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Vol. 34 No. 2
March-April 2012

Chemistry’s Role in Delivering Sustainable Development:

A Report from the 2011 World Chemistry Leadership Meeting

In June 2012, the world’s leaders—representatives of global institutions, industry, civil society, and science—will meet in Rio for a World Summit. They will celebrate the 20 years of sustainable development since the first Rio Earth Summit that shaped the agenda for improving the health, well-being, and living conditions for all people, without harming future generations. This year, the Summit will set out the key challenges the world continues to face and new ways to address them.

Chemistry has made an immense contribution to the development of the world and will be expected to play a key role, in new ways, for the future. These themes were at the heart of the International Year of Chemistry in 2011 (IYC), which set out to:

  • enhance societies’ understanding and appreciation of the contributions of chemistry to date
  • identify the pivotal role chemistry will play in addressing the profound challenges of sustainability for the future
  • stimulate interest in the study of chemistry by the young men and women who want to change the world for the better
Mario J. Molina, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (center), with Jung-Il Jin, IUPAC Past President (left) and Nicole J. Moreau, IUPAC President.

The World Chemistry Leadership Meeting (WCLM), held 2 August 2011 in San Juan during the IUPAC General Assembly, attempted to prepare the ground for the debate on the future of chemistry and sustainable development. The discussion was placed in context with a personal message from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to the chemistry community (see letter below). He linked the UN agenda and the role of the IYC strongly. His message was a call to arms for the chemistry community to contribute more to the challenges the world faces.

  • In response, the WCLM was structured to address these questions:
    What is holding chemistry back? Is chemistry taught and structured in ways appropriate to the new societal needs?
  • Can chemistry deliver more through collaboration with other sciences and technologies?
  • How should IUPAC promote the contribution of chemistry to sustainability?

The meeting comprised plenary lectures from UNESCO, the African Academy of Sciences, the United Nations Environment Protection agency (UNEP), the International Council for Science (ICSU), and the chemical industry. Breakout discussions were organized with the themes of Energy, Water, Agriculture, Health, and Green Chemistry. The plenary speakers and contributors were as follows:

  • Nicole Moreau, IUPAC President
  • Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Natural Sciences
  • Berhanu Abegaz, African Academy of Sciences Executive Director
  • David Piper, UNEP Chemicals Branch, Deputy Branch Head
    Giorgio Squinzi, CEO Mapei snc & President CEFIC
  • Mario Molina, 1995 Nobel Prize winner
  • Manuel Limonta, ICSU, Director of the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Ferdi Schüth, Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Director
  • David Evans, Syngenta, Former Research Director
    Simon Campbell, FRS, Senior Vice President Worldwide Discoveries for Pfizer
  • Alejandra Palermo, RSC Pan African Chemistry Network
  • Philip Jessop, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, and GreenCentre Canada, Technical Director
  • Kazuyuki Tatsumi, IUPAC Vice President

Participants of the WCLM and the Congress also took part in a preview of a novel on-line debate entitled “The Future of Sustainable Chemistry” organized by the Dow Chemical Company, one of the IYC2011 Global Partners. This activity, broadcast on the internet on 17 August 2011, attracted 4000 participants, a number greatly amplified through the use of social media for the live debate. Over 10 000 people have subsequently viewed parts of the video.
A number of consistent themes emerged from the WCLM.

1. The Opportunity for Chemistry at the Rio + 20 World Summit
The importance of chemistry was highlighted both as a tool for understanding our world and as a key part of the delivery of solutions to the really big challenges. These challenges relate to the sustainable boundary conditions for the planet; biodiversity; the carbon cycle, and in particular CO2 and other key greenhouse gases; the nitrogen cycle and efficient nitrogen fixation; land use; freshwater availability; environmental pollution due to human activity; air quality and aerosols; ocean acidification; and the ozone layer. The latter provided a good example of the potential of chemistry to solve problems through the mitigation of the deleterious impacts of CFCs. Understanding the chemistry of ozone depletion eventually enabled policy change, the innovative development of refrigerants gases by industry, and protection of the ozone layer.

The chemistry underpinning most of our current processes and products was developed during a time of cheap, abundant raw materials. Today’s petrochemicals industry depends on many millions of years of photosynthesis, and there is pressure to base future industry on complete planetary cycles that return what is used with zero waste. This is particularly true of the carbon cycle, as we seek new ways of providing the world’s energy, and the nitrogen cycle, where the pressure to feed a growing population highlights the imperative to replace the energy hungry Haber-Bosch process. Sustainable chemistry focuses on the use of new renewable resources, to use these or more traditional raw materials with increased efficiency and minimal waste, and to manage product life cycles in new and more complete ways.

There were some blunt messages from visitors to the meeting—“you need to get out more” (and talk with those struggling with the real issues), and “go dating” (chemistry needs the right partners).

We were reminded that many UNEP programs are directed at ill-considered uses of chemistry, and of the impacts these have had on local environments and the people who live there. Often those who benefited least from the advances in science and technology and economic development, suffered most from environmental degradation in many of the poorest regions of the world. Chemistry needs to pay attention to such situations to ensure that the science is represented objectively and in ways that allow society to appreciate its full potential. Chemists must be prepared to speak out when chemical technologies are used irresponsibly.

The science forum at Rio+20, which is being organized by ICSU and UNESCO, will provide a wonderful opportunity for chemistry’s voice to be heard in this way and to be viewed in the context of the contributions of the other science disciplines, engineering, and the social sciences. IUPAC was invited to facilitate the chemistry contribution.

Attendees to the WCLM participate in “The Future of Sustainable Chemistry,” the online forum organized by the Dow Chemical Company and part of the Future We Create series.

2. Focusing chemistry effectively on the really big challenges
The challenges of sustainable development are much broader than those for chemistry alone. Chemistry will clearly be important but the delivery of solutions will only be possible in collaboration with other scientific disciplines, engineering and technology, and the social sciences. Examination of effective innovations shows that these typically involve more than technology change alone. Behaviors must change if energy is to be used more efficiently; we need to build African analytical capability to manage water resources more effectively in Africa; and we have to address the skills of the rural poor if we are to increase agricultural productivity sustainably. But can chemists work in such collaborative ways? There were some blunt messages from visitors to the meeting—“you need to get out more” (and talk with those struggling with the real issues), and “go dating” (chemistry needs the right partners).

Many suggestions were made to increase the contributions of chemistry:

  • Young people want to make a difference and work on the world’s big challenges. Chemistry needs to be seen as relevant to their communities, with more emphasis on solving practical problems. This point was made particularly strongly for Africa, where chemistry research is changing to be more relevant to local needs.
  • A shift in teaching and academic research is required to emphasize inquiry-based learning, teaching young people to think and to solve problems through teamwork. Students need to develop the skills to work in collaborative environments. Industry made clear that it needs scientists capable of working with engineers, down the value chain to the eventual customers, and with governments and others who represent society.
  • Chemistry courses should attune students to possible impacts on people and the environment (toxicology and eco-toxicology).
  • From society’s perspective, the big wins for academic chemistry lie increasingly in relevant applied science.
  • The landscape of corporate industrial research has changed dramatically. The pharmaceutical industry is striving for completely new approaches to drug discovery and development, most probably involving new forms of public-private partnership among universities, governments, and industry.
  • Most participants felt that chemistry needs to regain its reputation as a positive driver of innovation and to shed associations with “pollution” and “poisons.”
  • Much of the discussion focused on the benefits of working with others and the recognition that chemistry could deliver so much more if effectively aligned with partners: the funding agencies, those with policy responsibility in governments and UN agencies, the industries that apply new chemistry knowledge, and the civil society, the ultimate consumer. We just need to learn how to communicate better with them all.

3. Life Cycle Analysis
One particular difficulty is to know whether new developments or policy changes actually improve sustainability. Objective measures of the impacts are required. Today the benefit or impact of many proposed “green” technologies are often far from clear—arising from incomplete life-cycle understanding, the complexities and distortions of subsidies, or the views of narrow interest groups. Chemists can bring much-needed objectivity (e.g., through thermodynamics, and the nomenclature and standards that are required). During the Energy breakout, it was possible to rank the favored alternatives by their overall energy benefit, to show the limiting conditions where there is agricultural competition between food and energy production, while highlighting the importance of efficient storage and conservation technologies.

Time for Change?

“Chemistry needs an overhaul if it is to solve big global problems and advance fundamental understanding” was the challenge to the community from George Whitesides and John Deutch at the beginning of the International Year of Chemistry.1 There were few dissenters at the WCLM, and indeed there was strong support from our guest speakers. Many of the issues related to the existing educational and research structures, and the processes and funding of applied research, as well as the ways research is changing in governments and in industry. There must be an emphasis on the often forgotten “A” in IUPAC. Herein lies the heritage and challenge of IYC. It is clear that chemistry’s best is not behind it, but there is a need to refocus on the practical issues faced by society to realize its full potential; on drug discovery certainly, but also on other challenges such as harnessing solar energy, storing energy, the supply and management of freshwater, low-energy routes to nitrogen fixation and agricultural productivity. This should be a core debate for the chemistry community as it seeks to build on the momentum of IYC. It is also directly relevant to the strategic debate about the roles, priorities, and structure of IUPAC, which is just starting in the wake of IYC.2 Key issues will be the role of IUPAC in addressing public perceptions of chemistry and the influence it can have as an NGO at the international level. It is all chemistry whether we call it green or sustainable.

My personal view is that the biggest challenge is to ensure effective ongoing innovation; a term I am using in the business sense of turning ideas into profitable, sustainable, and relevant business. Chemists need to maintain or even regain a “license to innovate” from society—what we do has to be acceptable. Delivery will be best through active collaboration with the engineers, product designers, those with influence over policy, and those who own the problems. This will involve new forms of public-private partnerships with industry. Building upon IYC, all chemists need to work much harder on society’s perceptions, understanding, and appreciation of chemistry. We need to convince the young people who want to change the world for the better, that chemistry is an excellent place to start! A good place for chemistry to start would be Rio.

Colin Humphris <[email protected]> FRSC, was chair of the 2011 WCLM Organising Committee. He is member of the IUPAC Bureau since 2010 and IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Industry since 2004.

IUPAC members closely involved with Colin Humphris in the planning of the 2011 WCLM included Mark Cesa, Doug Templeton, Michael Droescher, Bernard West, and David Evans.


  1. George M. Whitesides and John Deutch, Nature January 6 2011, Vol 469 p. 21.
  2. Jung-Il Jin, Chemistry International Nov-Dec 2011, Vol 33 No 6, p. 2


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