Pathways to Sustainability
Achieving sustainable economic growth will require changes in industrial processes, in the type and amount of resources used, and in the products which are manufactured. The Council believes that the world must move to a more energy-efficient society, one that uses resources more responsibly and organizes industrial processes in ways that minimize and re-use wastes. While technologies affecting all societal activities must reflect the goals of sustainable economic development, the following pathways to sustainability are among the most important:
Sustainability depends on the evolution of energy technologies. In the short term, dependence on fossil fuels is unavoidable. Ultimately, however, the world will need to reduce use of fossil fuels. Technnical efforts must be directed to increasing the efficiency of energy supply and energy use, and to using fossil fuels in a less-polluting manner. Natural gas, which produces fewer pollutants than either oil or coal, is in abundant supply and can play an important role in the transition to an economy much less dependent on fossil fuels.
Increased energy efficiency in transportation systems will be of central importance throughout the world. Underway in many countries is the development of improved fuel-efficient automobiles and integrated urban mass transit arrangements. Important developments in energy storage and propulsion, such as electric, fuel-cell and hydrogen systems, are also in progress.
In the long term, there are a variety of possibilities for securing the world's energy future. These include renewable energy sources, which are fast becoming economic. For example, there have been rapid advances in efficient solar cell-based power generation. Biomass, wind, and other sources of renewable energy are also becoming realistic options for niche uses.
Public acceptance of nuclear power will depend on the safe operation of nuclear plants and the safe management of the radioactive wastes produced by these facilities. Safe nuclear power represents an indispensable resource, opening up new options for energy supply, use, and distribution. Nuclear fusion is a possible future source of energy.
Public infrastructures are essential to the efficient functioning of society and its ability to achieve sustainable development. These include water resource and supply systems, power systems, bridges, roads, as well as communications and transportation facilities. To a large extent, the technologies are well developed. The essential challenge lies in the diffusion and use of such technologies to developing nations, where they are most needed.
Water treatment and re-use will have a decisive role in sustainable development in the public, industrial, and agricultural sectors. In the public sector, securing public health will remain the basic feature of urban water systems; water transportation and treatment
technologies must be chosen accordingly. Technologies now exist for controlling many types of pollutants. The future challenge will be the control of organic micropollutants and heavy metals. For the water-intensive industries, minimizing water consumption will become a necessity, and it will be a key factor determining the market compatibility of industrial products. For the agricultural sector new technologies for irrigation will be needed that minimize water consumption and prevent unsustainable groundwater extraction.
Increased food production and the improved means of storage and distribution —necessary to support a burgeoning global population—will also depend on technological advances. Biotechnology has produced new strains of crops resistant to disease and drought. Further advances in producing crop varieties naturally resistant to pests will permit a further reduction in toxic chemicals used as pesticides. Genetic engineering holds promise not only in agriculture, but also in aquaculture where it can lead to increased production of marine and freshwater seafood.
The negative environmental consequences of farming have been reduced in recent years, and environmentally sustainable farm practices appear to be within reach. The chemical industry is now producing pesticides that degrade more quickly, that have more focused effects, and that can be applied in lower concentrations. Best management practices include crop rotation systems, the use of computers to guide chemical use, and integrated pest management. Such prac-
tices offer pathways to a sustainable future in the agricultural sector.
Manufacturing and Mining
Manufacturers have begun to reduce, re-use, and recycle materials and products in a search for industrial ecosystems that can imitate natural ones. According to this concept, wastes from one part of the system are used as inputs to other parts of the system. Companies have begun to change product and process design in ways that give the environment the same level of consideration as worker safety and the cost and quality of products. Industrial uses of renewable agricultural and forestry resources are expanding.
The mineral extraction industry is adopting environmentally sound practices and is developing approaches and technologies for remediating past environmental damage. These technologies are now also increasingly applied to rehabilitating degraded landscapes.
The materials revolution that is now underway has profound implications for the environment. Traditional materials, such as steel, concrete, and plastic, are undergoing significant changes that reduce the environmental impact of their manufacture and use. Scientists and engineers are also beginning to design new materials based on a better understanding of their properties and the possibility to manipulate them at the atomic level.
In the future, new technological capabilities will contribute to the creation of materials with very specific
and closely controlled properties. These new materials will permit the development of products that are more energy efficient, that consume less of mineral resources for their manufacture, are lighter and stronger, and recyclable. Also under development are alloys lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel, and composites based on biological materials that are superior to other materials.
The remarkably broad-based technological revolution now underway is made possible by information technology. Information technology has the potential to alter how and where people work and live, and thus the nature of urban areas of the future. It is changing the way that enterprises are managed. It is improving the efficiency of air-, land-, and water-based transportation systems, among other sectors of the econmy.
Networks of fiber optic cables and systems of Earth-orbiting satellites are extending our ability to survey and protect the environment. These technologies permit real-time monitoring of environmental conditions. From automobiles to nuclear power plants, from chemical processing to mineral extraction, information technologies allow precise control of industrial processes, which improves our ability to minimize pollution and improve energy efficiency.