. (Back)

[5] Perlin, J. and Butti, K. (1980) A Golden Thread - 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, Cheshire Books, Palo Alto. Perlin and Butti provide a short summary of the evolution of passive solar design online at Accessed 26 November 2006. (Back)

[6] Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, New York.(Back)

[7] The term ‘Factor 10’ reduction in emissions means reducing emissions by 90 percent. (Back)

[8] Cole, R. (1999) ‘Building environmental assessment methods: clarifying intentions’, Building Research & Information, vol 27 (4/5), pp 230-246, Routledge, London (part of the Taylor & Francis Group). Available at Accessed 26 November 2006. (Back)

[9] Etheridge, D.M., Steele, L.P., Langenfelds, R.L., Francey, R.J., Bernola, J.M. and Morgan, V.I. (1996) ‘Natural and anthropogenic changes in atmospheric CO2 over the last 1000 years from air in Antarctic ice and firn’, Journal of Geophysical Research, vol 101, no D2, pp 4115-4128. (Back)

[10] Petit, J. (1999) ‘Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica’, Nature, vol 399, pp 429-436. (Back)

[11] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (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)

[12] The website for The Day After Tomorrow is at which includes interesting interactive data on extreme weather events from around the planet. (Back)

[13] 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, p 16. (Back)

[14] Ibid, p 19. (Back)

[15] Ibid, Figure 22, p 209. (Back)

[16] Preston, B.L. and Jones R.N. (2006) Climate Change Impacts on Australia and the Benefits of Early Action to Reduce Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions, CSIRO. Available at Accessed 3 January 2007. (Back)

[17] Stern. Sir N. (2006) Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, Chapter 13: Towards a Goal for a Climate, p 294, Figure 13.4. Available at Accessed 3 January 2007. (Back)

[18] Siegenthaler, U. Stocker, T.F. Monnin, E. Lüthi, D. Schwander, J. Stauffer, B. Raynaud, D. Barnola, J.M. Fischer, H. Masson-Delmotte, V.M. Jouze, J. (2005) 'Stable Carbon Cycle–Climate Relationship During the Late Pleistocene', Science, 25 November: Vol. 310. no. 5752, pp. 1313-1317. (Back)

[19] Stern, Sir N. (2006) Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (Back)

[20] Monbiot, G. (2006) How to stop the planet burning, Allen Lane, Penguin Press, New York. (Back)

[21] Ibid. (Back)

[22] United Kingdom Meteorological Office (2005) International Symposium on the Stabilisation of Greenhouse Gases, Hadley Centre, Met Office, Exeter, UK. Available at Accessed 3 January 2007. (Back)

[23] Stern. Sir N. (2006) Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. (Back)

[24] The background information for this part is an edited extract from Hargroves, K., Smith, M. and Lovins, H (2005) Prospering in a Carbon Constrained World: Profitable Opportunities for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction, Chicago Climate Exchange and European Climate Exchange Member Report. (Download from (Back)

[25] Interlaboratory Working Group (1997) Scenarios of U.S. Carbon Reductions: Potential Impacts of Energy-Efficient and Low-Carbon Technologies by 2010 and Beyond, Oak Ridge, TN and Berkeley, CA: Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. ORNL-444 and LBNL-40533, September (Apparently no longer available on the Internet); Mintzer I. Leonard, J.A. and Schwartz, P. (2003) US Energy Scenarios for the 21st Century, Pew Center on Global Climate Change. (Back)

[26] References to reports that show that deep cuts in greenhouse emissions are possible: Turton, H., Ma, J., Saddler, H. and Hamilton, C. (2002) Long-Term Greenhouse Gas Scenarios, Discussion Paper No. 48, The Australia Institute, Canberra; Department of Trade and Industry (2003) Our Energy Future – Creating a Low Carbon Economy, Energy White Paper, UK Department of Trade and Industry, version 11. Available at Accessed 3 January 2007; Denniss, R., Diesendorf, M. and Saddler, H. (2004) A Clean Energy Future for Australia, a report by the Clean Energy Group of Australia. (Back)

[27] Tony Blair (2003) Speech on Sustainable Development. Available at Accessed 1 February 2007. (Back)

[28] Department of Trade and Industry (2003) Our Energy Future – Creating a Low Carbon Economy, Energy White Paper, UK Department of Trade and Industry, version 11. (Back)

[29] Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London. (Back)

[30] Hawken, P., Lovins, A.B. and Lovins, L.H. (1999) Natural Capitalism: creating the next industrial revolution, Earthscan, London. (Back)

[31] Transaction costs are the costs of undertaking transactions between purchaser and seller, supplier and distributor. (Back)

[32] Downes, L. and Mui, C. (1998) Unleashing the Killer App, Harvard Business School Press, Boston. (Back)

[33] Lovins, A.B. et al. (2002) Small Is Profitable, Rocky Mountain Institute Publications, Old Snowmass. Available at Accessed 26 November 2006. (Back)

[34] United Nations Environment Program (2002) Industry as a partner for sustainable development - 10 years after Rio: the UNEP assessment, UNEP, United Kingdom. This UNEP report documents sector-specific progress in implementing Agenda 21, building on the 22 industry-driven sector reports of the ‘Industry as a partner for sustainable development’ series. (Back)

[35] Commonwealth of Australia (2004) Securing Australia's Energy Future, produced by the Energy Taskforce. (Back)

[36] Institution of Engineers Australia (2000) Inquiry into the Kyoto Protocol: Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, IEAust, Canberra. (Back)

[37] Hargroves, K. and Smith, M.H. (2005) The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London. (Back)

[38] Romer, P. (1994) ‘From Beyond Classical and Keynesian Macroeconomic Policy’, Policy Options, July–August. (Back)

[39] National Academy of Engineering (2002) Engineering and Environmental Challenges: Technical Symposium on Earth Systems Engineering, NAE. Freely downloadable from (accessed June 2006). (Back)

[40] Earth Systems Engineering (n.d.) ‘What is ESE?’ Available at Accessed 1 February 2007. (Back)

The 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.

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