Industry is falling short, says UNEP

Posted: 23 July 2002

There is a growing gap between the efforts of business and industry to reduce their impact on the environment and the worsening state of the planet, according to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

This gap, says UNEP, is due to the fact that in most industry sectors, only a small number of companies are actively striving for sustain-ability. And, secondly, because improvements are being overtaken by economic growth and increasing demand for goods and services: a phenomenon known as the "rebound effect."

The new findings appear in the UNEP overview report 10 years after Rio: the UNEP assessment. It draws on the 22 global sustainability reports written by different industry sectors ranging from accounting and advertising to waste and water management.

On the positive side, the reports reveal an increased awareness by industry of environmental and social issues. In many cases this is reflected by more environmental reporting and the development and use of life-cycle management.

In some cases, this awareness can be seen in improved environmental performance. This is especially true in areas like cleaner production and waste minimization.

For example, the aluminium industry reports that recycled metal now satisfies about a third of world demand for aluminium. It says that total recycling of aluminium in the form of beverage cans show rates that range from 79 per cent in Japan and 78 per cent in Brazil to 62 per cent in the US and 41 per cent in Europe.

In another example, the iron and steel industry reports that by recycling nearly 300 million tonnes of scrap each year, they do not have to extract 475 million tonnes of natural iron bearing ore. They estimate that this saves the energy equivalent of 160 million tonnes of hard coal.

On the down side increased economic activity and the associated rise in consumption means waste generation rates per capita continue to increase around the world. New "throw-away" products continue to be introduced by industry to meet changing consumer needs and expectations, with little or no consideration of sustainable development beyond short-term economic gain.

The waste industry example is repeated in other reports and the clear message emerges: growing consumption levels are overtaking environmental gains.

Related links:

Industry as a partner for sustainable development10 years after Rio: the UNEP Assessment

22 Sector Reports