Cleaner, timely and all-embracing

Cleaner, timely
and all-embracing


describes the rapid development of UNEP's
Cleaner Production Programme and
outlines the challenges ahead


Only six years after UNEP launched its 'cleaner production' (CP) initiative, activities have taken root in many countries, are fast developing, and are already producing impressive results. This became obvious at a conference held in Oxford in September 1996 to review progress and future challenges, attended by UNEP's Executive Director and some 150 participants representing industry, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments from some 40 countries, as well as regional and international organizations.

This is indeed a worthy achievement that indicates that the CP concept meets a pressing need effectively and is on its way to becoming demand-driven, and thus self-sustaining. There are several reasons why CP has become so popular, some of which are particularly worth highlighting.

First, the launch of CP more or less coincided with a paradigm shift in pollution abatement from end-of-pipe treatment of discharges to pollution prevention. It may seem to have taken a long time to apply the time-honoured principle, 'prevention is better than cure', to pollution abatement, but we had to deal with industrial managers' natural resistance to changing established practices, and with the pressure of vested interests in the production of pollution treatment equipment.

Farsighted view

Second, and perhaps most important, is the all-embracing nature of CP as defined by UNEP (see below). This definition went well beyond current thinking both about simple pollution prevention in the production process and about low and non-waste technologies. CP is a strategy, not a 'technological fix'. It extends both upstream and downstream of the production process. Upstream, it reviews product design and investigates the impacts of providing the material and energy inputs. Downstream, it looks into the impacts of using products and of their disposal as waste. Indeed, the concept goes even further - to question the very need for the product or service, and the 'soundness' of the cultural values and consumption patterns that create this need. It now investigates 'better' - i.e. more sustainable - ways of sustaining 'legitimate' social needs.

This unusually far-sighted view has stood the test of time in a period that has witnessed remarkable developments in environmental thinking - including the development 'problematique'; the 1992 Earth Summit and Agenda 21; the war cries of 'sustainable development' and 'sustainable consumption'; eco-efficiency; the elaboration of environmental management systems; and ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 14000. All these either identify CP as an effective approach to achieving their goals, or are within its broad scope as originally defined by UNEP.

Third, by describing CP as a continuous process, and using the comparative adjective 'cleaner', emphasis is placed on the fact that there is no end to the pursuit of its objectives. The concept continues to unfold as our knowledge of the social and technological aspects of this multi-faceted endeavour grows and deepens. CP is not a 'one-shot' exercise, but the sustained pursuit of a moving target. UNEP's stream of publications (monographs and a newsletter) - which cover technical and policy issues, descriptions and environmental-economic analyses of successful examples of CP from all over the world - have now moved on to address pioneering work in new fields, such as life-cycle assessment, eco-design and environmental technology assessment. Cleaner production centres are continuously sprouting in many parts of the world, either with help from donors or as purely national initiatives.

UNEP's Cleaner Production Programme has moved on from an initiation to a consolidation phase. Naturally, this brings new challenges:

- The term 'cleaner production' has come to be widely used in a variety of contexts and with a variety of meanings. If the Programme is to maintain its unique features, there is an urgent need, at least for some time to come, to emphasize the all-embracing nature of the term on every occasion and to keep pointing out the danger of using it in truncated or distorted senses that deprive it of its value.

- There are now so many examples of the environmental and economic benefits of the CP approach that we need to move beyond demonstration to steadily adopting these successful solutions in most enterprises. We need to examine the obstacles that stand in the way, in both small and large enterprises, in both developing and developed countries. We need to distinguish clearly, in each sectoral and national situation, between technical shortcomings and such other problems as lack of indigenous expertise in CP activities, failures of management of enterprises or market forces, financial obstacles, and barriers built into the sociopolitical system. These problems are particularly acute in small and medium enterprises in developing countries.

- Most governments now know the unwelcome consequences and substantial extra social costs of delaying the solution of environmental problems by rolling them over from place to place, or time to time. They are coming to understand the value of the CP approach, in almost always combining economic and environmental benefits. But developing countries face a problem. Investments in CP projects have to be made available 'up front' and, as these countries start tackling the problem at source rather than further downstream, they will have to continue funding remedial action until the preventive measures bear fruit. No good solution has yet been found to meet this continuing extra financial burden. These complex social issues have to be addressed within the specific socio-economic climate in each country.

- The financial sector plays a decisive role in supporting CP initiatives but, as yet, banks are wary and argue that they are not well-versed in assessing the risks involved. There are encouraging signs that some major banks in industrialized countries are addressing this problem and have now mastered the analytical tools and expertise needed to evaluate CP projects. But this is not so in developing countries. Funding has so far mostly relied on national and/or international donors, mainly in demonstration projects.

- Industry, governments and the financial sector are not the main stakeholders in CP. The ultimate beneficiaries are the public. There is still much to do to realize the potential of fully briefing the public and the institutions of civil society about CP. Public organizations, whether local governments or NGOs, must be involved in supporting the widespread implementation of CP projects as the most effective approach to achieving sustainable living, both through the optimum utilization of resources or pollution prevention and, eventually, through raising delicate issues that question consumption patterns and life-styles.

As Victor Hugo once said, the idea whose time has come is stronger than all the world's armies. UNEP has been at the forefront of those who have realized that the time for cleaner production has come. But, by virtue of its remarkable success in launching its CP initiatives and in seeing the concept spread so widely and so quickly, UNEP now faces new and more momentous challenges. I am confident that it has the insight to continue to succeed.

What is cleaner production?

Cleaner production is the continuous application of an integrated preventive environmental strategy to processes and products to reduce risks to humans and the environment.

For production processes, cleaner production includes conserving raw materials and energy, eliminating toxic raw materials and reducing the quantity and toxicity of all emissions and wastes before they leave a process.

For products, the strategy focuses on reducing impacts along the entire life cycle of the product, from raw material extraction to the ultimate disposal of the product.

For services, it incorporates environmental concerns into designing and delivering services.

Cleaner production requires changing attitudes, responsible environmental management and evaluating technology options.

Professor Osama A. El-Kholy is Professor Emeritus at Cairo University and Senior Adviser to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency.

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