A Brief History of the Zero Emissions Concept on its 10th Anniversity


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In 1991 Gunter Pauli launched the concept of zero waste and zero emissions for industry through the clustering of activities at his detergent factory in Belgium. When Gunter realized that the demand for palm oil derivatives spurred destruction of the rainforest in South East Asia, he decided resolutely to study systems and look for the connections between apparently unrelated phenomena to eliminate the "bad" and create more "good".

Invitation from the United Nations University (UNU)
On April 6, 1994 Gunter Pauli settled in Japan as special advisor to the Rector of the UNU, (at right) Prof. Heitor Gurgulino de Souza. The UNU was established to "search for imaginative creative solutions to the most pressing problems of our time".

Clear Target
The goal of the Zero Emissions Research Initiative was to respond to people's needs with what they already have, by seeking inspiration from natural systems where several and highly diverse species cluster together and nothing gets wasted. Whatever is waste for one species is of value to another species belonging to another kingdom. The initiators agreed to create a network of scientists and use the Internet as a tool for designing innovative solutions to pressing problems related to water, food, shelter, health, energy, education and jobs.

Launch in Japan
On July 6, 1994 the concept of Zero Emissions was formally presented in Tokyo at a large press conference. Shortly afterwards, a detailed review of the philosophy and vision of zero emissions was published in the Nikkei, Japan's leading business paper.

Not only feasible - Zero Emissions is indispensable

The United Nations University commissioned a feasibility study. The report, by Prof. Dr. Carl-G�ran Hed�n, MD (at left), Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden, stated, "the concept of Zero Emissions is not only feasible, it is indispensable if we want to move towards a sustainable society". A panel of executives, entrepreneurs, activists, scientists and policy makers expressed their views on this "uncompromising, yet self-evident" concept of Zero Emissions in the book, "Steering Business Towards Sustainability", edited by Fritjof Capra. In 1995, The Times of London's Sunday Book Review praised the book's publisher, the UNU Press, "for giving voice to these pioneering ideas".

Business responds favorably
The EBARA Corporation, Japanese manufacturer of precision machinery creating "clean" environments, fluid machinery and systems, became the first business to establish a Zero Emissions business division. Soon afterward, S�dra Cell, the Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer, announced a zero chlorine policy. Mr. Edgar Woolard, chairman of DuPont, the US-based chemical group, enlisted 80 of his managers to publicly commit to zero accidents, zero waste and zero emissions. He was recognized in 1996 by the United Nations University zero emissions team for his unique leadership in bringing innovation into harmony with environmental stewardship.

Chinese take Zero emissions to the third world
A first workshop on "the zero emissions brewery" was held in Beijing on March 25-27, 1995. It resulted in the creation of zero emissions breweries in: Tsumeb (Namibia), Newfoundland (Canada), Nagano (Japan) and Gotland (Sweden).

Zero Emissions: standard for industry
"White Paper on the Environment", published by the Japanese Environment Agency in 1996, singled out Zero Emissions as "a standard for industry in the 21st century". The Japanese Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports reserved a considerable budget for Zero Emissions research.

Congresses and Books
The UNU organized three World Congresses on Zero Emissions (Tokyo in 1995, Chattanooga in 1996, Jakarta in 1997). Two subsequent ones were hosted by the GLOBAL ZERI NETWORK (Windhoek 1998, Colombia in 1999). The first world congress made Internet history when the Director General of UNESCO, two members of the United States Congress, and the Prime Minister of Sweden, all participated live over broadband Internet video.

"Steering Business Towards Sustainability", became the first book ever presented worldwide on broadband Internet video. This book was later followed by two others: "Breakthroughs" (1996) and "UpSizing" (1997).

United Nations network expands
Cooperation expanded from the UNU to other relevant United Nations organizations. UNESCO installed the first ZERI Chair at the University of Namibia in Windhoek. The United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, offered a broad joint program which is continuing as this 10th anniversary document is written.

GLOBAL ZERI NETWORK established a joint program with UNDP and located its European office in Geneva. This cooperation later expanded into Bogota and Manizales, Colombia, Latin America; Suva, the South Pacific; and Windhoek, Africa. ZERI's director met with heads of state, hundreds of scientists, and business executives. He started to design agricultural and industrial systems that harness the potential of unused materials and assets. With an unrelenting drive to bring the message to the world, the NETWORK saw its vision and ideas translated into multiple projects in several countries with different languages and subjected to the basic scientific method of trial and error.

Continuity Guaranteed
When Rector Heitor Gurgulino retired from the UNU in September 1997, he left a legacy that included a well-established Zero Emissions concept in Japan. By then, UNU was well known for the development of the zero emissions concept. The creation of the independent ZERI Foundation, now call GLOBAL ZERI NETWORK, in 1996, with a network of project-driven teams around the world, guaranteed that the ideas and insights generated would continue to evolve and be implemented.

The Zero Emissions Forum was established to network all those in Japan interested to learn more about zero emissions, and keen to obtain ideas on how to implement this goal. The demand for better insight into the concept of zero emissions motivated ZERI to offer training courses for executives and students. Between 1997 and 2000 some 500 young people had the opportunity to benefit from scholarships ranging from field trips to emerging projects, and specialized training programs on mushrooms and bio-digesters, to hands-on learning exercises under the supervision of one of the leading scientists. By the turn of the century, ZERI had a full agenda, strong back-office and solid independent financing in place.

World Expo 2000 in Germany
At the first press conference in Tokyo, July 1994, the German Embassy representative indicated that the concepts ZERI proposed were a perfect crystallization of the theme of EXPO 2000, "humanity, technology, nature". The zero emissions projects were invited to become part of the global projects initiatives. When seven projects had been formally recognized as representative of the theme of the world exposition, the German government formulated the surprising invitation to the young ZERI network - to share its vision and projects not just in a space reserved for non-governmental organization, but rather in a pavilion of its own, next to the Japanese pavilion.

ZERI took up the challenge to construct its own pavilion, an honor given to only one NGO at the millennium expo. Obtaining a German building permit for architect Simon Velez's remarkable bamboo structure proved difficult. Bamboo was totally unknown to German construction engineers and they subjected it to the most rigid scientific tests. They also required ZERI to construct the pavilion twice: once in Colombia for full testing on a 1:1 scale, and then in Germany where the tests were repeated. If the test results were identical, the building permit would be issued.

The bamboo pavilion met all the rigid norms and became the only breakthrough building system at EXPO 2000. The structure, joining 4,500 bamboos, was declared a master piece (Meisterstuck) and as a result all workers who had come over from Colombia obtained a master diploma in wood work. The ZERI Pavilion was carbon dioxide neutral.

ZERI presented its first seven projects in this specially built pavilion. The projects like "Bread from Beer", "Mushrooms from Coffee", "Cement to Compost", "Forests make drinking water" and the bamboo building caught the imagination of the German public. With 6.4 million visitors over 5 months, the ZERI pavilion was the most popular at EXPO 2000.

Tough Times to Overcome
(At right, Gunter Pauli at the pavilion.) Exhibiting at EXPO 2000 required an extraordinary effort from ZERI. The pavilion was earmarked to remain as a symbol of the 2000 World Expo. However, the owner of the expo ground ordered its destruction. This meant that ZERI's main asset evaporated. The elimination of the capital base, and accumulating debt, required rethinking ZERI's operational strategy.

Driven by trial and error
After the world expo, the director of the ZERI NETWORK took time to demonstrate that zero emissions is not just about waste management, it is a pragmatic strategy to increase productivity, regenerate the environment, and create jobs while respecting culture and building on tradition. The success and failure of projects in the four corners of the world led to an understanding of the design principles needed. A large program for reforestation can, at the same time, secure drinking water. The planting of palm trees offers a chance to produce bio-diesel fuel. Creating a carbon sink can fund urgent needs for water and energy, also. ZERI projects clearly demonstrate that a systems approach addresses multiple agendas with smaller budgets. If each were undertaken separately, the total budget would be much higher.

In addition to these worldwide projects, ZERI pursues a broad educational program for the next generation and for those in power today. To read about this program and ones planned for the future, go to ZERI Foundation Looks at Present and Future

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This page was last updated on June 11, 2004

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