A new United Nations initiative – the Green Industry Platform – has the tough task of cutting manufacturing’s environmental impact, and has some high-level support

Revolution is in the air. Industrial revolution at least. Two recent statements from two very different sources suggest that changes in the way goods are manufactured may be coming back onto the agenda.

The first statement spoke of the need for a “fundamental change” in the way natural resources are used. A “drastic reduction”, it continued, is needed in ways of using energy, water and land. “We should launch a revolution in energy production and consumption, impose a ceiling on total energy consumption...”.

In themselves, these remarks were not especially remarkable. They might have been made any time over the last couple of decades by Greenpeace or by the German Green party. Nowadays, the speaker might have been the secretary-general of the UN or a savvy CEO worried by rising commodity prices.

What made them most notable, however, was that they were made by outgoing Chinese president Hu Jintao, at the recent 18th Congress of the Communist Party in Beijing. Of course, what the new party leadership does with Hu’s advice remains to be seen.

Economic pillars

And, while there was probably more than a dash of political window-dressing involved, China's former president’s recommendations do underline the growing recognition in the world’s most important economy that the four pillars on which its current development model rests are becoming increasingly shaky.

The first of these pillars is the availability of the natural capital, including energy, needed to sustain growth. When China is laying claim to large swathes of maritime areas also adjacent to its neighbours, one senses something of a “race for what’s left” mentality. The geo-strategic price of sharpened competition for finite raw material stocks is rising sharply.

The second is the capacity of economic activity to take place in a way that does not compromise future supplies of water, food and energy. The price of being the workshop of the world is that China is facing unprecedented levels of air, water and land pollution, and has become the world’s biggest CO2 emitter.

The third is the Chinese society’s preparedness to accept the adverse health and other impacts of an increasingly polluted and weather-affected living space. Social cohesion and peace in China, as elsewhere, depend on society’s preparedness to continue paying the price in health and other terms. That protests are becoming more common suggests critical social thresholds are being approached.

Finally, is the “licence to operate” of its resource-, labour- and energy-intensive manufacturing model. This has been the goose that laid the golden egg. For the reasons given above, however, it risks becoming seen as the source of (and not the solution to) China’s problems. Indeed, this is part of the reason why China has moved so quickly to become a world leader in promoting the development and use of renewable energy.

More sustainable growth  

The problems described by Hu Jintao are, of course, not limited to China. China is just the symbol of a global industrial growth model whose continued long-term health can no longer be assured.

Which brings us to the second statement, or, rather, series of statements.

At a ministerial level panel convened by the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) in Vienna in November, one after another panellist spoke of the need for governments and industry to work together more effectively to reduce the ecological and social footprint of manufacturing.

Whether the motives were improved technological innovation, economic competitiveness and job creation, the desire to reduce pollution and offset rising operating costs, or the recognition that supply constraints mean that the resource-intensive manufacturing model can not be sustained for much longer, there was common ground that there was now “an urgent need to help the transition to green industry”.

To help in this regard, the director-general of UNIDO, Kandeh K Yumkella, explained how UNIDO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) had jointly launched the Green Industry Platform in June at the Rio+20 conference.

Critical mass?

Over a hundred governments and companies (including Microsoft and China’s Broad Group) have signed on to the platform’s “statement of support” and a high-level governance structure, which includes business, is being established. While more signatories were now being sought, UNIDO assesses it has the critical mass to begin a range of initiatives in 2013 under the platform’s umbrella.

Conceived of as a public/private partnership where members sign on to a set of commonsense principles and engagements, the platform’s goals are to raise awareness about the benefits of green industry, to share experience and information on relevant policies and technologies, to promote networking and the development of concrete road maps for accelerating the uptake of green industry, and to encourage research.

For the purposes of the platform, “green industry” is broadly defined as manufacturing activity that progressively increases the efficiency of use of energy and raw materials (ie getting more from less), and that in so doing decouples economic growth from an increase in the use of raw materials.

When challenged by the evidence of fresh discoveries of oil and gas, one panellist in Vienna acknowledged that while new supplies of some raw materials would continue to be found and exploited, this should not be allowed to mask the overall situation.

Planet overload

The planet was unable to continue delivering commodities and waste processing services at the level being demanded of it.

It was only a matter of when, and not whether, a combination of shortages and the impacts of pollution would force improvements in efficiency or put dependent industries and national economies out of business. The only real question was whether enlightened policies drove those improvements, or whether change was forced upon them.

In short: revolutionary talk and an evolutionary model for delivering it.

While it will be some time before the Green Industry Platform can realistically make proper progress, its mission of sharing more information and catalysing action-based initiatives involving business and government to improve resource efficiency is laudable. The real test will come when concerns about security of supply, competitiveness and ecosystem stability meet limits of finance, technology and political will on the ground.

Paul Hohnen is an Amsterdam-based consultant who advises, speaks and writes on global sustainable development and CSR issues. Among his affiliations he is an associate fellow of Chatham House and a member of the Ethical Corporation advisory board. He has been advising UNIDO on the Green Industry Platform.

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