Eating, Building, Moving: 3 Industries That Could Hold The Key To A More Sustainable Future

This is a guest blog from James Hale, a graduate of the University of Kent. Having studied English and American Literature, James now works as a freelance writer, penning his thoughts on anything and everything of interest. He’s passionate about sustainability, and loves helping to spread the word about how we can all factor it into our day to day lives.

—————————————————————————————

It’s not uncommon to see concerns about sustainability appearing in the news. While unfortunately it’s not always to decry a positive update, it’s certainly a good thing that this vital issue is so prominent in the public eye. One recent story, however, caught my eye – the news that some of the world’s most prominent investors have called on the largest fast food companies in the world to act urgently on the climate and water risks in their supply chains.

This got me thinking a bit. Of course this is a step in the right direction, but one statistic jumped out at me: “animal agriculture is the world’s highest-emitting sector without a low-carbon plan.” This makes perfect sense with the sheer scale of animal farming in mind. But which other industries are the most harmful to our natural world? And where are the most significant opportunities for change and improvement?

After a little bit of digging, a few stats emerged that I found fairly surprising. Particularly the fact that 71% of all man-made emissions since the dawn of the industrial age have come from just 100 companies. We’re constantly reminded of the things we can do to improve our carbon footprint – recycling, bringing our own bags when we shop, turning the lights off. But it’s clear that while we all have a part to play, the largest responsibility falls on industry. But which industries?

With this in mind, and following on from some of the other posts I’ve written for the sustainability blog, I thought it would be good to take a look at a few of the industries that have – or could have – the biggest impact on the environment, and in particular, those with the potential to have the most positive effects if appropriate steps are taken.

How to define environmental impact

But first, a quick note. It’s very easy to band about phrases such as ‘environmental impact’ without much clarity on what they actually mean. With the risk of being reductive in this sense, I think it’s important to establish how we actually define how ‘environmentally friendly an industry is.

A simple approach can be to simply look at the cumulative estimated emissions (in the form of various greenhouses gasses such as Co2, methane or nitrous oxide) that a given industry is responsible for. But while this is a vital statistic, focusing solely on this one aspect of sustainability arguably isn’t the best way to paint a wider picture.

Instead, for the purposes of this article, I’ve decided to take a slightly broader approach, and consider the far-reaching and hypothetical impacts an industry can have. This includes things like the role an industry has on consumer behaviour, the potential it has to change the way we act and live, and various ways different supply chains can impact the natural world. Basically, we’re talking big picture, and I’m not trying to make any definitive claims!

1: Agriculture/Food production

It makes sense to start with the industry that triggered this train of thought. Food production is one of the building blocks of our civilisation, and it’s hard to underestimate its scale and potential impact. The agriculture industry is so vast, and involves so many different stages and sub-industries, that it clearly takes responsibility for a huge majority of our global carbon footprint.

How does agriculture affect the environment?

This is hard to summarise succinctly and with any true degree of accuracy, but simply by considering the vast number of elements involved in the agriculture industrial supply chain, it’s easy to see just how significant its impact is. It would be foolish to attempt to list all of these, but instead let’s look at a few diverse elements:

Deforestation

In order to farm, land is required. And in order to make more land available, those pesky forests that produce oxygen and provide a self-sustaining biodiverse ecosystem need to go. According to British environmentalist Norman Myers, 5% of deforestation is due to cattle ranching, 19% due to over-heavy logging, 22% due to the growing sector of palm oil plantations, and 54% due to slash-and-burn farming (burning large areas to create a layer of ash, resulting in nutrient-rich soil.)

Food packaging

Single-use disposable plastics for packaging food are a hot topic at the moment, and the absurdity of the amount of plastic we use in food packaging (think mushrooms wrapped in clingfilm in a plastic holder wrapped in clingfilm) is hard to deny. It’s easy to forget that this is a part of the food production industry, but with food products representing a huge amount of our regular purchases, this is a vital consideration.

Pollutants

 

When producing food, all kinds of pollutants are used in the process. From pesticides and herbicides used to ensure quality, to emissions from farming equipment and machinery, and even the pollution of surface and groundwaters from waste, the agriculture industry contributes a staggering number of pollutants to the environment en masse every year.

How could agriculture make a difference?

Far be it for me to suggest how to fix the agriculture industry, but it’s worth noting that on the whole, if broad and far-reaching improvements were made to the way we farm and distribute food produce, the impact on the globe could be massive. If we’re going to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, big changes are needed in farming.

Fundamentally, a global shift towards agreed upon low-carbon guidelines and plans would be an important first step. Agreements between suppliers on clear policies that take steps to reduce freshwater impacts and reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be vital. Similarly, while industries such as the automotive industry have taken steps towards quantitative accountability, it’s crucial that global quantifiable agriculture targets are agreed upon, set, and regularly reported on. Put simply, we need a clear, numbers-driven plan to reduce the harm farming is doing to the environment.

The widespread adoption of sustainable practices including water management, healthy soil maintenance, pollution reduction and biodiversity promotion will be essential – and these will need to be established in clear guidelines and targets for farmers and producers to meet. If we can achieve this, the potential positive impact – or at least the reduction of the current scale of damage – is hard to understate.

2: Construction and Building Design

However well (or poorly) we treat the environment as a society, we still have to live in it. As humans have evolved, we’ve increased our proficiency in design and construction to such an extent that architecture has become one of the most significant industries in terms of our impact of the natural world.

I wrote an entire piece about this on the sustainability blog a little while ago, but seeing as we’re discussing industries with the biggest role to play here, I would be remiss not to include it again. I’ll provide a slightly condensed analysis this time though!

How does architecture affect the environment?

Put simply, the buildings we construct and reside in have a huge effect on how sustainably we live as a society. The supply chain involved in architecture is vast, but generally the impact of building design comes down to two things: construction, and the way we use buildings in the long term.

Construction

The construction industry alone is responsible for a huge amount of environmental damage, which can be attributed to a few different key areas. These include waste (60 million tonnes of materials are disposed of every year without ever being used, due to damage or inaccurate ordering), the emissions from large-scale and long-distance transportation of materials and machinery, and on-site emissions, identified as one of the main causes of CO2 pollution in the UK (with up to 40% of carbon emissions attributable to construction).

Building use

It’s not just the way we construct buildings that has a profound and measurable effect on the environment – it’s the way we use those buildings too. Once construction is complete, a structure’s environmental impact doesn’t go away, it changes. The parameters are different, but the effects are just as significant.

The way a building provides heating, water, ventilation, and energy all play a part in its overall sustainability. The supply of these elements, the energy efficiency of the interior spaces, and things such as the disposal of wastewater need to be considered, and can have both negative and positive effects.

How can building design and construction make a difference?

When thinking about this, it’s important to get to grips with the term ‘sustainable’, as this is really key. Architecture and construction aren’t ever going to have zero impact on the environment, and yet they’re a necessary part of our societal development – so the specifics of sustainable development, that is development which doesn’t involve the irreparable destruction of resources, is crucial.

Sustainable construction practices are already in place which can help us to achieve this goal. This predominantly involves the use of things like nontoxic materials, and renewable resources (such as harvested wood and glass) in the actual building process.

On top of this, it’s worth noting that the way architects approach the design of a building could also have a significant long-term benefit to the overall sustainability of our future. Simple amendments such as the inclusion of effective daylighting through use of something like a glass rooflight, or the inclusion of effective ventilation and natural heating can make a huge difference.

This could have a massive impact on our natural world as we continue to expand our man made influence upon it; rather than reducing both space for natural ecologies to thrive and the amount of resources available to build, sustainable construction and design could ensure that we maintain the resources that are available as we provide efficient and sustainable new living and working spaces for our expanding population – all the while reducing the long-term environmental impact our buildings have.

3: Energy Industry & Fossil Fuel Producers

For many people, regardless of how aware they are of the overarching issues affecting our environment, the energy industry often springs to minds as one of – if not the – prime culprit when it comes to emissions. This opinion is hardly unfounded. In 2017, the ‘Carbon Majors Report’ from the CDP determined that “…a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions.”

The impact of those producing energy from fossil fuels is undeniably crucial. Reports such as the one cited above are illuminating, because they hone in specifically on the emissions of energy producers rather than simply analysing emissions on a national scale. And the data is telling.

How does the energy industry affect the environment?

In a very simple sense, the way the energy industry impacts the environment is fairly straightforward regardless of the specific energy source in question. When fossil fuels in any form are burned for energy, they create an abundance of harmful greenhouse gases that are emitted and dispersed into the atmosphere, which over time accumulate and cause an array of problems for the planet. (I know this is GCSE level science but that’s the gist of it!)

Large-scale emissions

These emissions are some of the most significant influencing factors in climate change, and the energy industry is responsible for a terrifying proportion of them. While other industries impact the Earth and sustainability in a variety of ways, the large scale emissions of harmful gases from the burning of fossil fuels have a direct impact on the natural state of our climate.

Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has increased by about 40% to above 400 parts per million, and current CO2 levels are 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last million years (possibly even more than any time in the last 25 million years.)

This increase of 100 ppm over 120 years is something that normally takes 5,000 to 20,000 years, and is directly correlated with and attributable to the increase in burning of fossil fuels. As we continue to do so, we effectively wrap the world in a gaseous heat blanket, and the effects of this are causing chaos to our climate.

Coal (yes, we’re still burning it)

While the coal industry’s demise in the UK might make it easy to assume this is no longer a significant problem for the wider world, coal is still burned on a massive scale and remains one of the primary contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Coal-fired power plants are the main contributor of Co2 into the atmosphere,

What’s particularly surprising is the extent to which this is true. With so many more ways of generating power sustainably, and so many more providers of green energy, I was shocked to discover that between 1988 and 2015, a staggering 14.32% of ALL global greenhouse gas emissions originated from a single company: China Coal.

How can the energy industry make a difference?

The statistics acknowledged above are indicative of the sheer scale of the problem presented by the energy industry, and it’s clear that even a small but industry-wide modification would have a drastic and far-reaching positive impact.

When it comes to tackling emissions (which currently present the most significant threat) there are three fundamental approaches – plants that use fossil fuels need to either: 1. Remove the hazardous, pollutant-causing materials before they are burned 2. Find ways to contain and eliminate the pollutant after it has been created 3. Find methods and processes using the same materials that eliminate (or drastically reduce) the pollutants usually formed.

Fortunately, there are already technologies emerging which allow energy producers to do this. The collection of gases in other liquids or on solid materials that can then be destroyed safely, and other more complex techniques such as electrostatic precipitators or cyclones are also possible.

Of course the technology may already exist, but the challenge will be implementation. It’s clear that the energy industry has the potential to make a huge contribution to the reduction of global emissions. But this will either require the widespread and universal abandonment of fossil fuel-based energy production in favour of the adoption of sustainable energy production, or a large-scale investment (potentially involving a legal impetus from governments or other ruling bodies) in reducing the emissions of long-standing industries.

Conclusion

I’m certainly not trying to suggest I have all the answers when it comes to this vast, and vital topic. This is such a multi-faceted, complex issue that it really isn’t as simple as saying ‘if we do X, then everything will be fine’. What I think is important, however, is acknowledging how vital a role industry has to play, and coming to terms with both precisely which industries have the largest impact, and how they could potentially hold the key to a sustainable future.

We all know about the impact we can have individually, and there’s no denying how important this is, but when you break down the numbers it seems clear that for us to truly make a global difference as a species, we’re going to need to rip up the rulebook for industries everywhere – and whether it’s in the food we eat, the buildings in which we live and work, or the way we power our increasingly digital lives, we need to be bold in redefining how we operate as a society.

How sustainable architecture could be the key to building a greener society

This is a guest blog from James Hale, a graduate of the University of Kent. Having studied English and American Literature, James now works as a freelance writer, penning his thoughts on anything and everything of interest. He’s passionate about sustainability, and loves helping to spread the word about how we can all factor it into our day to day lives.

————————————-

If you think humans are wasteful, just consider the buildings we live in. Buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy, while 25% of the planet’s wood supply and 15% of its water are also eaten up by residential and commercial constructions.

In the pursuit of global sustainability, it’s clear that if we’re going to make lasting changes to our impact on the planet, we not only need to pay attention to how we can improve modern society, but to how we build it.

In recent years, architects, designers, and construction experts have been turning their focus to ‘sustainable architecture’ – mastering this principle of design and construction could be the key to building a greener society.

Understanding the impact of architecture on the environment

There is near unanimous agreement in the scientific community that the increase in global GHGs (Greenhouse Gas Emissions) can be directly attributed to human interaction with the planet – and more specifically, as a result of fossil fuel based energy generation.

While this might be a commonly acknowledged premise, it’s one that directly links to the way we design and construct the buildings we use. When considering architecture as a practice, design and construction are often regarded as one and the same, but the difference between the two is an important factor to acknowledge.

Building construction

In the UK, the construction industry is responsible for 32% of total landfill. Each year, over 400 million tonnes of materials are delivered (a process involving significant carbon emissions) to building construction sites, of which approximately 60 million tonnes are disposed of straight away, due to storage-related damage or inaccurate ordering.

Photo credit: John Jones https://toolstotal.com/

This creates an immediate issue related to space – simply put, we don’t have enough room for the amount of landfill that we’ll need should current rates continue. While moves towards innovative methods of landfill are being made and increases in landfill tax are being levied, the drive for sustainability makes this a massive and hotly debated issue.

Possibly the most significant other aspect of construction lies in the CO2 emissions associated with the process. Construction involves multiple stages that cumulatively lead to large-scale carbon emissions, two of the most significant of which are:

Transportation

This includes the transportation of both people and materials, which often takes place over a long period, and via a large number of sources. This includes (but is not limited to) vehicles used to drive to and from the site, and international and national freight of materials (sometimes via boat, train, or even plane).

On-site emissions 

The largest quantity of CO2 is usually emitted from on-site procedures. This involves both direct and indirect emissions as a result of processes such as combustion, as well as energy used on site by everything from heavy-duty machinery to the microwaves used to heat lunches.

Government research has found that construction is likely one of the main causes of CO2 emissions that in the UK, and is potentially responsible for over 40% of total emissions in the country. Within the construction process itself, the largest cause of emissions is the manufacture of products and materials.

Building Design

The other cornerstone of the architectural process, and possibly the one most intrinsically associated with the profession, is the way buildings are designed. Thoughts inevitably turn to aesthetics – but when it comes to sustainability, this factor has a far more important role than simply leaving a lasting visual impression.

The same government study into the impact of construction on CO2 emissions found that some 80% of total emissions of buildings came from ‘in-use’ factors – that is, the activities that take place within buildings themselves.

This is a huge element to the sustainable impact of architecture: the way we use a structure and how ‘healthy’ and efficient it is, is of critical and often underappreciated importance.

One of the most significant factors in a building’s sustainability lies in its energy efficiency, particularly when it comes to things such as heating – and this largely comes down to the way the structure is designed. There are many factors that impact efficiency and sustainability in design, but a few of the most important include:

Heating 

When a building is heated, a lot – typically up to 75% – of that energy gets lost as it bleeds through the structure (with nearly 50% lost through the windows and roof). The insulation of a structure, the types of glazing used and the way a building is heated all have a part to play – the more energy required and the more that’s lost, the less sustainable the design.

Water

Water consumption in the western world is increasing, with the average UK citizen using an average of 150 litres a day. The way water is incorporated into the design of a building, both in the way it is supplied and removed (and for what purpose), can have a significant impact on its sustainability.

Ventilation and Air Quality

Maybe a little less obvious, but nonetheless a vital factor in the sustainability of a building’s design, is the way it handles the ventilation and circulation of air. This is particularly relevant when it comes to large commercial or industrial buildings (which often feature elaborate integrated ventilation systems), and can involve a large amount of energy consumption – along with physical emissions of CO2 and other gases.

Electrical consumption

The design of a building significantly contributes to its electrical consumption, and this in turn has an impact on the structure’s overall sustainability. Everything from wiring and lighting to other features (including appliances and integrated systems such as motorised doors and windows) will determine whether, over time, the building can operate sustainably.

How can architecture be sustainable?

By considering the way buildings are constructed and used in the long run, and taking into account the impact the structure will have on the natural world and the environment, architects have developed and honed new techniques and practices – helping to ensure that the process of design and construction can operate sustainably. These include:

Sustainable Construction

Sustainable architecture focuses on wastage during the construction process, and finds new ways to economise the use of materials and their harmful impacts on the environment. A few simple but crucial tenets of sustainable architecture can be applied to construction to reduce environmental impact.

Firstly, the application of nontoxic materials and adhesives is an important step. The use of many standard components can result in what’s known, as ‘outgassing’ (the release of volatile and dangerous substances into the atmosphere), even after construction is complete. Simply substituting these for nontoxic variations can mitigate this issue.

Additionally, by using recycled and natural renewable materials (such as harvested wood, glass, concrete, and rock), designs can minimise the carbon footprint of the material aspect of the construction process.

Architects may also choose to incorporate features and fixtures, such as doors or flooring, from other buildings, reducing the production impact of their constructions. Partnerships between architectural studios and construction firms (who have themselves committed to a sustainable model) can also help reduce the impact of building construction, enabling professionals to determine the most appropriate strategies on a project-by-project basis.

Technological innovation

In both architecture, and all constructive professions more broadly, sustainability can be approached in one of two ways. The first involves finding strategies to reduce the impact we have on the environment, and to improve the efficiency of our technology. The second is to adopt a more ‘tabula rasa’ mentality: start from scratch, innovate, and create new solutions to problems that have heretofore been solved in an environmentally irresponsible way.

By working with suppliers, specialists, and designers, architects can create buildings and structures that don’t just approach sustainable design by the book – they rewrite the book entirely, and create solutions that redefine what we can achieve in terms of environmental construction.

Whether it’s the work of companies like structural glazing firm Cantifix – who used cutting-edge insulated glazing technology to create the world’s first all-glass living environment – or the relatively new phenomenon of ‘living buildings’ (structures that use net-zero or net-positive energy systems, along with all kinds of other eco-techniques to ensure a carbon footprint that’s close to non-existent), the use of innovative technology can ensure that the quest for a greener society continues to progress.

Efficient insulation

Insulation is usually the largest determining factor when it comes to the energy required to heat a building. Simply put, a well-insulated structure loses less heat, requires less power to keep warm, and has less of a carbon footprint as a result.

This can be achieved simply through the use of more efficient insulating construction fabrics and materials. Other elements such as double-glazing will ensure that insulation is taken fully into account as a cornerstone of sustainable design.

It’s also worth noting that when it comes to insulation, both interior heat retention and exterior heat reduction are important for reducing the need for air conditioning, particularly when it comes to solar gain. Efficient design ensures that interior climates are maintainable with as little energy as possible.

Intelligent water systems

All buildings need a water supply, and depending on their intended purpose some need an awful lot. Sustainable architecture seeks to find ways to both conserve and reduce the amount of water used, as well as ways to potentially reuse water.

Appliances, while not necessarily within the remit of the architect, contribute most significantly to the water consumption of a building – with toilets alone responsible for around 40% of total water usage. The installation of more efficient water fixtures, integrated with systems that collect and reuse water or use gravity to reduce the need for assisted water pressure, can make a big difference.

There has also been a move to reaffirm some of the ways water was used by architects in the pre-industrial era. In what is known as ‘bioclimatic’ architecture (designs that aim to provide thermal comfort based on local climates, using elemental resources such as solar energy), water can be used as an interior thermal regulator. This, along with techniques such as passive water-cooling, can redefine the ways we think about and use water – reducing climatic impact as a result.

Humane site selection

While the processes involved in the design of a building can factor into sustainable practices, one of the biggest improvements to the environmental impact of architecture is through humane site selection and design.

 When selecting the location for a design (particularly applicable to rural plans), architects can make sustainable choices, such as factoring in sunlight as a source of light and heat, and angling a building in such a way that it integrates natural solar gain. Even situating a building with shelter from prevailing winds can improve energy efficiency if the terrain is suitable.

In rural architecture, the preservation of natural conditions can contribute to the sustainability of a design – such as respecting existing topography, taking steps to ensure the water table remains undisturbed, and considering flora and fauna. Simply selecting a site that doesn’t require extensive excavation can make all the difference.

When it comes to urban and city projects, other factors (e.g. vehicle access and proximity to/integration with public transport) can combine to reduce the need for extensive vehicle use.

Sustainable urban architecture also pays attention to purpose. By combining residential, commercial, and professional spaces, commutes can be reduced – as can the continued expanse of sprawling suburbs, and other harmful developments further out of city centres.

Sustainable energy production

One of the most widely recognised ways in which building design can work towards a more sustainable society lies in the ways in which energy is produced. If an architect can factor in energy production via solar panels, for instance, then the carbon footprint of a building can be hugely reduced.

From photovoltaic panels (the deep blue panes many of us are accustomed to seeing on rooftops) and cells, to solar water heating systems, architects can negate the need for large-scale energy consumption. With power being such a primary concern when it comes to sustainability, this is a crucial step towards a greener society.

A brighter, greener future

Sustainability is a complex and multifaceted topic; almost every human action, from the ways we travel to the food we eat, has an impact on both global and local ecology. But with more of a focus than ever now being placed not only on how we live in society, but also how we build it, architects could become the vanguards of a greener, more sustainable world.