SETAC and the green economy


Recognition of the interdependence between human economies and natural ecosystems, together with increased understanding of the link between fossil fuel use and global climate change, has led to calls for transformation of the global economy to a “green economy.” A green economy would sustain and enhance the services provided by natural ecosystems, replace fossil fuels with renewable energy technologies, minimize pollutant emissions, and in general, protect and enhance the quality of the environment while ensuring continued economic vitality.

The goals of a green economy are easy to state but difficult to achieve. The links between economic activities and ecosystem services often are unclear. Actions taken to reduce pollutant emissions at one location may result in increased emissions elsewhere or simply transfer environmental degradation from one ecosystem to another. A renewable energy technology may even result in greater carbon emissions than the fossil fuel—based technology it replaces if electricity derived from fossil fuel is used to produce the materials required by the new technology.

Sorting out the pluses and minuses of potential green policy choices at organizational levels ranging from the United Nations and the World Bank to individual farms and factories will require sound scientific information. Examples include the following: (1) Documentation of the environmental fate, global transport, and toxicity of alternative products intended to replace products identified as environmentally hazardous; (2) calculation of the full life-cycle impacts of green manufacturing processes compared to nongreen processes that produce the same or acceptably similar goods and services; (3) quantification of the services provided by natural ecosystems, of the economic values associated with those services, and of the net gain or loss in values associated with alternative development policies; (4) landscape-level quantification of the combined effects of chemical and nonchemical stressors; and (5) identification of the causes of impaired ecosystem services and development of effective measures for restoring those services.

Success will require the active collaboration of academic, government, and private sector scientists and engineers. Technical experts will be required to do much more than perform scientifically sound studies and reach valid conclusions. They will have to communicate effectively with policy makers at all levels from the local to the global.

Sound familiar? It should, because SETAC members have been engaged in all of these activities ever since the society was founded. Every issue of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management is packed with papers relevant to the green economy. SETAC has been actively promoting Product Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), a key science-based tool for improving the environmental performance of products and production processes, since the early 1990s. The Society also has sponsored workshops on sustainable environmental management, the valuation of ecosystem services, and other topics related to green economic development.

Compared to other scientific societies, SETAC includes a broader cross-section of environmental scientists and engineers and, by design, a more balanced representation of academia, government, and business. Moreover, SETAC is a global society, with an active presence on all continents except Antarctica. For these reasons, SETAC is ideally suited to the kinds of collaboration that are necessary to achieve a globalscale green economy.

If the vision of a green economy is ever to be achieved, both SETAC as a society and its members within their individual organizations will have a very important role to play. What we must do now is look ahead and not backward. For SETAC to achieve its full potential contribution to green economic development, we must work together to focus our science on tomorrow's needs instead of yesterday's. We must have increased collaboration within SETAC's various specialty groups and between geographic units as well as increased involvement with experts in other disciplines, especially ecology, natural resource management, human health sciences, and economics.

Other societies talk about environmental problems. SETAC has a great track record of solving them. Achieving a global green economy will need SETAC leadership. Can we deliver?