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Dr Fritz Balkau talks to Sarah Powell about the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in fostering environmental awareness, education and management.
Dr Fritz Balkau is Chief of the Production and Consumption Unit in the Division of Technology, Industry and Economics of UNEP. The role of the Production and Consumption Unit is to encourage and facilitate progress in cleaner and safer production and industrial pollution management in key industry sectors. A major goal is to promote more sustainable patterns of consumption worldwide. The unit has an active programme of information exchange and environmental education, and offers training support on environmental management systems and tools to help industry adopt more systematic approaches to environmental control.
Dr Balkau graduated as a research chemist at Monash University in Australia. He was a lecturer in Victoria University from 1972 to 1974 and then worked for the Environment Protection Authority of Victoria in various functions concerned with environmental planning, waste and pollution management and environmental policy. He spent one year with the Chemicals Division of OECD before joining UNEP's Industry and Environment Office in Paris in 1987.
Powell: Your unit has embarked on a wide programme of environmental initiatives including curricular reform in tertiary institutes. Can you elaborate on this?
Balkau: This initiative is designed to tackle the lack of understanding of environmental or social issues demonstrated by graduates of professional courses, whether these be in engineering, science, business or commerce. These issues have generally not been explored in any great depth, if at all, in university courses, given the time constraints of a three- to four-year degree course. Such courses tend to focus exclusively on the technical aspects of the particular profession studied. The result is that the environment is normally regarded as something that is the domain of the environmental specialist, i.e. if there is an environmental problem then the environmental specialist will come in and fix it. However, the preventive approach that is now being adopted to ensure cleaner production, and the increasing focus on eco-efficiency really mean that preventive environmental action is the domain of normal business, engineering and scientific professionals in their day-to-day work.
Where you locate factories, their design, the selection of technologies for production, the way these operate, etc.; all of these things determine eventual environmental impact. The decisions of managers in industrial/commercial companies, i.e. those involved in planning, finance or operations, have a huge influence on the environmental performance of their companies. But professional managers tend not to realize this; it has not been driven home in their professional training. To tackle this lack of awareness, we are now working with engineering and business faculties to ensure their graduates are more environmentally and socially "literate"; as a result, graduates will add extra value to their eventual employers in terms of preventing environmental damage. This should obviate the need for employers to hire environmental experts to treat or manage avoidable environmental problems.
The suggestion that environmental education should be incorporated within business, engineering and scientific courses is something of a revelation to the educational establishment. The argument underpinning the re-orientation of environmental policy and approach sometimes takes educators by surprise. The proposal that undergraduates should be taught to have an understanding of the environment can be resisted on the grounds that universities already find it difficult to accommodate all the necessary professional disciplines within the time constraints of a traditional course of study.
To combat resistance, UNEP has been holding a number of international conferences and meeting with faculty deans and directors of institutes to explain the rationale behind this environmental "literacy" initiative. Recently, for example, we held a conference in Perth in Australia with directors of schools of mines to discuss curriculum reforms in their sector. Mining, generally, is acknowledged to have quite a high environmental impact where it occurs and the design, location, and operations of the mine are very significant in terms of reducing environmental impact. To date, mining school graduates have not understood their role in this.
The schools clearly understand that they have to do something but they don't quite know what. Also, individual directors often feel quite isolated so the purpose of this conference was to bring a number of them together to allow them to compare notes on progress made, start building a network, and advise us on what we can do to help them with curriculum reform. Conference participants were very positive about the initiative.
We have also recognized that it is important for schools to link up, and move in concert, with the employers who will be employing their graduates. If, for example, a faculty feels it is getting too far ahead of the employers, it won't have the courage to pursue the initiative. So part of the Perth conference aimed to highlight employers' views. This was done through employers' surveys and statements from employers which indicated their interest in graduates capable of avoiding environmental pitfalls. While it is true that few enterprises will make money out of the environment, the wrong planning decisions in environmental terms can prove very costly, and top employers are realizing this.
Our efforts to forge links between employers and educators are proving very successful. But finding funding to undertake this initiative is still a difficult job for us. The UN traditionally is quite poor and we rely on support to maintain our programmes. We have had some funding from the Danish government which is very sympathetic to our goals. The German Carl Duisberg Gesellschaft foundation has also made a substantial contribution to the Perth initiative as has the Chamber of Mines in Western Australia and employers themselves.
Powell: Is the realization that environmental management can have a positive impact on the bottom line helping you to sell such projects?
Balkau: The world now seems to be focused on economic rationalism, and economics underpins more and more of our decisions. It is important to outline the economic implications of environmental control programmes and to emphasize that even the West is now finding that remedial environmental programmes can be prohibitively expensive. Some years ago an interesting statistic from Holland indicated that it can sometimes cost up to one hundred times more to clean up a contaminated site than preventive action to avoid it being contaminated in the first place would have cost. From experience we know that cleaning up afterwards is far more expensive then prevention. The old adage is "prevention is better than cure", and it's also cheaper ... but we still tend not to do it.
Now that even rich countries realize the daunting potential costs of remedial programmes, it is important to explain the economic aspects of prevention programmes as well as the environmental benefits. This is the way to reach the business community. The business community generally understands the crux of this argument but, in a large organization, there are always going to be personal agendas. The real reason why change is so slow in coming is nothing to do with technology or finance, it's to do with entrenched attitudes, conservatism, and resistance to change along the lines of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", or "don't bother me now I'm too busy". There are a hundred reasons why we don't take action. The most important challenge is to break through this attitude barrier. Yes, it is important to point out the economic benefits of preventive programmes, but this in itself is not enough.
Powell: Where does cleaner production fit into the goals of sustainability?
Balkau: Well, all such initiatives are aimed at sustainability but we have a large number of options for taking environmental action, including preventive action. Cleaner production can involve a process change, a product change, better housekeeping, more efficient processing, i.e. a large number of actions. While one action can improve things in one particular part of a plant, it can also exacerbate problems elsewhere - this is sometimes called cross-media pollution. For example, water pollution problems might be solved by building a treatment plant, but we might end up concentrating all the toxic materials and the sludge in a landfill site; when we burn it, it releases toxic materials into the air. To avoid this we need a complex environmental programme with many components. But, if this is not run systematically, we can end up having an inefficient environmental programme which just transfers the problem from one place to another.
Environmental management systems were devised as a way of dealing with all problems in a systematic fashion so that we actually solve the problems, rather than just move them around. An environmental management system is just that - a systematic approach. It can be formal or informal. It can be written down or, in a small company, it may well simply be in someone's head, which is fine as long as it's systematic. For a large corporation it's often useful to have it written down so that everyone understands what is entailed. Some years ago, in order to improve communication between a company and its suppliers, and a company and the environmental authorities, environmental systems were standardized. We now have the ISO 14000 global standard and the European EMAS standard.
Powell: What is your organization's role here?
Balkau: We support such standards and help to clarify some of the environmental issues. In particular, we are helping to build the capacity in other countries to be able to use such a systematic approach. To this end we have published training kits that can help trainers in institutions in other countries. We have produced a kit on the environmental management of hazardous waste, one on cleaner production, and another on industrial activity. So we see ourselves as fulfilling the dual role of promoting environmental education and providing trainers with the necessary support to teach these new ideas.
These ideas are catching on very fast in some parts of the world, and not only in the West and in wealthier countries. The rapidity of trade and investment decisions now means that countries in South-East Asia, for example, are very aware of what the market requirements are in Europe in terms of the social and environmental profile of products and services. Some countries in South-East Asia can easily find themselves "locked out" of certain markets. So they ensure they keep abreast of European requirements. In particular they are seeking accreditation and certification for environmental management systems, both to improve the efficiency of their own operations - lower cost corporations understand the need for this - and because some major trading partners in Europe, i.e. those with a significant consumer profile, will now only deal with certain types of companies, namely those that are environmentally "clean". South-East Asian producers in particular understand that it is not only necessary to produce cheap goods but also to maintain a good reputation. The major European retail chains don't want to be tainted by association with what is seen as an unsavoury supplier.
However, some sectors of the business community are not touched by such considerations. Industrial suppliers, for example, do not face consumer pressures, so the challenge for us now is to encourage some of these sectors to follow suit. The third challenge is in developing countries where consumer pressure is not as marked as in the West. But even in those countries the environmental message is catching on.
Powell: Is there still counter-pressure against environmental programmes from major organizations such as utilities which are fearful of the potential cost to their operations?
Balkau: Oh yes. We also have to keep in mind that in many developing countries a far greater proportion of business is government-owned. And governments do not generally have the investment funds or the bureaucratic flexibility for organizational change. So frequently the major, government-owned industries are very slow to change. A large petrochemical company in a developing country, for example, may need to apply to the ministry of industry for funds for environmental investment, and this won't materialize until the emergence of the next five-year plan. This means that, in many ways, while environmentalists tend to view the privatization of major utilities with a certain amount of trepidation, fearing an excessive profit motive, environmental ministries often welcome such change because they will be able to push a private sector partner into environmental performance programmes. So, from an environmental control point of view, privatization, and the consequent sweeping away of privileged position, renders such organizations much more vulnerable to environmental pressure. It can work both ways, of course - it depends how we play the game.
Powell: What does encouragement of cleaner production involve?
Balkau: There are two parts to this. Traditionally we have focused on cleaning up industrial production so that it is less polluting, and this certainly needed to be done in all countries worldwide. European and American economies and businesses are a little ahead of some other countries. However even in these countries the early, easier gains are quickly made and then it becomes more complicated because there are some problems that are embedded in production systems and these can't be fixed quickly as an "add-on".
This problem is inherent in the very products we produce. One example that I sometimes quote is asbestos. Asbestos as a dust is regarded as something we definitely don't want to have anything to do with. However a major Brazilian asbestos mine recently claimed that it has cleaned up its act to the extent that there are hardly any fibres floating around in the air. Hence the workers are protected and the cleaner production approach in producing the asbestos is such that the mine is now a safe place to work. So the question now is not: have we cleaned up the mine? ... because the answer is clearly "yes" ... but do we want asbestos?
To a greater or lesser extent this question can be applied to many other products. Do we want the product? Is the product designed in such a way that it can be recycled, or disassembled? What's the life of the product itself? Are we producing a whole range of throw-away or short-life products when we could easily build long-life products? Take computers, for example, what is the average life of a computer now? The question is not whether we can produce a computer in a clean fashion only to throw it away after two years. We now know that, yes, we have to tackle dirty industries, but we also have to tackle the product cycle. And finally we have to tackle the way the products are used. We can, for example, have a long-lived car, but are we driving it in a responsible way? Are we maintaining it so that it's fuel efficient and doesn't run deficiently? Therefore there are three aspects to the question now: the production process, the product itself and way we use the product. We now understand that these are much more closely linked than we thought in the past - cleaner production, sustainable consumption patterns, and the product life-cycle are all interlinked.
The UNEP programme is attempting to establish this link through tackling not only the production process but also the product design. It emphasizes the need to design products for a long life, for recyclability, for disassembly, and so on as well as for the utility of the product itself. Then we focus on consumption. Take a mature, materialistic economy such as ours, in which we have everything we need ... take clothes for example, do we really need so many? It's a simple question of whether we are over-consuming. But of course, on the other hand, textile producers tend to be located in South-East Asia and our clothing demands generate employment there. So it is not a simple question we face.
Powell: Some of these questions seem to be verging on the moral, are they not?
Balkau: These are primarily value questions. There are some issues that are responsive to a technology fix, or a bureaucratic or an administrative fix but, deep down, we are also talking about values in terms of our relationships with our co-citizens and our values towards the future and future generations. These affect, and should affect, how we live, and how we consume resources. Are we going to gobble up the world's resources in three generations? Or are we going to leave something for the future?