March/April 2009

Research under the microscope

Evaluating the sustainability benefits of new technologies

By G. Corder, B. McLellan and S. Green

High-speed video camera

Despite the economic downturn, worldwide demand for mineral-based products is poised for continued growth, due in particular to ongoing modernization in developing countries. Meeting this demand could strengthen economies and improve social equity by making material goods more widely available. However, there are some serious constraints. Even if production and utilization efficiencies improve amid growing demand and declining ore grades, mineral-based production will be limited by access to energy, water, allowable greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and land for waste disposal. Given current paradigms, business growth will not be sustainable.

Changing the status quo

In a business-as-usual scenario, the Australian minerals and energy sector will emit up to 400 megatonnes of GHG by 2050, one-third more than the government’s current countrywide target of 300 megatonnes. In the sustainable scenario, the minerals industry would target 50 per cent aggregate emission reductions by 2050, in line with overall targets. A pure innovation approach (i.e. with no offsets) would require 90 per cent improvement in GHG efficiency by 2050. Achieving this with forestry-based offsets would require planting 1.6 million hectares annually — approximately three per cent of Australia’s arable land. Clearly, offsets cannot be the whole solution. Although no analysis has been done, it is reasonable, given similarities, to expect comparable limitations in Canada. Such scrutiny provides compelling evidence that the industry urgently needs to develop more sustainable technologies (particularly given the lead time from research outcomes to commercialization).

Sustainability benefits are a critical indicator of the “value” of research outcomes. Traditional cost benefit analysis does not recognize the need for estimating environmental and community effects. Sustainable development benefits can be quantified so that factors like carbon pricing, capital costs, legacy costs, alternative land uses, etc. are accounted for. Because these factors can strongly influence a project’s viability, it is imperative to better ascertain their magnitude and impact and understand the contribution that innovative technologies or methodologies can make in improving project sustainability. Furthermore, it is desirable to examine the replicability of project outcomes, to valuate this in absolute and comparative terms. Without understanding its potential sustainability implications, one cannot determine how any new technology compares with existing or other emerging technologies that perform the same function.

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