Technologies for the SDGs:
Focus on Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs)

Hari Srinivas
Policy Analysis Series E-132. March 2022.


hen the implementation period of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) ended in 2015, the world community came together once again to come up with a concrete plan of action for the next 20 years in the form of the "Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)". The SDGs were adopted in 2015 by 193 United Nations (UN) member states. There are 17 goals and 169 targets within them, which address economic, environmental and social impacts, and are designed to form a blueprint for good growth, nationally and internationally, by 2030.

MDGs to SDGs

Formulating the SDGs

The SDGs were envisaged as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people are able to enjoy peace and prosperity. The SDGs provide worldwide guidance for addressing the global challenges facing the international community. The objective was to produce a set of universal goals that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges facing our world.

The SDGs, developed through a vast bottoms-up process of consultation and inclusion, was based on the principles of environmental sustainability, inclusive economic development, peace and security, and inclusive social development. The challenge of operationalizing and implementing the SDGs (through the targets and their indicators) lie with national governments working with civil society and private sector entities in translating the shared vision of the SDGs into national and local development plans and strategies.

Technology, science and capacity building have been identified as major pillars of the "means of Implementation" for the SDGs and the broader Post-2015 Agenda and of the Rio+20 follow-up processes. The research, development, deployment, and widespread diffusion of ESTs or environmentally sound technologies (within in the context of a green/circular economy) is also closely linked to other core elements and means of implementation, including innovation, business opportunities and development, trade of environmental goods and services, finance and investment, and institutional capabilities.

As the World Economic Forum says:

New technologies are rapidly transforming all aspects of our society, sectors and markets. Technology is not a silver bullet, but it holds the incredible potential to transform sectors rapidly and globally: to increase the productivity of systems while lowering emissions and waste; to enable us to monitor and manage the Earth's surface and resources at a speed and scale we couldn't have dreamed of before; to collect and harness vast amounts of data; and make breakthrough advances in areas like healthcare, agriculture, energy, education and mobility.

Source: World Economic Forum

When it comes to technologies that are environmentally sound and contribute to sustainable development, we can draw inspiration from SDG #17, which call for strengthening the means of implementation and revitalizing the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development. Of particular relevance within this goal is Target 17.7, which focuses on "the development, transfer, dissemination and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms, as mutually agreed" [Source]

The Developmental Precedence for ESTs

Urbanization and urban lifestyles, fueling - and being fueled by - globalized economic and trade systems and energy use, have given raise to the now familiar plethora of global environmental problems that we are familiar today - climate change, depletion of biological resources, land gradation or explosion of waste generation.

The unequal development challenges we face as a result is stark: 80 percent of the world's population is becoming increasingly poor, with current development patterns and trends indicating a greater consumption of the world's resources to continue and will indeed accelerate.

The environmental prognosis for the SDGs is equally stark: Preceding the development of the SDGs, the UNEP GEO 6 report stated that little progress was being made to resolve environmental problems and, in particular, those associated with poor people were increasing and would continue to do so.

By 2025 the world's population will have increased by at least 50 percent (from 6 to 9 billion) and over 80 percent of this increase will occur in developing countries. All of these people will require more resources (particularly energy and water); produce more waste of all types and require shelter. Consequently environmental degradation and pollution (the precursors to climate change and biodiversity loss) will not only continue but will be exacerbated.

The root causes have remained predominantly the same, due to a lack of action over the last few decades: Unsustainable production and consumption patterns, social and economic problems, over-reliance on and inadequate functioning of the market, and particularly inappropriate selection and application of technologies to solve these problems.

Urbanization and urbanizing cities will be the key context within which EST systems will be developed and used. Within this context, integration of environmental considerations in mainstream decision making and life cycle thinking, (including the focus on a recycling-oriented society) will be key policy strategies to the uptake of ESTs. Other strategies include, for example, adoption of the precautionary approach, environmental compliance and enforcement, knowledge building, sharing of information, increased awareness raising, education, and voluntary initiatives/partnership with accountability. The constellation of environmental management tools available to decision makers and managers include, for example:

  • Environmental Management Systems
  • Environmental Management Accounting
  • Design for Environment
  • Life Cycle Analysis
  • Environmental Impact Assessment
  • Eco-finance
  • Environmental Verification of Technology
  • Eco-labelling
  • Pollution Prevention

Understanding ESTs

One recurring issue within the scenarios outlined above is that of environmentally sound technologies, as outlined by SDG 17/Target 17.7 " promote development, transfer, dissemination and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries".

The priority for ESTs embedded in Target 17.7 lie in globalized economic systems, and production and consumption processes, that produce significant air/water/chemical pollution, while using natural resources in an unsustainable manner, and produce significant amounts of waste.

So what are ESTs? Environmentally Sound Technologies have the potential for significantly improved environmental performance relative to other technologies. ESTs enable this by satisfying five key issues:

  1. protecting the environment,
  2. being less polluting,
  3. using resources in a sustainable manner,
  4. recycling more of their wastes and products
  5. handling all residual wastes in a more environmentally acceptable manner

How do ESTs do this? Each of the above five characteristics are explained by a set of criteria that help identify and use ESTs

Decision Criteria Set #1:
Does the technology protect the environment by -

  1. Complying with local and regional environmental standards
  2. Complying with MEAs and internationally recognized standards (e.g. ISO)
  3. Reducing cumulative air, water and waste emissions
  4. Lowering ecological footprints
  5. Reducing overall impact on ecosystem health and integrity
  6. Complying with "design for the environment" criteria
  7. Ensuring compatibility with immediate and adjoining facilities
  8. Reducing geomorphological, landscape and ecohydrological impacts

Decision Criteria Set #2:
Is the technology less polluting by -

  1. Minimizing total quantities of wastes (solid, water gaseous) generated
  2. Ensuring quantities of wastes are controlled by permits
  3. Monitoring and verifying quantities of toxic wastes produced
  4. Identifying potential for generation of secondary pollutants/byproducts
  5. Reducing noise generation
  6. Eliminating thermal losses and radiation emissions
  7. Ensuring wastewater treatment requirements
  8. Eliminating potential for long range transport of pollutants
  9. Identifying and reducing potential for climate change impacts
  10. Complying with requirements for waste treatment and disposal
  11. Reducing disposal costs for unmarketable byproducts and wastes
  12. Lessening potential for soil contamination

Decision Criteria Set #3:
Does the technology use all resources in a more sustainable manner by -

  1. Ensuring efficiency of energy, water and materials use
  2. Extending the useful life of technology, and of products/services
  3. Replacing non-renewable resources with renewable ones
  4. Conserving water, including portion of recycled water used
  5. Using of "environmentally friendly" materials
  6. Ensuring sustainable use of local resources
  7. Increasing investments in technology research and development

Decision Criteria Set #4:
Does the technology recycle more of their products and wastes by -

  1. Increasing the use of recycled, reused and waste materials
  2. Incorporating "closed loop processes"
  3. Enabling more quantity of byproduct recovered
  4. Improving life cycle performance

Decision Criteria Set #5:
Does the technology handle residual wastes in a more acceptable manner by -

  1. Reducing the costs of pollution abatement
  2. Reducing waste disposal costs

As defined in Agenda 21 (Chapter 34), ESTs are not just individual technologies. They can also be defined as total systems that include know-how, procedures, goods and services, and equipment, as well as organizational and managerial procedures for promoting environmental sustainability.

Box 1 Agenda 21 and ESTs

Agenda 21 Chapter 34: Transfer Of Environmentally Sound Technology, Cooperation and Capacity-building

34.1. Environmentally sound technologies protect the environment, are less polluting, use all resources in a more sustainable manner, recycle more of their wastes and products, and handle residual wastes in a more acceptable manner than the technologies for which they were substitutes.

34.2. Environmentally sound technologies in the context of pollution are "process and product technologies" that generate low or no waste, for the prevention of pollution. They also cover "end of the pipe" technologies for treatment of pollution after it has been generated.

34.3. Environmentally sound technologies are not just individual technologies, but total systems which include know-how, procedures, goods and services, and equipment as well as organizational and managerial procedures. This implies that when discussing transfer of technologies, the human resource development and local capacity-building aspects of technology choices, including gender-relevant aspects, should also be addressed. Environmentally sound technologies should be compatible with nationally determined socio-economic, cultural and environmental priorities.

ESTs: What can we do?

Current efforts and established processes of technology development are not sufficient. Public policies need to be developed that go beyond improving market performance, and lower costs and stimulate a demand for a broader range of ESTs. This requires the integration of human skills, organizational development and information networks for effective technology transfer.

But barriers to the quick uptake of ESTs need to be eliminated. Such barriers are largely due to the inadequacy of information and decision support tools used to quantify and qualify the merits of ESTs and related investments. The challenge is even greater in the context of developing countries, given the complexity of factors that influence and determine investment decisions. In order to turn public and private interest towards the needs of development of ESTs, substantial progress need to be made through action in a number of areas such as:

  • Defining environmentally sound technology goals and objectives
  • Establishing an enabling environment to enhance the adoption and use of ESTs
  • Facilitating mechanisms for EST cooperation.

Box 2 Action for ESTs

  • Clearly defining ESTs from a national context
  • Development of criteria and guidelines on EST identification and selection
  • Development of environmental performance criteria and guidelines for ESTs
  • Regional, national and local priorities, goals and objectives for the adoption and use of ESTs
  • Establishing an enabling financial environment to enhance the adoption and use of ESTs.

It is clear that governments as well as private sector entities need to encourage the adoption and use of ESTs by use of both voluntary approaches and a regulatory framework that allows organizations to innovate and become environmentally responsible. This requires the clarification of existing environmental rules and regulations as well as coordination and harmonization with international standards such as the ISO.

Well-defined, effectively applied standards and verification processes can encourage the adoption and use of ESTs, as will continuous review and improvement. These steps are essential for the creation of an effective system that uses technology to respond to changing social, economic and political realities - as envisaged in the SDGs.

This document is based on work done by the author at the International Environmental Technology Center in Osaka, Japan

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