/ 18 October 2019

Systems thinking, sustainable development and chemical elements

At the National Science and Technology discussion forum
At the National Science and Technology discussion forum, scientists warned that several elements are finite and must be managed sustainably



This National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) discussion forum addressed sustainable development by providing a detailed perspective on selected Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Experts shared their knowledge and views about some of the critical global problems of our time. The forum was held on May 16 2019, in partnership with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Dow Southern Africa (Pty) Ltd.

The UN proclaimed 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, to commemorate Dmitri Mendeleev’s invention of the table 150 years ago. The UN recognises the importance of raising global awareness around chemistry, including chemistry’s role in solving global challenges.

Professor John Bradley, an Honorary Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, proposed one-world chemistry and systems thinking as a way of tackling complex problems, and for teaching children and students. He said that teaching and practice need to be informed by systems thinking, and that sustainable development is neglected in the school system. This is somewhat alarming, considering that sustainability links to human survival.

Chemistry has contributed to development across the globe but has come with consequences, such as the nine million people killed by pollution each year. It will take an extremely comprehensive systems thinking approach to tackle the SDGs, which address the intractable problems of our times.

South Africa has a clear water challenge. As noted by Professor Edward Nxumalo, Associate Professor at Unisa, South Africa is the 30th driest country in the world. It’s also had the worst drought in 23 years. At the same time, agriculture, mining and chemicals industries are producing emerging types of pollutants.

Part of his research deals with using membrane science for drinking, seawater, and wastewater purification. He and his team have also developed a solar-driven filtration system, which is currently in testing phase. He noted that there are a number of potential nanotechnology applications for water treatment. Emerging contaminants can be tackled with these advanced techniques.

The way agriculture has been practised has contributed extensively to soils lacking in vital nutrients. This affects the nature and yield of crops. Consequently, fertilisers are essential.

Technical advisor Harry Dube from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said that there are five main plant nutrients – with three that are absolutely critical for humankind’s survival: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Dube said we need to re-examine the use of nitrogen fertilisers. Most soils in South Africa are acidic (and thus less productive) because of the overuse of these types of fertilisers.

Dube notes that phosphorus, a finite resource, needs to be managed carefully, and that potassium is also a finite resource that will soon be depleted. To continue food production in a sustainable way, we need to consider organic fertilisers and using conservation agriculture.

Dr Palesa Sekhejane, a research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, said that vaccination is essential for a healthy population. She said vaccines are lucrative, and promote economic development, but processes such as getting vaccines approved are very lengthy in South Africa. She noted that South Africa has not identified strategies to produce the skills required for this industry. Government needs to create platforms to test the skills, and tertiary education needs to cater for learning about the manufacturing processes. She said that South Africa has an opportunity to invest in local manufacturers, and stands to gain regionally as there is not much competition.

Paul Nex, Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand noted that certain commodities are seen as critical for the 4IR, but global demand for these go through “hype cycles”. Demand peaks quickly, then drops steeply. The prices for such raw materials follow demand, so it is difficult to predict when to mine them for profit. He said there isn’t a great deal of information on South Africa’s resources and reserves, and that this can only happen with further exploration.

Critical raw materials need to be contextualised to see the larger picture: electric vehicles use four times as much copper (Cu) as our current engines. This means that “green” technology requires more raw materials, not less, at least in the short and medium term. Many “solutions” associated with a low-carbon economy are not actually “clean” solutions. There needs to be a balance, and it’s not an “either-or” scenario, warned Nex.

DAFF’s Chief Directorate: Chemicals Management is co-ordinating — across government — the chemicals management work the country needs to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Government is using the SDGs as a framework to examine chemical management from various perspectives. For example, SDG 5 looks at gender equality. This translates to the target of women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities in chemicals management.

This was part of Dr Mahlori Mashimbye’s presentation, “Harnessing the South African Chemical Sector for contribution to Sustainable Development Goals”. He is the Director: Chemical and Related Industries, at the DST.

DST planning includes supporting the National System of Innovation by:

• Generating data for monitoring, planning, and tracking for informed decisions;

• Promoting the generation of knowledge and analysis for policy, planning, and delivery;

• Assisting in developing and localising technological solutions; and

• Promoting the demonstration, testing, and diffusion of technological solutions.

The DST and the National Research Foundation are looking at funding further research, research chairs, and research infrastructure, where needed. They have also launched specific initiatives and are aiming to drive global and national partnerships in this regard.

Mashimbye said that there are, primarily, two approaches for the chemical sector regarding the SDGs: remediation (regulating, including banning and restricting use) and research and development and industrial development of alternatives (new, environmentally-friendly chemical products).

Video clips with the full presentations and discussions can be found on the NSTF website nstf.org.za (under Discussion Forums, then Previous)