Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Sustainability Assessment: Towards a Standardised Methodology?

SusChem projects and programmes aim to support the development of products and technologies that address societal needs while being environmentally sound and economically viable. They aim to enable a future in which chemical research and innovation brings new, safe, high performance products and technologies rapidly to market: enabling society to “do more with less”. The integration of all aspects of sustainability into the framework of SusChem-inspired projects at an early stage of the development of new processes and products is a key element for their success. However this requires a consistent sustainability framework for the objective assessments of projects. A FP7 project, PROspective SUsta─░nability assessment of TEchnologies (PROSU─░TE), looked at the issues involved.

Achieving sustainability requires a balance of economic, environmental and social goals. This triple bottom line, often referred to as ‘people, profit, planet’ (see below), is a key element for SusChem.

But how can we objectively assess sustainability? To do this requires the development of new tools that can analyse activities and their consequences upon the economy, the environment, and society. And these tools must be adequate for measuring these complex domains, as well as their interactions. Reliably performing sustainability assessments should help point us to better, more sustainable solutions to the challenges that society faces. They should be able to highlight where performance can be improved, where corrections can be made, and where wiser choices can lead to a preferred “triple bottom line” result.

The PROSUITE project was a four-year initiative funded under FP7 that started in 2009 and worked to provide such assessment tools in particular for use in assessing new technologies. SusChem board member Gernot Klotz was a member of the advisory board for the project.

Technologies, today and tomorrow
PROSUITE developed its tools through delivering a broad life cycle assessment (LCA) framework. The tools are freely accessible on the project website and are designed to support the sustainability decisions that product developers, policy makers and businesses are facing. The tools have been tested on four technology case studies:
Five pillar approach
The PROSUITE tools and concepts go beyond the traditional three pillars. In order to deliver even more detailed and meaningful results for decision makers the project adopted a five-pillar framework for assessment, which is supported by a freeware Decision Support System.

When sustainability is defined only on the traditional three ‘Ps’ approach, existing assessments may be flawed by overlapping issues. For instance, human health and income could be viewed as part of the social pillar, since both factors have a large influence on the quality of life of people. However, they also could be viewed as part of the economic pillar. To enable proper assessment, PROSUITE developed an innovative framework that limits such overlaps and ensures that each pillar has a unique set of indicators. To achieve this goal, the resulting framework proposed five pillars:
  • Impact on human health: The impacts on human health of a new technology include all changes in morbidity and mortality that are caused by the introduction of new technologies, through all possible pathways, including environmental, occupational and consumer. These can be quantified using the ‘DALY-concept’ (Disability Adjusted Life Years). 
  • Impact on social well-being: The social impact includes all impacts on human well-being that are related to inter-human relationships. Impact on human well-being includes everything that affects the quality of life of people both on an individual and collective basis (however, excluding human health and economics). These include impacts on autonomy, safety, security and tranquillity (SST), equal opportunities and participation and influence.
  • Impact on prosperity: Technology development is often pursued to increase the quantity and quality of goods and services for consumption. Final consumption can be increased through changes in factor productivity or through the production of new products and services satisfying new consumer needs. Gross domestic product (GDP) is a measure of the value of goods and services available for final consumption. 
  • Impact on natural environment: The ‘natural environment’ encompasses the natural ecosystems around the world in terms of their function and structure. For this endpoint, the aim is to quantify the negative effects on the function and structure of natural ecosystems as a consequence of exposure to chemicals, biological or physical interventions. The impact on natural environment is then expressed in terms of ‘potentially disappeared fraction of species’. 
  • Impact on exhaustible resources: Impact on exhaustible resources is concerned with the removal of resources from the environment (and their use) which results in a decrease in the availability of the total resource stock. This impact category comprises abiotic resources: fossil fuels and mineral ores.
Level assessment
Another important aspect of sustainability assessment is the level at which the assessment is conducted. In PROSUITE three different levels are explicitly differentiated and addressed:
  • The first level corresponds to the assessment of a process chain per functional unit.
  • The second level takes additional into consideration the market penetration of the technology in a given scenario (for example, expressed in the expected total number of functional units).
  • The third level goes beyond the process itself and includes the effect of deploying a technology at the system level by taking into account not only the penetration of the technology but also the implications of such penetration on, for example, trade flows across sectors in the economy.
The work in PROSUITE has resulted in an increased understanding of the complex set of approaches and tools needed to assess the potential impacts of technologies at an early stage of development.

The three projects recently awarded funding under the Horizon 2020 / SPIRE call: SPIRE-4 Methodologies, tools and indicators for cross-sectorial sustainability assessment of energy and resource efficient solutions in the process industry will further address this important area of work.

More information
For more information on the PROSUITE approach visit the project website and download the PROSUITE Handbook.

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