Policy Incentives for a Cleaner Supply Chain: The Case of Green Chemistry

Article excerpt

There is a great deal of interest in the development and deployment of green technologies and the actions required on the part of industry, academia, governments and civil society to drive them forward. This paper uses the case of green technology in the global chemical sector to better elucidate the challenges of implementation of innovations for sustainable development, to analyze which approaches have been effective, and to provide generalizable knowledge about the types of strategies required to move these technologies from niche applications into widespread use. For green chemistry, and innovations for sustainable development more generally, there is a need for greater public intervention, including regulatory regimes that are strictly enforced, investment in basic research and education to build human capacity, more outreach programs in collaboration with industry to aid with technology transfer and implementation, and economic incentives for firms that may have the desire but not the financial capacity to make use of these innovations. Voluntary collaborations and the influence of major supply chain actors, on their own, are not powerful enough to catalyze the increases in scale that are needed for a real transition to sustainability.

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The past century has been an era of technological miracles. Advances in transportation, communications, agriculture and health have drastically improved the quality of life for billions of people around the globe. Malthusian predictions of exploding populations pushing the earth's resources to their limit have yet to materialize, thanks in part to the genius and dedication of generations of scientists, engineers, industrialists, entrepreneurs and public servants. (1) Still, many believe the planet is in a more precarious position today than ever before; population growth, while slowing, continues to put pressure on resources. (2) Increased standards of living compound these stressors as industrial activity intensifies to meet the growing demand for goods and services. Many technologies are a so-called double-edged sword, contributing to an overall improvement in quality of life while simultaneously degrading public health, deteriorating the environment and threatening the sustainability of resources. (3)

One of the foremost technological challenges confronting the world today is the ability to sustain improvements in quality of life without permanently compromising the human and natural systems on which we rely. This is the underlying goal of sustainable development. (4) The transition to a more sustainable trajectory is complex and requires a variety of responses, but one critical element of a more sustainable future is that we continue to harness the power of innovation. While technological innovation is a source of many of the environmental challenges that we now face, it is an integral part of development. Technological advancement has not been without cost, but its benefits are undeniable. For example, it is unimaginable to envision returning to an era before modern medicine or high-yield agriculture. A return to pre-industrial society is, quite simply, no longer an option.

This means that our future technological trajectory has to not only increase benefits, but also reduce costs. In other words, we need innovation for sustainable development. Such innovations improve the quality of life through efficiency and performance improvements, while at the same time reducing negative impacts on humans and the environment. These innovations are more than just abatement technologies, like sulfur dioxide scrubbers or effluent treatment systems; environmental performance is inherent in their design via a systemic, life cycle approach to development, adoption and diffusion.

Overall, innovations for sustainable development require complex analysis, interdisciplinary thinking and greater engagement with the underlying social, political and natural systems in which they occur. …