Why the principles of sustainability are necessary and sufficient for a new economy
There is no question that for a few decades now, climate change has been both noticed and measured [1, 2]. It is widely accepted that this is due to anthropogenic factors, i. e. the civilization-caused rise of greenhouse gases, in particular CO2. This is suggested to effect global warming of the earth and equilibrium shifts in temperature, weather, and seasons with disastrous consequences for the flora and fauna, including humanity
It follows that in the face of severe climate change and its threat to our environment and ourselves, the global economy in industrialized countries is confronted with a huge but necessary transformation concerning production chains and value creation.
The simple but extreme solution to this serious problem would be to shut down all industrial processes causing these effects and to return to a more primordial life. Since this radical“option” would probably lead inter alia to an early and painful death of most humans, comparable to our own history centuries ago, is has to be declined. Moreover, this scenario would most certainly be refused not only by countries like China, the United States and India, which were jointly responsible for almost 50% of the global CO2 emissions in the last years [3, 4], but also by developing countries that are striving to improve their standards of living.
Hence, a more realistic and moderate but therefore also more complex and differentiated approach should be envisaged.
Current approaches addressing climate change, their benefits, and shortcomings
Many strategies, approaches and trends, such as Bioeconomy, Green Economy, CO2 as raw material,“Zero Waste”, Circular Economy /“Cradle to Cradle”, Recycling (mechanical, chemical), Hydrogen Economy, and Industrial Biotechnology, the latter as a potentially gentle and environmentally friendly conversion method, cover different aspects within this transformation process.
All these efforts are outstanding, useful and necessary. However, we need to re-think these concepts: they are heterogeneous in the sense that some put emphasis on the source of raw materials; others on the origin and use of energy; still others on eco-efficiency; or on the impact and fate of the products, etc. Therefore, from our point of view, focusing on each and every one of them reveals some noticeable gaps. For example, Bioeconomy essentially embodies the transition from fossil raw materials towards renewable, mostly plant-based resources , which might be beneficial. However, certain planting and harvesting practices may be harmful to the environment [6, particularly the section 4, see also 7 and 8, particularly pages 104 – 115] and the biologic diversity. The use of CO2 as a raw material is an intelligent approach but lacks any committed statement with respect to the innocuousness of the products manufactured in this way. The admittedly noble pursuit of“Zero Waste” entails no declaration about the origin and amount of energy required in achieving it. The process of recycling is an absolute environmental necessity but insufficient in solving the problem of wasteful production and littering. In addition, it is not applicable to fuels and energy. Even the“soft” Ιndustrial Βiotechnology methods may, in single cases, turn out to be less eco-efficient than their chemical counterparts, if e. g. the required amount of energy and water, possible eutrophication and acidification of water and soil are taken into account.
Due to its topicality, the production and usage of“Green Hydrogen” deserves a particular consideration. Firstly, it is questionable whether the required amount of green electricity can be provided by the existing production sites and infrastructures. Secondly, when used mainly as an energy source/fuel, the storage of“Green Hydrogen”, its risk of explosion and area-wide supply are crucial aspects, which still have to be addressed. Thirdly, a future intensive global economic use of hydrogen could evoke either the direct release of water vapor from combustion engines into the atmosphere  or the escape of hydrogen itself into the stratosphere, where it is converted into water vapor . The latter is an important greenhouse gas, which causes further warming of the atmosphere. Water vapor could additionally delay the recovery of the ozone layer especially in the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. Due to these and other complex interrelationships , future large-scale use of hydrogen in the global energy supply system must be critically examined.
In summary, none of these strategies is complete and none on its own can constitute an overall guideline for a future viable economy. What is apparently missing, from our point of view, is a‘unifying element’, a vision or perspective, which combines the positive aspects of all these strategies, leaves behind their shortcomings and provides a common orientation. It is our conviction that, at the bottom line, all value chains within a viable future economy must meet, without exception, the following properties (which are not self-evidently contained in every single one of the aforementioned approaches):
- Use of starting materials as well as energy for the manufacturing of products in such a way that the earth’s available resources are not irretrievably consumed.
- Application of environmentally friendly, climate-friendly and socially acceptable conversion processes.
- Foresighted utilization of products after their end of life, avoiding pollution, and permitting incineration preferably when the CO2 released is captured and used again.
Efficiency, consistency, sufficiency: the fundamentals of a sustainable economy
In other words, whatever approach is chosen, it ought to explicitly be in line with the three pillars of sustainability: efficiency, consistency, sufficiency .
- Efficiency means the more productive use of matter and energy, i. e. the productivity of resources. This is to be achieved primarily through technical innovations and more modern working methods. Its Achilles’ heel, however, are associated rebound effects!
- We conceive consistency as the application of nature-friendly, climate-friendly and socially acceptable technologies, which use the substances and services of the ecosystems without destroying them, e. g. by using regenerable or recyclable starting materials as well as renewable energy for the manufacturing of products. However, with the current state of the art, a completely circular economy is not possible and/or not expedient in all branches of industry.
- Sufficiency is aimed at lower resource consumption by reducing the demand for goods. This is not the rhetoric of renunciation or the pursuit of an ascetic way of life; rather, sufficiency poses the question of the right measure, the responsible use of resources. Correctly applied sufficiency is a weapon against rebound effects!
Each method and procedure should be evaluated on this basis in order to decide whether it is eligible for a viable future economy. Moreover, whether a value chain for the production of goods is efficient, consistent with environmental and societal needs and also serves the notion of sufficiency can also be quantitatively assessed.
Sustainable economy: a rewarding alternative to the conventional economy
Yet all efforts for a development towards a sustainable economy would be in vain if their rationale were“just” to save the climate and the environment at the expense of a competitive economy. Models of a sustainable economy would not find many followers either. Instead, we claim: Yes, we are convinced that not despite but based on the described characteristics and due to its own innovation potential, sustainable economy is a viable alternative to the conventional, essentially petrochemistry-based economy. Sustainable economy can constitute a competitive advantage for several reasons. It may facilitate greater economic independence by diversifying sources of raw materials, fuel new technologies and give rise to new products, thereby opening up new markets and attracting more customers. Unraveling the potential for far-reaching technological innovations results in beneficial developments for the economy and society in general. And just as importantly: The consumer demand for modes of production and products that do not ignore externalities is ever and rapidly growing.
The transition towards a sustainable economy is essential but should be accomplished gradually
According to this perception, sustainable economy not only covers all other strategies mentioned above; it also determines what the target of all these sub-areas should be. One prerequisite is, of course, that commercial enterprises must not be forced to adopt the sustainability principles instantaneously or in a rush, thereby jeopardizing their current competitive advantage. The transition towards sustainability has to be accomplished in a gradual and sensible way, with interim solutions and temporary arrangements where applicable. Companies thoroughly refusing the transition on the other hand will eventually provide obsolescent products and services in the future and forfeit their market position. A further essential condition is that politics and society provide the framework in which companies are enabled to produce sustainably. This encompasses support, for example but not exclusively, through favorable legal and tax treatment as well as by conscious and conscientious behavior on the part of customers.
In conclusion, the transformation mentioned above is a universal challenge. It affects us all and, in order to succeed, requires the joint collaboration of producers, sellers, think tanks, consumers, politicians and investors. The ISEF intends to enable and facilitate the required intense personal exchange of all these actors, as well as to connect, unite and channel all the respective, diverse sub-areas of action for the first time under the common umbrella of sustainable economy.