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Sustainable Development and the Construction Industry*
ROBIN SPENCE and HELEN MULLIGANt
Cambridge University, UK and tCambridge Architectural Research Limited, UK ABSTRACT
The construction industry, together with the materials industries which support it, is one of the major global exploiters of natural resources, both physical and biological. The industry thus contributes very significantly to the current unsustainable development path of the global economy. This paper has two purposes. First, it attempts to identify the principal ways in which construction contributes to environmental stress, and to quantify the contribution of construction where possible. Secondly, it considers the means available to reduce these environmental impacts, through improved technology, design or changed practices; and it suggests ways in which governments can take action to promote these changes.
THE C O N C E P T OF SUSTAINABLE D E V E L O P M E N T
Sustainability is now a key concept in development thinking at all levels. Over the last two decades there has been a growing understanding of the world and its inhabitants as a single system, and of the need to combine two key global aims in the development of human activities: to accelerate human development, particularly in the poorest countries, and to remove the gross inequities present in the world today; while at the same time avoiding the depletion of the resources and biological systems of the planet to such an extent that future generations will be impoverished. The idea of sustainable development was well summarised by the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, ~ which starts with the premise that "Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable - - to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". The report acknowledges that there are limits which are imposed by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities, but states a belief that widespread poverty is no longer inevitable, and that technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth. In spite of differing perceptions about the precise meaning of the term sustainable development, it is now generally agreed that development in the poorer nations must proceed in parallel with a general global application of new
*This paper is a revised and updated version of a Paper presented to the First Global Consultation on the Construction Industry, organised by U N C H S , which took place in Tunis in May 1993.
Robin Spence and Helen Mulligan
technologies which are both less resource-intensive and less environmentally damaging. Although the means to achieve this balance are far from being agreed, the Rio Declaration resulting from the 1992 World Conference on Environment and Development now gives international approval to a set of principles for sustainable development, e A very detailed review of the state of these planetary assets and the general global environment was recently assembled by the World Resources Institute in collaboration with U N E P and UNDP. 3 This report presents a gloomy view of the deterioration of the planetary environment. It shows data which indicate that the resource base of the planet has reached a critical stage of degradation in three areas: • erosion of the global soil base, reducing the world's capacity for food production as populations rise; • loss of forests and wildlands leading to loss of biodiversity, threat to indigenous cultures, and degradation of slopes and watersheds; • accumulation of pollutants and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to local hazards to soils, vegetation and human health, and the...