Sustainable Chemistry: Interview with Maria Krautzberger, President of the German Environment Agency (UBA)
Maria was interviewed by Paul Hohnen who will chair a number of sessions at the Conference on Mainstreaming Sustainable Chemistry. Paul is the founder of the Amsterdam-based Sustainability Strategies policy consultancy. He is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House).
Q. You were in Nairobi last year when the UN Environment Assembly recognised the concept of ‘sustainable chemistry’ for the first time. How does now the UN recognition affect development of the sustainable chemistry concept?
UNEA Resolution 2/7 on the Sustainable Management of Chemicals and Waste was something of an historic moment. Not only did all the world’s governments use the term ‘sustainable chemistry’ for the first time, they linked it to important long-term goals such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At a practical level, they invited all countries, the private sector and stakeholders to start sharing examples of best practice with UN Environment by the end of June this year. These are to be compiled by early 2018 into a UN Environment report on the opportunities presented by sustainable chemistry. In summary, it marked the launch of global discussions on sustainable chemistry and a new level of analysis and information sharing. I expect the subject will now feed into almost all future international discussions on chemicals management, including the recently commenced negotiations in the framework of SAICM for an enhanced international regime for chemicals and waste management beyond 2020. It is also likely to feature in UN Environment’s landmark Global Chemicals Outlook II report, due in 2018. In short, the issue of sustainable chemistry is now formally on the agenda and there’s growing political momentum behind it.
Q. Could you briefly illustrate what sustainable chemistry means?
Some approaches to a definition of sustainable chemistry, have been around for a couple of decades. The OECD for example, first described it in 1998 as is “a scientific concept” underscoring the need to improve the efficiency with which we use natural resources to meet human needs with chemical products and services. As time has gone by, however, some concerns have been raised about the limitations of this definition. While the OECD definition is a widely accepted starting point, in terms of its emphasis on looking at the “design, manufacture and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes”, it needs to be given additional dimensions. These include a clearer link to sustainable development with all its dimensions, to the need to consider non-chemical alternatives, and to the increasingly problematical chemical disposal and waste issues.
Q. But there doesn’t seem to be consensus yet on the definition of ‘sustainable chemistry’: is that a problem?
Yes and no. For those looking for a short and easily applicable ‘plug and play’ scientific or legal definition it might be frustrating, since this doesn’t yet exist. Like so many challenges in the sustainable development context, it is an emerging concept, with its full dimensions yet to be defined. In this sense, however, it’s a bit like the discussion about climate change and renewable energy. Differences over whether that should include, say, hydro-power or corn-derived methanol, didn’t undermine the overall trend towards low- or no-carbon fuels and greater energy efficiency. The parallel is not entirely coincidental: for many experts the thinking around sustainable chemistry also involves a systems shift in feedstock from fossil fuels to bio-based sources. But the real and long term challenge is the transition to ‘decarbonisation’ of major chemical material streams, i.e. using renewable energy to synthesize the feedstock basically from carbon dioxide. The good news about the lack of a fully agreed definition is that this is exactly what is expected to be developed in the coming period. Obviously this will need to include the key underlying principles such as Green Chemistry, adopting a full life-cycle approach and increasing transparency of impacts. And a widely accepted definition should be complemented by specific indicators of progress, such as on the societal benefits delivered. Showcasing the vast variety of already existing best practice cases and promising developments will significantly add to a common understanding. In a sense, the process that is now underway is nothing less than the search for a 21st century approach to the role of chemistry and its contribution to sustainable development. In this process, we shouldn’t rush into definitions: we need to remind ourselves continually of humankind’s overarching goals and work back from there on how chemistry can help achieve these. But at the same time, we should not wait and lay back until an all-encompassing definition is found. Hazardous chemicals are harming hundreds of thousands of people today, and reducing their burden should be imperative under any definition.
Q. What do you say to the criticisms that are sometimes heard of Sustainable Chemistry, such as that it is still too vague to be practical for companies and developing countries?
I don’t think there’s anything vague about measurably reducing risks to human health and the environment. This is already an important core consideration of “sound management of chemicals”, by the way a well-established term among international actors, but without a very specific definition, either. Sustainable chemistry indeed implies and requires such sound management, but goes well beyond through clearer thinking about whether, when and how we use chemicals. This thinking will need and yield very practical solutions, based on persevering research for the next improvement. And let’s remember that developing countries are currently the most adversely affected by chemicals, whether on their land, water or air. The emerging economies have most to gain from both an improvement in the practices of chemicals and waste management and the replacement of highly hazardous chemicals with more benign substances. By applying sustainable chemistry as guiding concept, all actors involved get clearer orientation towards effective progress in sustainable development.
Q. What are the hopes and expectations regarding the role of industry?
Chemistry is one of the great sciences and it is seeing advances every day. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of sustainable chemistry is both the need and potential for innovation. The benefits of sustainable chemistry are already there. Innovative companies will get the most out of it when they don’t wait for a political consensus definition. Looking at the media coverage of problems such as plastic and electronics waste, it seems certain that the chemicals sector will come under increasing pressure to address these issues. This pressure will come from political decision makers, from civil society and the media, and as we have seen in climate change, ultimately the financial sector is going to ask tough questions on these companies’ risk management practices and the safety of their products. In that sense, sustainable chemistry is the perfect new narrative for the industry to adopt and advance.
Q. But that raises another issue: most chemicals related media articles refer to single issues such as plastics in oceans and the alleged impact of neonicotinoids on bees? Isn’t it politically easier – and more effective - to address single chemicals or chemicals uses?
The two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. There will always be a role for targeted measures to address specific substances. The recent conclusion of the Minamata Convention to address the problem of mercury is an example. However a more holistic approach is also overdue. A case-by-case approach will always leave us trying to catch up in controlling chemicals that perhaps needn’t have been introduced in the first place. This is part of what sustainable chemistry challenges us to think about, because it requires us to think about the end of life already at the design stage of chemicals and chemicals-containing products.
Q. But isn’t there also a risk that by talking about ‘sustainable’ chemistry it could take the pressure off the industry to make fundamental reforms? How do you prevent a company claiming to use ‘sustainable chemistry’ when this is just ‘greenwash’?
We need to acknowledge, yes, that that this is a real risk and is one that applies to all corporate sustainability claims. As the concept becomes more clearly developed and defined, however, the industry will see the benefits of setting higher standards and holding laggards accountable. As sustainability challenges become more pressing, I am convinced we will see businesses increasingly competing to profile how human and environmental health and sustainability can be improved by using one or another product or process. We will also see investors becoming more unforgiving of false claims and unnecessary business risks. These will be important drivers of change, as will an alert organised labour and civil society.
Q. You recently argued that sustainable development could not be achieved without sustainable chemistry. Can you explain the thinking behind this? Would you give an example?
It’s important to remember that the role of chemicals was specifically mentioned in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). SDG 12.4 commits to: “By 2020, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle, in accordance with agreed international frameworks, and significantly reduce their release to air, water and soil in order to minimize their adverse impacts on human health and the environment.” Take the agriculture sector, where chemicals are widely used in everything from fertilizers to the various types of pesticides, be it fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and so on. On one hand, these have helped to increase and sustain yields. On the other hand, there are looming questions about how sustainable this agricultural model might be. The adverse impacts on global nutrients cycles, on pollinators and on biodiversity in general, on CO2 emissions all point to the need for rethinking the way we use chemicals and to come up with better, smarter, and more benign systems. To give some examples for innovative steps towards more sustainable solutions: There is a number of full-scale plants already working recovering phosphorus from wastewater. Optimized application techniques for slower release and better plant uptake decreasing the amount of resources used and improving soil quality are available. Another development focuses on higher efficiency in the use of the nutrient input by slow or controlled release, e.g. urease inhibitors. By the sustainable chemistry approaches mentioned above, a number of SDGs like climate protection and decreased resource consumption is met besides the goal to secure nutrition. In short: more sustainable solutions.
Q. Where do you hope Sustainable Chemistry will go after the Berlin meeting?
My hope – and full expectation – is that it will catalyse a broad-based and rising level of discussion about the current ways in which we use chemicals, and drive increased transparency, innovation and investment in systems that increase the benefits that chemicals can deliver, while rapidly reducing their adverse impacts and risks. Or, as German Environment Minister Dr Barbara Hendricks recently described it, this will foster a ‘transition in chemistry’ and chemicals management beyond 2020. The interviewer Paul Hohnen is the founder of the Amsterdam-based Sustainability Strategies policy consultancy. He is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House).