Shabbir Gheewala is a professor at the Joint Graduate School of Energy and Environment (JGSEE), Thailand, where he teaches Life Cycle Assessment and has led the Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment Lab for close to 20 years. He also holds an adjunct professorship at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, USA, a Distinguished Adjunct Professor position at the Asian Institute of Technology and an Honorary Professorship at the Prince of Songkla University, Thailand. 

His research focuses on sustainability assessment of energy systems; sustainability indicators and certification issues in biofuels and the agro-industry. Recently, he was ranked 552nd in the Reuters hot list of the world’s top 1000 climate scientists. In this interview, we ask him about his views on sustainability and what more can be done to preserve, protect and sustain the environment for future generations.

  1. Tell us about yourself and what you do.

I was trained as a civil and environmental engineer and eventually I became more interested in doing sustainability assessment for energy systems. Life-cycle study is also one of the key areas of my research, where a lot of my work is related to energy, particularly bio-energy and agriculture/food systems.

  1. You have been a climate change researcher for many years now. Can you share how your thoughts regarding the subject have matured over the years.

Well, 25 years ago, I did not pay much attention to it. The issues were beginning to draw attention, you had these campaigns calling for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, fossil use is bad for the environment, etc. However, as time passed, the challenge has become more critical. Today the situation is so drastic that we are almost near the point of no return. More needs to be done in terms of sustainable action than just making targets and not meeting them.

The misunderstanding I believe is that people tend to oversimplify the problem. It’s not a ‘one solution fits all’ situation. The climate change issue develops from a web of interrelated problems related to environment, consumption, wastage, etc and it is hard to just say that one policy will make it all go away. It won’t.

I am a life-cycle person, I look at other things as well. We can’t look at this problem in a silo, but rather we must also diagnose those related areas which make the sum of this problem. Sub-optimal solutions will not lead to the optimal solution. In short, the climate change issue cannot be resolved by isolating it from other things that, to put it in a proverbial term ‘stoke its flames.’

  1. ‘Sustainability’ is one of the key areas of your research. Share your thoughts on how it can be achieved? Is it easy to make sustainable lifestyle choices?

There are two things that need to be done: sustainable production and sustainable consumption. 

The quagmire of production is that increase in use often tends to overshoot the gains in efficiency. Years ago, when coal was the principal element of industrial usage, there was a lot of discussion about using it efficiently so as to decrease dependence upon it and subsequently reduce its usage over time. However that did not happen, because we have this natural tendency to use a product even more if it has been upgraded and made more efficient (and consequently cheaper). Hence, I believe that production done, keeping the long-term gains in mind, is something we need to begin practicing to achieve sustainability.

With regards to sustainable consumption, I think it is a bit under-appreciated. People tend to become a little sceptical about it thinking that living a sustainable lifestyle would somehow entail them living in austerity. 

It is ironic that we all like to talk about sustainability, but when it actually comes to practising it, we tend to turn a blind eye to the issue. Take food for example, we know that food insecurity is rife in many parts of the world, however, research shows that there is almost one-third of food waste even in developing countries. 

Living sustainably does not mean that you have to live like a monk. It means that you just need to become a little more responsible. You need to pull yourself out from the rigours of daily routine, and just think! 

Once out of randomness, I asked my students when was the last time they had seen the moon and I was surprised to find nobody had an answer. 

I think that little changes can go a long way in achieving the goal. Things like making sure that not a single morsel is wasted, switching off lights when not in use, closing taps to avoid excess run-off. Imagine if every individual were to do this everyday, the collective impact it could have in saving the environment.

  1. In your opinion, what are some smart solutions that we can adopt to avoid exploitation of natural resources. 

Well one of them I covered in the last question, i.e., we need to become more aware of our lifestyles.

The other I would say is to foster a circular economy. Using lesser resources to gain more. The market should be created in such a way that the life of a product increases. Companies should look to sell the service and not just products. Currently, the predominant business model is based on what I call the ‘replacement model’. If there is something wrong with a product, companies readily agree to replace it with a new one. This leads to over consumption and frankly overuse of resources which in certain cases are rare materials.

Hence I am an advocate for what is known as ‘extended producer responsibility’ where companies are bound by contract to be responsible for their product in the longer-term; their responsibility is not over when they sell the product to the customer. This will reflect in their production attitudes as well, where they will look to produce a long-lasting product that wouldn’t require frequent repair.

  1. What is the message that you would like to give in terms of environmental awareness, especially to young environment researchers?

I think our attitude towards environmental restoration should be more collective. If there is an unfortunate oil-spill in any part of the ocean, the news should be a genuine cause for concern for me too. We need more awareness in this sense, that what is happening somewhere else matters to me too. 

I also believe that critical thinking and environmental pragmatism will yield creative solutions if done on a sustainable basis. 

With regards to youngsters, I do believe that children and young people will be the real game-changers in the coming decades. We should look to get them more involved in the environmental discourse as they will take the baton forward and look for creative solutions to the underlying problems in the years to come.

  1. Any interesting research that you are working on or have done previously that you would like to share with us?

As stated previously, I look at life-cycles and the one thing that I am convinced about is that there is no single silver bullet to everything. Everything has its own pluses and minuses. 

All research points to the fact that there needs to be a dynamic change in all independent spheres of life in terms of production, consumption, thinking, etc in order to yield a solution that is sustainable.

Life-cycle thinking should be thought about proactively in any plan and should not be relegated as an afterthought. There are loads of examples to understand this, let me share a couple here;

A company making solar panels will be heralded as an environmentally responsible one, but did they think about what would happen to the parts once they are decommissioned fifteen or twenty years down the line?

A car company uses tons of polymer material in its production as it is light and strong thus reducing the weight of the car and hence the usage of fuel, but did they think about how that material would be recycled in the end?

Basically, sustainability can be fostered by such proactive life-cycle thinking. 

Even on an individual basis, we need to be more aware of what we use. We talk about recycling a plastic bottle, but what the majority of us fail to realise is that a single plastic bottle has three distinct forms of plastic material in its body; cap, ring and  label. They cannot all be recycled in one go. It requires the tedious job of segregation. Now imagine how much time, effort and resources are consumed in doing something so basic. Hence, it is important to proactively think about the environment before using something even so basic in our day to day lives. 

I remember when I was young, we didn’t use plastic bags because we had the habit of taking one large jute bag with us to the market to buy what we needed. That habit has lived on and matured over the years. Case in point: small lifestyle choices can make a big difference on your perception of the environment and how you seek to dwell within it.

  1. The UNEP report says that ecosystem restoration is needed on a large scale in order to achieve the sustainable development agenda. What do you think these ‘large scale’ initiatives are?

I think we are blessed to have such a biologically diverse environment and the real challenge for us now is to try and sustain everything in its balance. 

Perhaps the biggest collective action that we all need to take is to restore the balance in the ecosystem, be it in terms of groundwater, mangrove forests, coastal ecosystems, marine life, ice sheets, etc.

Everything in the ecosystem is in its right proportion to make this planet liveable. Now if you take one thing out, the system becomes less resilient, and when the system becomes less resilient, it makes us more vulnerable. 

Hence, I feel that ‘rebalancing’ is the need of the hour and it requires a collective effort from all human beings as one family.

  1. Your thoughts on the future… Are you optimistic about it?

I will say I am cautiously optimistic about it. I am yet to witness the amount of commitment that is required to restore the environment. Having said that, I have hope that this awareness will arrive sooner rather than later and we will correct this course of action in the next ten to fifteen years.