Tuesday, January 25, 2011

a. What is sustainable development?

b. “The construction industry is responsible for consuming around 40% of world resources and energy and emits almost 40% Green House Gases. “ Discuss this statement in the light of the current global environmental issues.


The word “Sustainable Development” appeared in January 1972 in an article entitled “The Blueprint for Survival” in the Ecologist Magazine. It emphasised the need for ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. In 1972, the relationship between economic development and environmental degradation earned global attention to the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1987, the pioneering report of the World Commission on Environment and Development – (otherwise known as the Brundtland Commission), sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

This definition was endorsed 5 years later at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio where government and members of key sectors of society forged a consensus to implement an action agenda for sustainable development, now popularly known as Agenda 21. The U.N. Commission for sustainable development was then established to coordinate the implementation of Agenda 21 and to further develop the principles and practice of sustainable development.

In Hong Kong, the Chief Executive made it clear in his 1999 Policy Address the endeavor to building Hong Kong into a world-class city and making Hong Kong a clean, comfortable and pleasant home would require a fundamental change of mindset. Every citizen, every business, every government department and bureau needs to start working in partnership to achieve sustainable development by exploring ways to increase prosperity and improve the quality of life while reducing overall pollution and waste; meeting own needs and aspirations without doing damage to the prospects of future generations; and reducing the environmental burden they put on their neighbours and helping to preserve common resources.

There are so many other definition of sustainable development. In UK for instance, the UK Sustainable Development Strategy (May 1999), defines sustainable development as the simple idea of ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and future generations with the objectives:

- Social progress which recognizes the needs of everyone
- Effective protection of the environment
- Prudent use of natural resources
- Maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth & employment

However, the most popular definition in understanding sustainability development concept is the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental and social accountability. This idea proposes that an organization’s license to operate in society comes not just from satisfying stakeholders through improved profits (the economic bottom line), but by improving its environmental and social performance.

The following diagram are the three sustainability elements which is also known as the “triple bottom line”.

Environmental – Highlights environmental issues such as global warming, climate change and the initiatives in mitigating and adapting to the issues. Some kind of activities and initiatives include:
- Reduce waste, effluent generation, emissions to environment
- Reduce impact on human health that caused by environmental issues
- Use of renewable and recycle raw materials
- Elimination of toxic substances
Economics – Highlights development policies, strategies and practices that will enable continues economic growth while at the same time ensuring that available resources are not depleted such as creation of new markets and opportunities for sales growth, cost reduction through efficiency improvements and reduced energy and raw material inputs, and creation of additional added value and increased productivity.
Social – Highlights world population growth, lifestyle, consumption of resources, ecological foot print, carbon and water foot prints. Some examples on the agenda being highlighted are:
- Worker health and safety
- Impacts on local communities, quality of life
- Benefits to disadvantaged groups such as disabled

The following diagram summarizes the ‘Triple-bottom line’.

We are now facing a sustainability crisis because we're consuming our natural resources, human and social capital faster than they are being produced. Unless we able control the rate of this consumption, we can't sustain these vital stocks in the long-term. By maintaining and trying to increase these capital assets, we can live off the income without reducing the capital itself. But for this to happen, it is the responsibility of every organization, business or otherwise, to manage these capital assets sustainably. Sustainable development is the best way to manage these capital assets in the long-term. It is a dynamic process through which organizations can begin to achieve a balance between their environmental, social and economic activities. It is complicated and challenging task to balance the three elements, and sustainable can only be achievable if the three elements can be balanced and considered equally.

The Five Capitals Model

From the “triple-bottom-line” elements, there are five (5) types of sustainable capital from where we derive the goods and services we need to improve the quality of our lives. The following diagram shows the five types of sustainable capital (Manufactured Capital, Financial Capital, Human Capital, Social Capital and Natural Capital).

Natural Capital - Any stock of energy and material that can produces goods and services such as water, land, forest etc. It includes resources - renewable and non-renewable materials, sinks - that absorb, neutralise or recycle wastes and processes in relation to climate regulation.
Human Capital - People's health, knowledge, skills and motivation - all are needed for productive work. Enhancing human capital through education and training is central to a flourishing economy.
Social Capital - Concerns the structures that help maintain and develop human capital in partnership such as families, communities, businesses, trade unions, schools, voluntary and non-profit organizations.
Manufactured Capital - Material goods or fixed assets contributing to the production process (rather than output itself) such as tools, machines and buildings.
Financial Capital - Enabling the other types of capital to be owned and traded. Unlike others, has no intrinsic value - is representative of natural, human, social or manufactured capital such as shares, banknotes.

A Sustainable Approach
In 1987 the World Commission on the Environment & Development recommended 7 critical actions needed to ensure a good quality of life for people around the world:
1. Revive growth
2. Change the quality of growth
3. Meet essential needs and aspirations for jobs, food, energy, water and sanitation
4. Ensure a sustainable level of population
5. Conserve and enhance the resource base
6. Reorient technology and manage risk
7. Include, combine environment and economic considerations in decision-making
These recommendations underscore the need to:
Produce differently – Application of the eco-efficiency and sustainable concepts business. Increasing efficiency and reusing materials play important roles. Eco-efficient companies and industries need to deliver competitive price goods and services that improve peoples' quality of life, while reducing ecological impacts and resource-use intensity to a level within the earth's carrying capacity.
Consume differently - World consumption expanded at an unprecedented rate in 20th century, with overall consumption expenditures reaching $24 trillion in 1998, twice the level of 1975 and six times that of 1950. Consumption itself is not necessarily bad. The issue is the levels, patterns and effects of consumption. The humanity's ecological footprint may be over 30 percent larger than the ecological space the world has to offer. Ranking of ecological footprints shows which countries are ecologically most sustainable and which are running an ecological deficit. The average American has an ecological footprint 1.7 times larger than a person in Sweden, 3.8 times that of someone in Hungary or Costa Rica, and more than 9 times that of an individual in India. These averages however do hide inequalities within countries. According to the UN, more than 100 million people in rich nations suffer from poverty. Policies must be developed that promote consumption patterns which reduce our ecological footprint while meeting the needs of all people to enjoy a good quality of life for current and future generation.
Organise differently - Increase public participation while reducing corruption and preserve subsidies. How we organize ourselves and establish rules to govern our actions plays a major role in determining whether we become sustainable. Good governance requires reforming decision making processes to increase opportunities for public participation, including a wide variety of activities ranging from environmental impact assessment consultation hearings, to co-management of natural resources.

Concern for equity and fairness - Ensuring the rights of the poor and of future generations. Sustainable development is concerned with meeting the needs of the poor and marginalized portions of our population. The concepts of equity & fairness are prominent in many sustainable development definitions. One of the challenges in decision-making is how to protect the rights of the voiceless - future generations have no ability to speak on their own behalf or to protect their interests in decision-making processes. If development is to be sustainable, it must consider their interests.


In my opinion, sustainable development is a development that allows everyone of us to live well and healthily without damaging the chance for future generation such as our children and grandchildren to live well and healthy too. Sustainable development is about our living environment which consists of energy, financial systems, food production and business, technology etc and also about justice, equity and relationship with each of the living and non-living and with nature. In a simple definition, sustainable development can be defined as a process and activities by which we move towards sustainability. Sustainable development is focusing on to improve the quality of life for all without increasing the use of natural resources beyond the capacity of the environment to supply them indefinitely.

Most importantly, the concept of sustainable development requires a change of everyone’s mindset to bring about full integration of the needs for economic and social development with that to conserve the environment. It also requires the government and all sectors of the community to work hand-in-hand in order to achieve a sustainable future for the world. Sustainable development is not a new idea. Many cultures over the course of human history have recognized the need for harmony between the environment, society and economy. What is relatively new is the articulation of these ideas, based on science, in the context of a global industrial information society.

Answer 1(b)

The construction industry has been identified not only consume the most energy of world resources (i.e. around 40%) and create almost 40% Green House Gases (GHG) emissions (i.e. one of the main GHG emitted is CO2 gas), they also create the most waste, use most non-energy related resources, and are responsible for the most pollution which really affect the current global environment.

The increase of construction activities is resulting in some serious damages like flooding, landslide, wildfires, tsunami and drought due to global warming, rising of sea level, depletion of ozone layer causing increasing threats of cancer and land loss due to contamination of soil. Construction industries have a larger part in contributing these global environmental problems. The extensive resource depletion is occurred due to the usage of large volumes of construction materials. These construction materials require high-embodied energy resulting with large emissions of CO2. CO2 is the main GHG entering the atmosphere from construction activities. The activities that responsible for the release of CO2 are fossil fuel burning (oil, coal, and natural gas), cement manufacture, the cutting and burning of forests that trap carbon and building under construction.

How does construction industries affect global environment? Below are some of environmental issues that the construction industries should seriously look into in order to minimize the current global warming:

Climate Change
The extreme weather experienced around the world since early 2000 was linked to climate change such as Switzerland’s hottest-ever, a record month for tornadoes in the United States and China, flood in Bangladesh/Pakistan/India, tsunami and earthquake in Indonesia and many more. The extreme weather such as record high and low temperatures, record rainfall and record storms in different parts of the world, is consistent with predictions of global warming. For example, in May 2008, Myanmar was hit by a strong cyclone called Nargis that killed more than 80,000 people. Such cyclones were made severe by global warming.
Global warming is believed to be a natural part of the Earth’s cycle. However, this is not the concern; the concern is that human activities such as from construction industry, particularly the emission of CO2, are accelerating the rate of global warming. It has been acknowledged that the emission of GHG, particularly CO2 is linked to the ongoing climate changes that threaten the survival of many plants and animals as well as the well being of people around the world. In addition to causing climate change, certain chemical used in construction have been thinning the ozone layer. Some of these impacts are already being experienced, and include:
§ Increasing heat waves with an increase in heart-related illnesses and deaths;
§ Severe and frequent flooding of cities and towns along major rivers;
§ Extensive and prolonged droughts in some areas;
§ Deterioration of favourite coastal and low-lying areas as sea levels rise, dunes erode, and the areas become more vulnerable to coastal storms; and
§ People who have relied on fishing, farming and tourism for their livelihoods will see these livelihoods destroyed.

Construction Waste
All round the world construction materials generate million tones of waste annually. The figure is increasing since then and quite alarming. There are increasing regulations about waste disposal from construction and many products, even common products like gypsum plasterboard and mineral wool insulation are now labeled as hazardous and require special disposal. In addition, there are many projects to find new uses for waste construction materials. However here, as with waste disposal, the less processed a material is, and the less hazardous, the easier re-use, recycling or healthy disposal for example through composting.

Use of Resources
The construction industry is the major consumer of resources of all industries around the world. It accounts for 90% of all non-fuel mineral use, and a large proportion of timber use. Many of the materials used now come from abroad (in Malaysia context), sometimes from countries where with less environmental control or labour justice such as timber from Indonesia and metal from China.

A survey conducted by non-profit organization in Europe mentioned that if everyone in the world consumed resources at the same rate as we do, it would take the equivalent of 3 planets to sustain this consumption. As a global community we exceeded sustainable levels of consumption in the mid 1980s, so both from the point of view of human survival and of justice and equity, it is not feasible or desirable to continue at current levels of consumption.

A distinction needs to be made between sustainable and non- sustainable resources. Sustainable can be divided into renewable resources (those which can be renewed – particularly those that are grown in short time cycles such as food and certain kinds of timber) and plentiful resources (such as clay, chalk, and sand). In addition materials which can be indefinitely re-used (or recycled easily) are to some extent sustainable. Non-sustainable resources are those of which there a known limited supply are, and which cannot be replaced or easily reused or recycled with minimal extra energy input. These non-sustainable resources therefore include many minerals, oil and some timber (which is very slow growing or where the extraction causes the extinction of the habitat and therefore of the resource) at our current levels and forms of use.

Destruction of Habitat
While the three greatest and most imminent threats to the survival of our civilisation are global warming, peak oil (the growing energy gap between supply and demand) and resource depletion, habitat destruction can have a more immediate and disastrous effect on certain localised areas and species.

It is hard to keep track of the number of species made extinct every year, and of the further erosion of biodiversity and rare habitats. It is equally hard to relate this destruction to construction industry. However the fact that the construction industry is such a huge consumer of materials, particularly of imported chemicals, minerals, metals and organic materials such as timber inevitably means it has a huge impact and obviously has the greatest impact on habitat erosion and destruction globally.

Of course it is possible to mine and extract materials from habitats without destroying them. However there will always be consequences to this form of extraction in terms of cost, speed and quantity. It is therefore imperative that we radically reduce our demand on such materials in order to allow this process to happen. At present the whole world is heading in the opposite direction, and we will lose huge areas of unique habitat forever in the coming years unless we change the way we consume such materials. This is particularly as regards how we build. It means using less of these materials by building more simply, with more local and plentiful such as sustainable and renewable materials and with less waste.

Finally, the environmental impact of construction is also felt in terms of pollution. This is not in the extraction but in the processing of materials for construction. And again, not surprisingly, the construction industry has the biggest effect of all sectors because of the quantity of materials used in construction.

In the past there was a simple general equation between the amount of pollution and the amount of energy in a process. On the whole the more energy required, and the more processes, the more waste and the more pollution was generated. Processes such as the processing of plastics for PVC, PU and PI, the galvanising of metals were all very polluting. For example, products may be assembled in China, but most of the basic materials and components are often processed elsewhere i.e. Western Nation. The loss of control of manufacturing processes therefore has a considerable environmental impact.
The following is Datuk Ken Yeang’s (one of world famous architect-planner/the inventor of bioclimatic skyscrapers) response on green buildings and its contribution in achieving our Prime Minister’s vision of reducing carbon emission by 40% in 2020 which I found from the internet and I think everyone of us should take his comment seriously. Datuk Ken Yeang is also among a handful world practitioners involved in green building design and production since 1970s.
Among of his quotes are as follows:
“……...we have to confront it, not just the developers. It is a mandatory thing we should all do. By the time you experience it, it is too late. It will take a natural disaster like the volcano (eruption in Iceland) to bring people to their senses. And it will happen suddenly. Suddenly, you see the water rises. Then all the island countries will disappear. Right now, they are looking into re-planning of Maldives. Because the water level has reached so high that the island is disappearing. Have to relocate. It’s a serious matter, you see. They say that if this happens, a good part of London will be flooded. And it will happen suddenly. When that happens, it’s too late. It’s not just developers. It’s you and me. We have to change our lifestyles. For instance, eating beef contributes to 20% of climate change. If we eat fish, it is less environmentally disruptive. So, it’s a lifestyle. The way we use electricity, the way we use water. When brushing teeth, we should switch off the tap water. That’s clean water (we are wasting). And we use clean water for flushing. Isn’t that a waste? Some parts of the world, there are no water and here we are using clean water for flushing. 40 percent of water in the house is used for flushing. Pure drinkable water, just for flushing. What a waste. So our lifestyles must change.”

To the global environmental impact, construction materials give substantial influence. If there is no development in reducing these environmental impacts and if the same old trends are continued more and more global environmental impacts may occur in the near by feature such as melting of ice, tsunami, slowing of ocean currents etc. Huge emission from all kind of sectors needs to be reduced and even if these emissions are reduced today, the atmosphere takes long time to make resistant to the changes.

More over in the meantime there may be disaster in markets and losses of lives. In the present world there is a huge demand for steel and cement, cement itself contributes over 6% to global emissions and substantially to energy consumption. The growing trends and production of construction materials are serious threats to natural resources, climate and energy. Serious actions need to be taken by designers and engineers to overcome these threats.

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