Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187
Sustainable development and its implications for chemical engineering
Roland Clift
Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7XH, UK
Received 4 October 2005; received in revised form 4 October 2005; accepted 11 October 2005
Available online 5 December 2005
Sustainable development presents us all with the challenge of living in ways which are compatible with the long-term constraints imposed
by the finite carrying capacity of the closed system which is Planet Earth. The chemical engineering approach to the management of complex
systems involving material and energy flows will be essential in meeting the challenge. System-based tools for environmental management
already embody chemical engineering principles, albeit applied to broader systems than those which chemical engineering conventionally covers.
Clean technology is an approach to process selection, design and operation which combines conventional chemical engineering with some of
these system-based environmental management tools; it represents an interesting new direction in the application of chemical engineering to
develop more sustainable processes. Less conventional applications of chemical engineering lie in public sector decisions, using the approach
known as post-normal science. These applications require chemical engineers to take on a significantly different role, using their professional
expertise to work with people from other disciplines and with the lay public. The contribution of chemical engineering to the formation of UK
energy policy provides an example of the importance of this role. Recognising the role of engineers as agents of social change implies the
need for a different set of skills, which just might make the profession more attractive to potential new recruits.
᭧ 2005 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Keywords: Sustainable development
1. Introduction
Rather than summarising or reviewing an area of estab-
lished chemical engineering science, this contribution sets
out to explore a relatively new and—at least in the author’s
view—essential way in which the skills of the chemical en-
gineer need to be deployed. The need is to find solutions to
a set of global challenges which are grouped under the head-
ing of sustainable development. The argument in this paper
builds on previous discussions of the role of engineering in
general and chemical engineering in particular in sustain-
able development (e.g., Clift, 1998; Mitchell et al., 2004), to
explore some of the research challenges introduced by sus-
tainable development and identify some of the disciplines with
which chemical engineers will have to work to develop this
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There is growing acceptance in professional engineering bod-
ies that engineers carry a responsibility to the whole of soci-
ety, not just to their employers or clients. In a process initiated
under John Bridgwater’s presidency, the Institution of Chemi-
cal Engineers has played a major role in developing a declara-
tion whose most recent form is The Melbourne Communiqué
(IChemE, 2003), signed by a number of institutions represent-
ing the profession around the world and including the injunction
“We will use our talents, knowledge and organisational skills
for the continued betterment of humanity to protect the public
welfare”. In a similar vein, the Code of Professional Ethics of
the American Institute of Chemical Engineers enjoins its mem-
bers to “hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the
public in the performance of their professional duties”. Before
discussing the implications of this new emphasis in chemical
engineering, the reasons for the developing paradigm will be
Mankind as a whole is facing something new: the realisation
that what we can do with and on planet Earth is constrained;
there are no new geographical horizons to cross; the capacity
4180 R. Clift / Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187
Fig. 1. The human economy—schematic (from Clift, 1995).
of the planet to provide resources and absorb the emissions
and impacts of human activities is finite; and in many geo-
graphical and industrial areas we have already exceeded the
carrying capacity of the planet (see e.g., Perdan, 2004). To rec-
oncile human activities with the carrying capacity of the planet
will require major changes in patterns of consumption as well
as in industrial systems. Particularly in the consumer-oriented
world, gains in industrial efficiency have a tendency to be off-
set by changes in consumer behaviour. This phenomenon is
known as “rebound”; e.g., improvements in the fuel efficiency
of vehicles are offset by demand for larger cars with more fit-
tings and devices; improvements in home insulation are taken
up by increasing the indoor temperature; etc. (Jackson, 1996).
Finding the path of sustainable development therefore cannot
be an enterprise for any one academic discipline: it requires
active collaboration between engineers, scientists, social scien-
tists, economists, philosophers, lawyers, etc.
Although the field is trans-disciplinary, the engineering con-
tribution is essential and chemical engineering in particular
must be central. Understanding the problems posed by sustain-
able development requires an understanding of the way in which
complex systems behave and can be managed (e.g., Clayton
and Radcliffe, 1996). Whereas the idea that civil engineering,
for example, should include elements of system thinking is
novel (e.g., Jowitt, 2004), the systems approach has been cen-
tral to chemical engineering since its inception as a distinct
discipline: although George E. Davis did not use the terminol-
ogy of system theory, it is clear that he recognised that unit
operations were to be studied as the elements which are assem-
bled to form a process; i.e., a system which displays emergent
properties, arising from the co-functioning of the elements of
the system.
Fig. 1 shows the complex system of human activities reduced
to its barest minimum.
Human society requires food and also
relies on some natural products which are provided by agricul-
tural activities, and goods and services provided by industrial
For further discussion of the significance of Fig. 1, see Clift (1998)
and Mitchell et al. (2004).
activities. Waste is regarded as part of the economy—material
is only lost when it is dispersed into water bodies or the at-
mosphere. Until the agricultural and industrial revolution, most
of the energy needed to drive the transformations in the sys-
tem came from the sun, via wind- or water-mills or biomass
fuels. One of the changes brought about by the industrial rev-
olution was a switch to non-renewable resources, particularly
for energy. Energy use provides an example of the constraints
on human activities, and is explored later in this paper. The
availability of carbon-based fossil fuels is one constraint. How-
ever, the ability of the planet to accommodate the emissions
is another constraint, particularly the effect of carbon diox-
ide emissions in altering global climatic patterns with poten-
tially catastrophic results (see, e.g., RCEP, 2000). Which of the
two constraints will become active first? The economic sys-
tem can deal with resource constraints; as resources become
more scarce, the price goes up so that other resources become
“economic”. Hydrocarbon fuels give a clear example of this.
Increasing energy prices have made exploitation of oil sands
not just economic but profitable, notably in Alberta (and this is
the motivation behind the work of Zholkovskij and Masliyah
(2005) reported in this set of papers). Given the range of carbon-
based fuels on the planet, the resource constraint is flexible.
However, the emission constraint is not. Although the effect of
increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere is uncer-
tain (and probably not predictable in the deterministic sense,
given that the global climatic system is complex and dynamic
with positive feedback effects so that it is chaotic; see RCEP,
2000), it is ostrich-like to pretend that there will be no con-
sequences, a point which is also made by Batterham (2005)
in his contribution. So the emission constraint will “bite” be-
fore the resource constraint: we already know the whereabouts
of more carbon-based fuel then we can burn without serious
risk of catastrophic damage to the biosphere. Whereas the eco-
nomic system can cope with scarcity of supply, economic de-
vices to cope with scarcity of emission capacity have to be de-
vised. Carbon-trading is one such device. Whether or not this
particular economic device proves to be effective, the impera-
tive of reducing the carbon intensity of developed and devel-
oping economies represents a major engineering challenge. It
also leads to a new role for engineers, as essential participants
in political and social processes, which is part of the theme of
this paper.
2. System-based environmental management
2.1. Analytical tools
Given that chemical engineering is concerned with complex
systems, it is no accident that many of the developments which
underpin the new system-based approach to managing environ-
mental performance (Wrisberg and Udo de haes, 2002) recog-
nisably derive from chemical engineering. However, they in-
volve a fusion of chemical engineering with other disciplines
including environmental sciences, toxicology and economics.
Three of the principal tools are introduced here.
R. Clift / Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187 4181
2.1.1. Material flow accounting (MFA)
MFA is defined as the “quantitative accounting of material
inputs and outputs of process in a chain perspective” (Bringezu
and Moriguchi, 2002). MFA is a form of material balance anal-
ysis, typically applied to one material or group of materials
(such as iron/steel or paper) passing through a geographical
area or an industrial sector. MFA is applied to obtain estimates
for resource consumption, or of waste arisings so that recy-
cling rates can be estimated and activities to improve waste
recovery and recycling can be planned (e.g., Melo, 1999; van
Schaik and Reuter, 2004; Verhoef et al., 2004; Dahlström et
al., 2004). Where the material in question is incorporated in
products with significant service lives, it is necessary to allow
for the distribution of residence times in the economy using
what amounts to an application of residence time theory (e.g.,
Melo, 1999; van Schaik and Reuter, 2004). By tracking the val-
ues of materials as well as their flow rates—a form of value
chain analysis—this kind of accounting can show where value
as well as material is lost (Dahlström et al., 2004). Extended
forms of material flow accounting can show, for example, the
results of incomplete material separation in waste streams and
the implications of the fact that many metals are obtained from
mixed ores and therefore do not enter the economy as separate
streams (Verhoef et al., 2004).
2.1.2. Life cycle assessment (LCA)
LCA is defined as studying “the environmental aspects and
potential impacts of a product or process or service through-
out its life, from raw material acquisition through produc-
tion, use and disposal” (ISO, 1997). Whereas MFA applies
mass balance approaches to a sector or area, LCA starts by
compiling mass balances over the complete supply chain
providing a service or product extending from the “cradle”
of primary resources—metal ores or fossil fuel deposits for
example—through to the “grave” of recycling or safe disposal;
the term “life cycle” is used in this context to describe the
supply chain, but it includes the service life of a product or
process. In the sequence of steps conventionally followed in
carrying out an LCA (see Baumann and Tillman, 2004), com-
piling the material and energy balance is termed the Inventory
phase. Apart from the extended system boundary, inventory
analysis differs from conventional material and energy balance
analysis by the need to include trace flows of species whose
environmental significance is large, for example because they
have high human or eco-toxicity.
Inventory analysis typically produces a body of detailed
numerical information which rarely reveals the most impor-
tant environmental impacts. The next phase in carrying out
an LCA is life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) which aims
to estimate the magnitude and significance of the potential
impacts arising from the whole life cycle. The general ap-
proach is to define a manageable set of environmental impact
categories—greenhouse warming, photochemical oxidant for-
mation and resource depletion for example—and to estimate
the contribution of each of the flows into and out of the system
to each of the impact categories (for summaries of the LCIA
approach see Clift, 2001 or Azapagic, 2004; for a full ac-
count see Baumann and Tillman, 2004). The LCIA approach
of expressing impacts in terms of contributions to a set of en-
vironmental categories forms the basis of the “Environmen-
tal Burden” approach, originally developed by ICI for setting
targets and reporting on company environmental performance
(Wright et al., 1997) and subsequently incorporated into the
sustainability metrics promoted by the Institution of Chemical
Engineers (IChemE, 2004).
Some LCA practitioners advocate a further step, known as
valuation, in which the disparate environmental impacts are ag-
gregated into a singly metric, usually expressed in economic
terms, for example as a total damage cost (see Baumann and
Tillman, 2004). For reason outlined later in this paper, valu-
ation is not generally recommended: aggregation across envi-
ronmental impacts obscures information.
2.1.3. Industrial ecology
Fig. 1 emphasised that materials and energy are only lost
from the economy when they are dispersed, so that one gen-
eral approach to improving the resource efficiency of human
activities is to use materials and energy as many times as
possible. This approach is increasingly known as “Industrial
Ecology” (see e.g., Graedel andAllenby, 1995; Ayres andAyres,
1996), based on a loose—and arguably misleading—analogy
with living ecosystems. One form of industrial ecology is “in-
dustrial symbiosis”: a form of collaboration between neigh-
bouring plants so that wastes and emissions from one are used
as inputs to others. The classic case of industrial symbiosis is
the Kalundborg eco-park in Denmark. At a purely technological
level, Kalundborg shows only the kind of process integration
which a chemical engineer would naturally expect. The interest
is therefore more in the way the relationships between differ-
ent organisations have developed to enable mutually beneficial
interdependence (Ehrenfeld and Gertler, 1997). Thus, under-
standing and promoting the development of industrial ecologies
must be a collaborative endeavour between chemical engineer-
ing, social science and business management.
Another form of industrial ecology entails systematic use
and re-use of materials and components in a series of different
applications. This is shown in general form in Fig. 2. Products
may be re-used in the same application, as exemplified by re-
fillable containers. The material might be reprocessed for re-
cycling into the same application, or it might be down-cycled
into an application with lower performance characteristics so
that it can pass through a succession or “cascade” of different
uses. Such systems are more complex than the single supply
chains which are the province of LCA and typically require
decisions on the relative environmental and economic compar-
isons between different routings. However, they are no more
complex than process systems with multiple recycle loops. The
kind of industrial ecology in Fig. 2 can be modelled for decision
support by combining LCA with approaches used in process
systems engineering, representing a further new application of
relatively routine chemical engineering (e.g., Allen, 2004; Mel-
lor et al., 2002). It is possible to incorporate logistics—both
4182 R. Clift / Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187
etc. RE-USE
Fig. 2. Industrial ecology (from Mellor et al., 2002).
distribution of products and collection of materials at the end
of their service lives—within the same framework.
Further insights into the sustainability of product systems can
be obtained by examining the distribution of economic benefits
and added value along the supply chain (Clift and Wright, 2000;
Clift, 2003). Typically what emerges is a highly skewed distri-
bution, with primary resource industries apparently responsible
for major environmental impacts but achieving limited added
economic value and with the later stages of the supply chain, in-
cluding retailing, characterised by high added value with much
less environmental impact; in other words, global trade can act
to export unsustainability from the consuming country to coun-
tries whose economies are dominated by primary industries.
This raises further questions over whether it is appropriate to
describe the sustainability of a company or economic sector
(or a country) in terms of its direct impacts or in terms of its
consumption. This point is revisited below.
2.2. Clean-up vs. clean technology
The system-based approach to environmental management
has also led to a change in emphasis in process engineering over
the last two decades, away from “clean-up” or “end-of-pipe”
approaches to pollution abatement towards “clean technology”
or “pollution prevention” (Clift and Longley, 1995; Allen and
Rosselot, 1997; Clift, 2001; Allen and Shonnard, 2002). Fig. 3
illustrates the idea. Any general technology can be translated
into specific designs by trading off cost against environmental
impact. Adding pollution abatement to a process, i.e., the clean-
up approach, can reduce its environmental impact but necessar-
ily at increased cost. The clean technology approach is to look
for a “win–win” solution whose performance is improved in
both economic and environmental terms. In order to ensure that
Clean-up technology
Technological change
Fig. 3. Clean-up and clean technology (from Clift and Longley, 1995).
the improved environmental performance is real and does not
merely represent shifting environmental impacts to some other
point in the material and energy supply chains, it is essential
to evaluate the environmental impacts on a life cycle basis.
Approaches to combining process analysis and design with
LCA as tools to guide process selection, design and operation
have been developed as part of the contribution of chemical
engineering to sustainable development (e.g., Azapagic and
Clift, 1999; Clift and Azapagic, 1999). If environmental perfor-
mance is measured in terms of contribution to general impact
categories rather than being aggregated into a single metric,
then there are a number of “environmental impact” axes cor-
responding to the different categories. Thus, Fig. 3 is really a
R. Clift / Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187 4183
Fig. 4. Process selection, design and operation.
two-dimensional projection or simplification of an n-
dimensional surface. Decisions over process selection, design
and operation necessarily involve trade-offs between cost and
the different environmental impacts. The problem in terms
of process design is shown schematically in Fig. 4, in the
two-dimensional simplification of trading off cost against one
measure of environmental performance. The performances of
technologies 1–3 are each represented by a space in Fig. 4
which represents the possible range of performance. For each
technology, there is a decision frontier which represents the set
of designs for which it is impossible to improve one perfor-
mance parameter without making the other parameter worse.
Technology 4 is clearly less effective than technologies 1–3,
and is therefore considered no further.
The overall decision envelope is tangential to the decision
frontiers representing the individual technologies. The optimal
design point lies on the decision envelope but at a point deter-
mined by the trade-off between economic and environmental
performance (or, in the general case, between different mea-
sures of environmental performance). For example, if technol-
ogy 2 of Fig. 4 is selected, the design point would be at point
B. The negative gradient of the tangent at B gives the marginal
cost of abating the environmental impact, and thus helps in se-
lection of the preferred design. The Pollution Prevention and
Control regime, brought in by the European Directive on Inte-
grated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) and intended
to act as a driver to promote cleaner technologies, requires ex-
plicit trade-offs between different categories of environmental
impact assessed on a lifecycle basis (Nicholas et al., 2000). In
some European member states, IPPC is interpreted in a way
which is equivalent to the approach shown schematically in
Fig. 3 (Emmott and Haigh, 1996; Geldermann et al., 1999).
In the economics literature, these are termed “Pareto surfaces” and a
design which lies on the decision frontier is said to be “Pareto optimal”. In
the business management literature, the overall decision frontier is sometimes
termed the “data envelope”.
3. Engineering as a normative discipline
3.1. Engineering and policy decisions
The preceding section reviewed some environmental man-
agement tools which may not be widely known amongst chem-
ical engineers but are nevertheless clearly rooted in chemical
engineering science. However, it is a theme of this paper that
sustainable development requires not just new tools but a new
role. Those with engineering expertise need to contribute at an
early stage in the framing of problems, not just in problem-
solving; i.e., engineers should have a normative role as well as
their more familiar analytical role.
This concept of engineering adopting (or returning to) a nor-
mative role can be understood by examining the kinds of deci-
sions in which professional engineers may be involved. Fig. 5
shows a useful classification of decisions, adapted from the
literature on multi-objective optimisation (Cohon, 1978; Aza-
pagic and Clift, 1999) with the terminology aligned with that
used in environmental system analysis (e.g., Wrisberg and Udo
de haes, 2002). The first distinction is whether the objectives or
criteria to be used in the decision have been made in advance.
Within a commercial organisation there usually will have
been prior agreement on objectives, for example in terms of
economic performance (including reputation and share value)
which depend in turn on environmental performance and on the
broader concept of corporate social responsibility (including
the aspects covered by the IChemE’s Sustainability Metrics).
Within the broad class of decisions on the left in Fig. 5, there
are two sub-classes depending on whether the objectives have
been aggregated into a single performance metric. For exam-
ple, environmental impacts are sometimes evaluated as dam-
age costs—“externalities” in the vocabulary of economics—so
that they can be combined with conventional economic cost in
a single “ecometric”. This corresponds to assigning weights or
preferences to the criteria in advance. “Valuation” in LCA is an
example of this kind of aggregation. An engineering decision
then reduces to selection or optimisation on the basis of this sin-
gle metric. This familiar approach may be appropriate for deci-
sions which are routine with limited significance—selecting an
item of equipment to form part of a process plant, for example.
However, even within a commercial organisation, for strate-
gic decisions with greater significance—such as a decision on
whether to invest in the new plant—it is usually considered
Decisions without
agreed criteria
Decisions with agreed criteria
With prior articulation of
Without prior articulation of
Fig. 5. A taxonomy of decisions (after Cohon, 1978).
4184 R. Clift / Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187
preferable to examine the trade-offs explicitly rather than losing
information by aggregating into a single metric (see Petrie et
al., 2004). The account of clean technology summarised in
the preceding section is an example of the analysis needed to
support this kind of decision. The role of the engineer in such a
decision process is to ensure that all the necessary information
is presented as clearly as possible, with uncertainty ranges made
The normative role for engineers comes in for decisions in
the other class, on the right in Fig. 5, where developing the
objectives or criteria forms part of the decision process. Sub-
stantive decisions in the public domain typically fall within
this class. Examples include setting environmental standards
(RCEP, 1998), use of land, and more mundane but neverthe-
less essential and potentially contentious decisions such as road
planning and waste management strategy. Given that the crite-
ria have not been determined a priori, it is clearly pointless to
try to aggregate impacts to a single metric. In fact, attempts to
apply cost/benefit analysis, which is an extreme form of aggre-
gation, to decisions in this category can be seen to lead to po-
litical disturbances, for example over road construction in the
UK. Balancing the techno-economic, environmental and social
dimensions of sustainable development makes this kind of de-
cision increasingly important. Therefore, engineers in general
and chemical engineers in particular must expect to be involved
in this kind of decision process.
3.2. Risk, uncertainty and acceptance in decisions
Although “decisions without agreed criteria” are unavoid-
able in engineering for sustainable development, they represent
something unfamiliar to most engineers. Decisions in this cate-
gory typically affect a broad range of people and organisations,
so these stakeholders should be involved in the decision pro-
cess. Different stakeholders will typically have different views
about the criteria defining a desirable outcome. Decisions must
often be made in the face of missing information and uncer-
tainty about the confidence which can be placed on the avail-
able information; it can be argued that engineering design has
always required decisions to be made based on incomplete in-
formation, but the involvement of stakeholders with different
objectives makes this kind of decision different. Furthermore,
the systems about which decisions must be made may be so
complex that their behaviour is not predictable, while the con-
sequences of the decision may be highly significant.
This kind of decision problem has become known as the do-
main of “post-normal science”. The concept is shown schemat-
ically in Fig. 6. Decisions with low uncertainty and decision
stakes are the conventional province of the engineer. When the
stakes or uncertainty are higher, specialist skill and judgement
are needed—i.e., professional consultancy may be required.
When the risks arising from high stakes and/or uncertainty are
high, we are in the realm of post-normal science. Here “the
contribution of all the stakeholders. . . is not merely a matter of
broader democratic participation. . . . Quality depends on open
dialogue between all those affected. This we call an ‘extended
System uncertainty Low High

Fig. 6. Post-normal science (after Ravetz, 1993).
peer community’, consisting not merely of persons with some
form. . . of institutional accreditation, but rather of all those with
a desire to participate in the resolution of the issue” (Funtowicz
et al., 1999).
The idea of a peer community is familiar enough. The notion
of an extended peer community, recognising that the knowledge
needed to reach an accepted decision does not reside solely
with technical experts, is less familiar (and may be seen as
anathema by some in the engineering profession!). However,
if sustainability leads inevitably to decisions without agreed
criteria, then it is also inevitable that some form of extended
peer community will be needed if decisions are to be accepted in
the face of uncertainty and risk.
The problem for the engineer
is then to recognise that the role of the technical expert in this
kind of decision is different; it is to “act as Honest Broker, to
ensure that the scientific and technical information is presented
clearly and without bias” (Mitchell et al., 2004).
But then the decision process needs to be structured care-
fully. Fig. 7 shows a model for deliberative decision processes,
originally proposed as a way of setting environmental standards
but much broader in its potential applications (RCEP, 1998).
The key feature is that specialist assessment with interaction
between specialist disciplines lies at the core of the process, but
people’s values must inform recognition and definition of the
problem and the objectives and decision criteria, and also the
synthesis of different technical assessments to arrive at an ac-
cepted decision. Funtowicz et al. (1999) described this model
as “as a sort of manual for post-normal science”.
For a discussion of the role of the “lay expert” in this kind of decision,
see Irwin (2003).
R. Clift / Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187 4185
recognise problem
define and frame
formulate objectives
Fig. 7. A model of deliberative decision processes (RCEP, 1998).
3.3. An example: energy policy and climate change
The role of engineering expertise in a problem falling into
the realm of post-normal science can be illustrated by an influ-
ential study by the UK Royal Commission on Environmental
Pollution (RCEP, 2000) on global climate change and energy
policy. The RCEP is a body of independent experts which has
maintained a tradition of freedom from political intervention;
its deliberations, therefore, correspond to the multidisciplinary
analysis at the centre of Fig. 7. However, the issues which the
Commission addresses are framed by public concerns, and the
ways in which its conclusions are applied are determined by po-
litical processes. In this sense, the RCEP’s work approximates
to the model of Fig. 7.
The key aspect of the Royal Commission’s analysis con-
cerned targets for carbon dioxide emissions from the UK in the
year 2050. The report starts with an analysis of the evidence
that emissions of climate-forcing “greenhouse gases” from hu-
man activities are causing changes in the global climate and
regional weather patterns. In effect, it endorses the conclusions
of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
To quote the RCEP report, the world is now faced with a rad-
ical challenge of a totally new kind which requires an urgent
response. . . By the time the effects of human activities on the
global climate are clear and unambiguous it would be too late
to take preventive measures. This statement may not be news
to the scientific community, but was necessary at the time of
publication (2000) to underpin the Commission’s recommenda-
tions; although the UK government now stresses its belief that
climate change represents a real and serious threat, this com-
mitment has emerged since publication of the RCEP report.
The statement also identifies this as a problem in post-normal
science: high uncertainty but very high stakes.
The analysis which followed had three principal steps in
which the key disciplines were respectively climate science,
moral philosophy and engineering:
1. The risk of serious global climate change increases with
increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.
Therefore, the ecological constraint (in the sense intro-
duced at the beginning of this paper) was framed in terms
of preventing runaway rise in carbon dioxide concentra-
tion. Although there is no threshold at which the stability
of the global climate becomes “unsafe”, the RCEP recom-
mended the target of stabilising CO
concentration at about
550 ppmv, about double the pre-industrial level. Even at this
level, major climate impacts and rise in sea level must be
expected. However, the implications of the constraint for
limiting emissions are not very sensitive to its level: stabil-
isation at any level below 750 ppmv requires global emis-
sions to be reduced below projections on a “business as
usual” basis. The 550 ppmv cap requires total global emis-
sions to be stabilised roughly at current values.
2. Working back from the tolerable emissions, RCEP argued
that an effective, enduring and equitable climate protocol
will eventually require emission quotas to be allocated to
nations on a simple and equal per capita basis. This is
known as the “contract and converge” principle: it requires
the developed economies to reduce their emissions to con-
verge on the global constraint. Dividing the tolerable emis-
sions by projected global population in 2050 gave the per
capita target. Multiplying by the UK population gave the
target for the UK: about 40% of emissions in 1997.
3. The normative engineering input came in the third step of
the analysis, by developing representative scenarios to show
how the target of 60% reduction in UK CO
emissions by
2050 might be achieved. This was an application of fore-
sighting, as distinct from forecasting. Forecasting is the pro-
cess of predicting how a system—in this case, the energy
supply system in the UK—is likely to develop. Foresighting
uses a different approach: projecting possible future scenar-
ios, usually over a time-scale—50 years in the case of the
RCEP energy study—longer than that which can be cov-
ered by forecasting. Foresighting can lead on to backcast-
ing, the process of investigating what must be done now to
invalidate simplistic “business-as-usual” forecasts and im-
prove the chances of reaching a desirable future scenario
(Robinson, 2003). The use of scenarios in energy planning
4186 R. Clift / Chemical Engineering Science 61 (2006) 4179–4187
and policy is well established (e.g., Darton, 2004). In the
case of the RCEP’s analysis, the scenarios enabled the cost
of changing course to achieve the 60% reduction to be es-
timated. The answer was “about 2% of annual GDP”, at a
time when GDP growth was still projected as 4% per an-
num; i.e., the costs are substantial but not impossible (and
arguably much lower than the economic and social costs of
runaway climate change).
The strength of the RCEP argument derived from this multi-
disciplinary analysis, in which the engineering input was nec-
essary but not sufficient. Arguably the engineering component
will be even more essential in bringing about the changes in
the energy system needed to meet the 60% target, but this is
within the more familiar role of the engineer. Based on this
analysis, it was possible for the RCEP to say In this report we
illustrate ways in which the UK could cut its carbon dioxide
emissions by 60% by 2050. Achieving this will require vision,
leadership and action which begin now. About 2
years after
publication of the RCEP report, the recommendation was ac-
cepted in a White Paper setting out UK energy policy. This
was one of the first political admissions that the targets agreed
under the Kyoto protocol are nowhere near enough to prevent
gross climate change. The target has since been adopted by
some governments in addition to the UK.
3.4. A caution against optimism
Of course, declaration of policy by the government of one
industrialised country gives very limited reassurance. Achiev-
ing the goal of stabilising atmospheric CO
concentration will
require a lot more, including adoption of low-carbon energy
economies in the developing countries, so there remains much
to be done by engineers acting in their more conventional roles.
Also, a further difficult problem is starting to emerge. The ques-
tion was raised earlier: should the sustainability of a country be
assessed in terms of its direct impacts or its consumption? In
principle, it is possible for a country to export its unsustainabil-
ity by consuming goods and materials with high environmental
impact which are produced elsewhere in the world. For exam-
ple, greenhouse warming emissions from the UK have reduced
measurably as a result of the migration of energy-intensive in-
dustries such as primary metal production (see Dahlström et
al., 2004), but this does not mean that UK society has reduced
its real contribution to climate change.
Finding ways to address the problem of inequitable con-
sumption will be even harder than reducing national carbon
emissions, but it is clear that the process must involve environ-
mental system analysis—particularly LCA—and therefore that
chemical engineering must have a key role.
4. Conclusions
One of the features of the discipline of chemical engineer-
ing is its concern with managing complex systems, particularly
systems involving flows of materials and energy. The concept
of sustainable development introduces a concern for the be-
haviour of complex systems which makes the chemical engi-
neering approach all the more essential. The development and
use of system-based tools for managing the environmental per-
formance of human activities already represents a new but rel-
atively straightforward extension of chemical engineering. The
approaches known as clean technology and industrial ecology
already require a fusion of chemical engineering with other dis-
ciplines including natural science, toxicology, economics and
business management.
The field for possible applications of chemical engineering
becomes even broader when it is recognised that sustainable de-
velopment requires increasing emphasis on decisions in which
the objectives of the decision and the criteria by which suc-
cess is to be judged must be formulated as part of the decision
process. Typically, the uncertainties and the risks of the deci-
sion are high. This kind of problem is known as post-normal
science. The field is generally less familiar to chemical engi-
neers, and requires working with more alien groups including
social scientists, philosophers and the non-expert “lay” public.
However, this kind of analysis and decision structuring will be
of increasing importance; it is illustrated by the essential in-
put from engineering, alongside climate science and moral phi-
losophy, into the analysis which successfully changed the UK
government’s policy towards energy and climate change.
Post-normal science introduces or reinforces the role of the
technical specialist as an agent of social as well as technologi-
cal change. Such a normative role will be unfamiliar, and prob-
ably uncomfortable, to many practising engineers. However it
can also be seen as a way of enriching professional practice.
If presented right, it could make engineering in general and
chemical engineering in particular more attractive to potential
new recruits, and thereby help to overcome the problem of de-
clining recruitment to the profession which is apparent in many
parts of the world.
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