Zero emissions: route to sustainability for a clean revolution in the 21st century

by Stephen Hesse

The age of zero emissions is dawning, and Japan could one day lead a global clean revolution. The next decade should tell whether this nation will lead, or will consign itself to industrial mediocrity by adhering to the status quo.

Simply stated, the zero emissions concept means “the reuse of all components as value-added, so that no waste is discarded.” In his book, “Upsizing” (1998, Greenleaf Publishing), Gunter Pauli further defines Zero Emissions as “No liquid waste; no gaseous waste; no solid waste. All inputs are used in production. When waste occurs, it is used to create value by other industries.”

If this sounds overly optimistic, hold on: There’s more. The full title of Pauli’s book is “Upsizing: The Road to Zero Emissions, More Jobs, More Income and No Pollution.” He is confident we can clean up industry and create jobs too by “upsizing,” or “building up economic activities through the clustering of industries which reuse the waste of one as value-added input for another.”

Pauli is founder and director of the Zero Emissions Research Initiatives Foundation, headquartered at the United Nations Development Program offices in Geneva.

“Environmentalists see [the ZERI Methodology] as a tool for dramatically reducing pollution,” writes Pauli. “Management uses it to increase competitiveness; investors view it as a tool for making substantial capital gains on hidden assets — making use of the methodology to identify undervalued companies that are worth taking over. Governments can utilize the methodology to identify engines of growth in their region, for which a special package of incentives can be designed. Scientists turn to the ZERI Methodology because it offers a unique system to integrate various disciplines which all have a common interest in building a sustainable future.”

The obstacles to achieving a global sustainable future are huge, though, as production, consumption and waste continue to skyrocket. China offers a sobering example. In the early 1990s, annual consumption of red meat rose from 1.1 million tons to 4.4 million tons within six years.

“Since 7 kilos of grain are needed to produce 1 kilo of cow, the Chinese will increasingly divert millions of tons of corn and soya to meat production,” Pauli writes. “Supply simply will not be able to follow demand.”

Water too is running short: 300 cities in China already suffer water shortages.

Yet still we waste. We harvest grain, but the husks and stalks are usually treated as waste. When we fish, one-third of the catch may be thrown back dead because it has no commercial value. Logging for pulp, we use only 30 percent of a tree’s biomass. The rest, “a cocktail of natural and synthetic chemicals,” is incinerated, according to Pauli.

Such profligacy leads him to ask an obvious question: “We satisfy most of our needs by extracting the one component we require, and discard the rest. Why?

“We cannot continue to produce, consume and discard as wastefully as we do today,” Pauli concludes. “The challenge of feeding the world is not only a challenge of production; it is also a challenge of consumption.”

More than a decade ago the term “sustainable development” was coined, but the principle has yet to be put into practice. In 1987, a seminal text on sustainability, “Our Common Future” (Oxford University Press), defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Nice idea, but, says Pauli, we are still “a million miles away from achieving this capability.”

Even a casual glance reveals why. Sustainable development remains a vague notion rather than a quantifiable standard. Without specific goals and guidelines, inaction is inevitable.

A more specific threshold is needed for those willing to be guardians of the future, and for those who need a bit of arm-twisting. Pauli suggests we aim high and define sustainable production “as using and extracting components from raw materials in such a way that nothing will be wasted, and everything will be used.” This is the “Zero Emissions route,” and he believes it can lead us to “evolve into a society based on the principles of interdependence and cooperation and a law of regeneration.”

In short, societies that mirror the circular, no-waste ecosystems of nature.

But as Pauli points out, pollution is not the only problem we face. While nations worldwide are striving to reduce unemployment, the favored corporate strategy to increase profitability is downsizing. This approach benefits individual corporations and their stockholders in the short term; but over the long term creating employment for growing populations will require cooperation between industry and government.

To end waste and increase employment, Pauli calls for a “new theoretical framework” for science to re-create production processes in the 21st century. He proposes “Generative Sciences” as a way to switch from present “cradle-to-grave” production and waste management systems to “cradle-to-cradle” systems that can better provide needed food, water, shelter, health care, energy and jobs.

Pauli is already working on grouping industries together so that they complement each other, sharing resources and consuming wastes. “ZERI argues that industries working on their own can never be converted into systems that use all input factors such as raw materials,” he writes. “Industries have to operate in clusters or in networks if they are to utilize 100 percent of the input factors.” Success has already been achieved in projects from beer production in Namibia to food processing in Sweden.

Pauli believes Japan could lead in clean production. He quotes the Environment Agency’s 1996 “White Book on the Environment” which states, “the concept of Zero Emissions is to become a standard for industry in the 21st century,” and he cites Japan’s “chronic lack of space” for housing, industry and waste disposal as one reason why Japan has embraced the ZERI concept faster than other nations. According to Pauli, the private and public sectors have already earmarked millions of dollars for zero emissions research, with over 40 pilot projects underway and about 50 academic researchers nationwide.

There is no reason Japan should not lead the world in zero emissions, forging an industrial revolution to provide for the needs of millions in the new century. Coming to grips with its waste crisis, while generating new sources of raw materials and leading in global industrial competitiveness, Japan’s 21st century could be bright after all, despite the present malaise.

Choices are few. Japan can embrace zero emissions and secure its future, or it can hope the status quo will provide solutions. As Pauli illustrates in “Upsizing,” the status quo has proven that zero emissions is the only choice.