Our responsibility towards the environment

The adverse effects of human actions on the environment are no longer stories we read about in books or hear from a climate conference guru. We are all now witnessing massive changes to our environment. Our summers have become hotter, and our winters are milder and less predictable. Droughts last longer and tropical storms are ever more severe, increasingly causing people to lose their homes and sometimes even their lives.

Simultaneously, our generation and future generations are facing further serious challenges. The global population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050; (over)consumption is rampant, and waste is proliferating. As a result, our natural resources are being severely depleted. At the current pace, we will consume the equivalent of three times our planet Earth in 30 years’ time. This pattern is, of course, not sustainable and a new sense of urgency is emerging.

For many years, standards for electrical and electronic devices addressed environmental issues through the prism of energy efficiency. Now, however, with the increased demand for materials combined with the imminent scarcity of resources, the focus is shifting to material usage and preservation.

Today, our electrical and electronics communities alone produce over 50 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) every year globally. There is not much convincing needed to recognize our shared responsibility in reversing this pattern. Going forward, the only solution is to ‘rethink’ the complete product lifecycle, finding smart ways to consume less materials, to make products last longer, and to use waste as resource. Waste-as-a-resource changes our outlook on waste. Instead of seeing it as valueless rubbish that we must get rid of, we should treat waste as a valuable resource that has the potential to generate economic gain when used to create new products.

Alongside the growing need for materials, the demand for energy is also increasing rapidly. As natural stocks of non-renewable sources such as oil, gas and coal decrease and the amount of CO2 emissions increases to alarming levels, the need for sustainable sources of energy is imperative. Maintaining a healthy planet will require an energy transition from one based primarily on fossil fuels to one that increasingly uses sustainable sources of energy to achieve net-zero emissions.

The IEC contributes to the safety and performance of renewable energy technologies such as marine, wind, solar photovoltaics and hydropower. As these technologies mature and become serious contributors to the “energy transition”, they will need to overcome the challenges resulting from their material resources footprint. To fulfil future energy demands, other forms of sustainable energy production, such as nuclear and hydrogen, will be necessary. The IEC will need to continue providing standards for these energy sources and to prepare support for new technologies such as CO2 conversion into fuel.

At the global level, the United Nations promotes the importance of tackling climate change and resource scarcity in its blueprint for building a better world. Its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) rest upon three intertwined pillars: economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection. In order to simultaneously achieve economic growth and sustainable development, we must change the way we produce goods and the way we consume natural resources:

  • Industries and businesses should be encouraged to design high quality products that consume fewer resources, have a longer operational life, are fit to be reused, repaired, upgraded, or refurbished and can also be easily recycled.
  • Consumers should be encouraged to use products for longer periods of time, be willing to repair products, and to consider refurbished or remanufactured options instead of buying new products.

In Europe, the move towards a circular economy is well underway as part of the European Green Deal. The circular economy action plan adopted in March 2020 defines 35 objectives to support production processes that are more sustainable and the elimination of waste. Similar considerations are being taken in Asia which has emphasized the production perspective by, for example, focusing on re-manufacturing and the use of reused parts or recycled material content.

Awareness of these issues is growing within the IEC. Already, standards have been developed that consider the material consumption of rotating equipment (IEC 60034-23), the dependability of products containing used parts (IEC 62309), material efficiency in the eco-design of products (IEC TR 62824) and the refurbishment of medical imaging equipment (IEC 63077). Work is underway that looks at e-waste, the method for assessing the proportion of reused components in products as well as the refurbishment of medical electrical devices.

Alongside new policies and legislations being adopted worldwide, industry will need standards to ensure the safety, reliability and performance of products that last longer. To support changes in product ownership and an increasing pool of reused products in the market, new provisions regarding data removal and security will need to be developed. As products are repaired, minimum requirements for parts reliability, including that of repaired parts, will need to be defined. Consideration will also need to be given to data management which is essential for assessing the level of circularity embedded within a product from the amount of recycled content within a product or its components, to how easy a product is to repair and disassemble.

The IEC Advisory Committee on Environmental Affairs (ACEA) plays a key role in helping technical committees address the protection of the environment against the potentially detrimental impact of electrical and electronic products. As part of its work, ACEA is developing three new guides, one of which will help committees to ensure the environmental credibility of IEC publications. IEC Guide 109, on the inclusion of environmental aspects in electrotechnical product standards, is currently under revision to provide guidance to IEC committees on how to address today's environmental needs in their standards development. Amongst other topics, it will now consider renewable energies, which are essential to achieve the climate objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as circular economy aspects.

While tackling climate action and environmental protection is incumbent upon each of us, the standardization community must be prepared to rise to this challenge and respond with effective solutions.

Solange Blaszkowski, Chair of ACEA