The importance and meaning of 'Zero Emssions'

"Achieving the goals of environmental quality and sustainable development will require efficiency in production and changes in consumption patterns in order to emphasize optimization of resource use and minimization of waste. In many instances, this will require reorientation of existing production and consumption patterns that have developed in industrial societies and are in turn emulated in much of the world."

Agenda 21, Chapter 4 (1992)

Zero Emissions represents a shift from the traditional industrial model in which wastes are considered the norm, to integrated systems in which everything has its use. It advocates an industrial transformation whereby businesses emulate the sustainable cycles found in nature and where society minimizes the load it imposes on the natural resource base and learns to do more with what the earth produces.

The Zero Emissions concept envisages all industrial inputs being used in final products or converted into value-added inputs for other industries or processes. In this way, industries are reorganized into clusters such that each industry's wastes / by-products are fully matched with the input requirements of another industry, and the integrated whole produces no waste of any kind. This technique is based on the well-established economic analysis tool known as the input/output approach.

From an environmental perspective, the elimination of waste represents the ultimate solution to pollution problems that threaten ecosystems at global, national and local levels. In addition, full use of raw materials, accompanied by a shift towards renewable sources, means that utilization of the earth's resources can be brought back to sustainable levels.

For business, Zero Emissions can mean greater competitiveness and represents a continuation of its inevitable drive towards efficiency. First came productivity of labor and capital, and now comes the productivity of raw materials - producing more from less. Zero Emissions can therefore be understood as a new standard of efficiency and integration.

Zero Emissions also promotes a shift in society as a whole. It is widely recognized that production and consumption are tightly intertwined activities. Thus, to truly achieve Zero Emissions, it is necessary to consider the larger societal system within which industrial activities take place. Achieving Zero Emissions at a societal level includes addressing such issues as urban and regional planning, consumption patterns, energy conservation, upstream industrial clustering, the reuse and recycling of products, and the interactions of these activities with the local industrial production base.

There are two main requirements for the effective promotino of zero emissions - the first involves the analysis of product cycles (involving natural scientists and engineers) and the second involves the evolution of these cycles and their impact on society (social scientists, anthropologists, economists, etc.).

Zero Emissions for Industry

For businesses, the fundamental issue is how to organize industrial clusters based on the Zero Emissions concept. In this context, case studies and demonstration projects are being developed to show how the Zero Emissions approach differs from other pollution prevention strategies. To summarize, the control and reduction of emissions from industrial pollution sources has gone through three phases:

  1. End-of-pipe pollution control technologies and practices dealing with wastes and emissions after they have been created.
  2. Cleaner Production - application of integrated preventive environmental strategies to processes, products and services to increase efficiencies and reduce risks to the environment and humans. The goal is to avoid generating pollution in the first place and thus reduce costs and risks.
  3. Zero Emissions - altered production technologies and approaches (including computer modeling and design of integrated industrial clusters), which individually and collectively can move business toward greatly reduced inputs and resource consumption.

The central challenge for businesses posed by the Zero Emission approach is how to maximize resource productivity at the firm/inter-firm level, rather than simply minimizing wastes or pollution associated with a given product. Under the Zero Emissions approach, long term sustainability depends on massive reductions in the generation of waste and pollution. This, in turn, implies a comparable reduction in the extraction and processing of virgin raw materials, and a gradual closure of the materials cycle.

These changes should be initiated, and implemented first, by businesses in the industrialized countries that now account for most of the world's material and energy consumption. UNU Zero Emissions argues that waste reduction and dematerialization can be made economically favourable. There are major opportunities for savings at the process level. These opportunities would be substantially increased in the event of higher energy prices, whether due to government policy or simply from gradual exhaustion of the cheapest international sources.

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