Thursday, 27 September 2012

From the section board: Governments, Industry and SEM

Although I have worked for over five decades in industry, industrial policy and finance for industry it is only in the last 10 years or so that I have had the privilege of being exposed to the work of academics, particularly the work of those working in the field of industrial ecology. This came about through my involvement in the creation of the ISIE, participation in our Society’s meetings, helping with the Journal and attending Gordon Conferences.  What never ceases to amaze me is how many interesting new ideas come up which could be very useful to governments for improving policy making and to industry for new business leads. Unfortunately, most of these are lost either because participation by representatives of government and industry is quite sparse at our meetings or that we do not yet have a mechanism for harvesting such ideas and bringing them to the attention of non-academics. Clearly there are exceptions: LCA, for example, has made it into mainstream industry, while Stocks and Flows Analysis has not.

Stocks and Flows Analysis is one area that, I believe, offers a rich sub-sector of IE for governments and industry to explore. For instance, our friends at the NTNU in Trondheim have done considerable work analyzing the flow of iron in China. One study finds that by 2020 demand for iron and steel will reach a maximum as the in-use stock starts to level off. Further, the study found that by 2040, post-consumer scrap flow would have the same order of magnitude as steel demand. This will have consequences not only for the Chinese iron and steel industry – the necessity of installing secondary scrap using production facilities when the assets in the existing primary production units have not been totally amortized, and for the machinery and automobile manufacturers to shift to using secondary steel – but also for countries like Australia and India. Australia because its market for iron ore exports to China could suddenly disappear and India because the availability of scrap on the world market would become scarce as China begins using more of it for its domestic steel production.

The Indian government and the Indian iron and steel industry ought to take heed of such work and commission stocks and flows analysis of iron within India. To the best of my knowledge, neither industry nor government in India is aware of this possibility.

Another example comes from work in global warming. The reduction of CO2 is now an accepted objective; however, the question is how to do this without generating new problems. Better insulation of buildings for example, is thought to reduce fossil energy consumption. What is forgotten is that the problem of CO2 emission now gets transformed into growing stocks of new materials, such as insulating plastics, being embedded into structures and the build up of these may cause other environmental and resource problems. Clearly, a better understanding by policy makers and industry of society’s metabolism can provide useful insights into the effectiveness, co-benefits and adverse impacts of climate change mitigation measures.

As regards the question of embedded substances, our colleagues from Leiden presented some very interesting findings at one of the earlier Gordon conferences. One study had examined the impact of cotton garment exports – a popular policy for governments of less developed economies to generate needed foreign exchange. They found that such exports resulted in the virtual export of scarce water from drought prone countries.  This part of our work should obviously be of interest to policy makers and specialists in international trade.

Tom Graedel of Yale has consistently been pointing out the need for industry to investigate ‘urban mining’. The occurrence of vanadium in coal ash is another pointer for industry to consider ‘mining’ thousands of acres of ash ponds that surround coal burning power stations in India.

The question for us is how can we get such ideas and possibilities across to industry and government. Although the name of our Society has ‘Industry’ in its name, it is disappointing that our membership does not include a reasonable representation from that sector. Clearly, we should try to enlarge participation from industry. How?

Another possibility is for us to make ‘Executive Briefings’ to select industry and governmental groups. How do we organize for that kind of activity? Who will distill the output of our members to sift out and bring to the fore ideas that could be of use to industry and governments?

It is imperative, if our work is to have the impact on society that it rightly deserves, that we find some answers to these questions – and find them soon!

Mak Dehejia
Alliance for Sustainable Industry & Energy, LLC
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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