The World Summit on Sustainable Development: A view from an engineer


A view from an engineer

The World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in South Africa between 26 August and 4 September 2002. Here, a South African engineer who attended the event gives his personal impressions of it and reflects upon its implications for engineers.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), also known as Rio+10, started in Johannesburg, South Africa on 26 August this year and ended, somewhat unceremoniously, on 4 September. If you live in South Africa you’d be forgiven for thinking that the WSSD was a big deal. The amassed media covered the event extensively, and the financial benefits and infrastructure improvements to the city of Johannesburg were obvious. But outside perceptions were received locally as very different. Many thought the whole event would come up with little agreement for concrete action. Most pointed to the fact that the United States, the biggest generator of greenhouse gases, wasn’t about to make concessions on energy targets. What was agreed, and what has actually changed since the Earth Summit ten years ago?

An opportunity

The summit was an opportunity for many to broadcast to a global audience, issues that would otherwise be debated in anonymous seminars and conferences of the like-minded. It was a release after years of build-up. It was all things to everyone, and it is a diplomatic miracle that any agreement was reached at all.

Engineering, and the issues of development, were discussed at the Global Alliance for Building Sustainability (GABS) event organised by the RICS Foundation, at which most of the major UK institutions and some international ones, like FIDIC, were represented. Many of the projects showcased demonstrated what can be achieved using more innovative approaches to energy and materials. Residential developments like Beddington Zero (fossil) Energy Development (BedZED) have set new standards in energy use and produced the framework for a lifestyle within the Earth’s carrying capacity. The outcome of GABS was a charter that most representatives signed up to, committing themselves to tackling the challenge of sustainable development through project work, training and research.

GABS was just one of many similar parallel events, aimed at achieving broad-based consensus from a wide range of stakeholders including civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), business and government. It was very much about forming partnerships to tackle the challenges of climate change, poverty and a spiralling global population.

The agenda for WSSD was agreed at a series of preparatory meetings, ‘prepcoms’, outlining actions and targets for water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity (WEHAB). The summit was also heavily influenced by the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) agreed in September 2000, to halve world poverty by 2015, and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). It was really a summit about Africa, and should be viewed in the wider context of other political negotiations.

The Earth Summit was primarily about understanding and protecting the environment, and inter-governmental agreements. It took place in an atmosphere of mounting concern about the state of the Earth and the acceptance of limits, the realisation that we do not live in a world of limitless resources. The wider range of stakeholders involved in the WSSD, especially business, has changed the emphasis from a purely top-down, slow-moving process, to a more dynamic opportunity for change. At the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) Business Day, the Secretary General of the UN, Koffi Annan, noted that ‘business need not wait for governments’. This was really a rallying cry to those who believed that negotiations taking place at the Sandton Convention Centre would not make change happen.

Business, and this was particularly ‘big business’, has espoused the ideal of eco-efficiency for ten years now. The ideal is really about protecting shareholder value while moving towards reduced ecological impacts in line with the Earth’s carrying capacity. ‘Business is good for sustainability, and sustainability is good for business’, as it was put. It is not surprising that this coincides with the views of most governments, as many politicians engage with the concept of sustainability from their traditional starting point of economy and industry, with little intention of taking unilateral action that might upset either voter or stakeholders. Many of the case studies from the book launched at the summit by WBCSD (Walking the Talk, Holliday, C et al., 2002) demonstrate how the technical solutions offered by engineering are crucial in delivering real change. However, much of the talk was about processes and accountability structures, and not the role of engineering and technical innovation. There is a place for the framework within which to deliver progress consistently, but this cannot be at the expense of better systems and products. Since many are relying on the ingenuity of engineers to come up with solutions to global problems it would have been better to show more of what had actually been done.

The outcome

So what actions were agreed in the implementation plan signed at the end of the summit? The outcome agreement suggests that some US$118 billion a year is needed to meet the targets that have been set for WEHAB ( (It is very interesting to note that the United States, the target for most scorn at the summit, has made the most defined investment commitments, although some would say they had committed to these anyway before WSSD.) These, however, come nowhere near the required amounts. It is unclear where the other money will come from to address any commitments made, and less clear what it would actually be spent on. Without a targeted financing structure, how will actual action take place?

In the end, the principal WEHAB commitment made was to halve the proportion of people without access to sanitation and without safe drinking water by 2015, in line with the MDG targets. This will extend mainly to Africa and Asia and should be a significant issue for engineers. Most media attention is given to the impact of HIV and Aids both in Africa and globally. It is often not recognised that malaria, cholera, TB and typhoid kill more children each year in Asia than any other disease. However, the engineer’s lead role in initiating and shaping this work is potentially in doubt. Engineers were blamed for implementing many of the impressive but ill-conceived large projects of the past. According to Ian Johnson of the World Bank, engineers can now be left to ‘implementation at the end’ and shouldn’t be involved in framing the policies. This view is hardly surprising if the profession takes a solely technical approach to its work and does not recognise the significant shift in emphasis to socially responsible solutions. Much of the money made available for projects will go into developing suitable local accountability structures instead. This perception should be of enormous concern to a profession that prides itself on adding value to society. The implementation of schemes to meet the demands of a ballooning global population in a sustainable way is a challenge that the engineering profession needs to take up.

Reducing energy use

The more contentious issue of energy reduction was neatly sidestepped, with little in the way of commitments made. The important issues were that Canada, Japan, Russia, China and Australia all agreed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and the European Union (EU) would invest heavily in research into renewable technologies to increase renewable energy production to 15% of the total by 2015. The additional signatories to the Kyoto Protocol make it possible for it to be implemented without the United States. The investment in renewable research and development will hopefully facilitate future implementation and viability.

There were few demonstration projects to visit at WSSD, clearly showing that, in South Africa at least, little has been done to change the way projects are implemented. One of the few was Midrand Ecocity in Ivory Park, twinned with BedZED in London. This was an actual demonstration of partnerships between government, business and NGOs that were seen as the answer to many developmental problems. The UK design team of Bill Dunster Architects and Arup, helped by BioRegional, used ideas from their project to create a new low-cost house concept for South Africa. This was adapted to suit local conditions and materials by designers in South Africa. It was not the same building or technology that has made such an impact in viable housing form in the UK, nor should it be. Given the extreme cost constraints, the best result for South Africa is a building that is replicable as a self-build system in the future.

This is a vital issue. The direct importation of technology is not the answer to poverty. Indeed many so-called developing nation technologies are worthy of export to the developed world. What the developed nations can bring is the knowledge of the approach that can make a huge difference in delivered quality. Energy from power on its own is only part of the ‘footprint’ from development. Both BedZED and Midrand Ecocity try to include a broader understanding of the impacts from lifestyles overall, such as transport and food production, and reincorporate waste streams. They also prove that ‘green’ developments are both viable and desirable. It is clear that we can address the holistic ideals of sustainability if we approach it with a similar view of design and the interrelationships of issues.

New fuels

The hydrogen economy is being taken very seriously by the motor industry. BMW stole the show in Sandton by displaying its new 7 Series and Mini Cooper hydrogen cars. Run off dual fuel (petrol and hydrogen) to make up for the current lack of available infrastructure, the cars offer significant benefits to reduce transmissions. There are many hybrid alternatives that are favoured by other manufacturers because of the current low efficiency of battery for storing power for electric cars, and it will be interesting to see what technology is actually adopted. What is important, however, is the shift to alternative options in such accessible technology.

Differing viewpoints

There seem to be two main camps on global environmental impacts:

  • those who believe that we must make changes now to turn the ‘super tanker’ of global climate change around

  • those who point to humankind’s innate ability to innovate to resolve the problems that face us.

One endorses a prudent approach to protection of the Earth, the other a more sceptical view that seeks absolute certainty in numbers and trends before making a move. Where does engineering, a precise science-based study, fit within this spectrum?

As Jonathon Porritt pointed out in his discussion of science and the environment (Playing Safe, Porritt J., 2000) the first law of thermodynamics leads to ‘a simple but all-important conclusion: nothing ever disappears’. The more we use ‘stuff’, the more the quality of our planet becomes degraded. Engineering will become more and more involved in maintaining the quality of what we have. It will need to respond to the rate of urbanisation and population growth, within a changing view of values and limits to resources. Engineering has to demonstrate its understanding of the wider issues and fashion the answers. If we don’t, who will?

Adrian Campbell

ARUP, South Africa

Adrian Campbell is a Registered Professional Engineer who leads the structural section of Arup’s Cape Town office and coordinates Arup’s sustainable development initiatives in South Africa. He is currently assisting a number of major projects in formulating their sustainable development initiatives. Adrian also lectures in structures and sustainable design at the University of Cape Town.

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