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Comment: The challenge of sustainable development in the era of COVID-19

by Matt Fisher, Chair, ACS Committee on Science
September 9, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 32


Photo of Matt Fisher.
Credit: Courtesy of Matt Fisher
Matt Fisher

Sustainable development is one of the great challenges the world faces in the 21st century. The Brundtland Report defines sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” That same report makes it clear that an overriding priority for sustainable development is to meet the needs of lower-socioeconomic​-status communities. For example, the ability to access water and energy is strongly related to income, and households of low socioeconomic status are most likely to lack access to these resources. Consider the following statistics, reported in Our World in Data (, related to resources and the world’s population:

In 2020, 25% did not have access to safe drinking water, and unsafe water is responsible for about 1.2 million deaths each year.

In 2016, 13% did not have access to electricity.

In 2016, 40% did not have access to clean fuels for cooking.

The UN adopted the sustainable development goals (SDGs) ( in 2015 to address these conditions. Many of the 17 goals will require contributions from chemists to be accomplished. The challenge is not just to develop chemistry that reduces or prevents adverse environmental impacts; new and emerging science are also needed. For example, for 100 years, the Haber-Bosch process has been our primary way of converting nitrogen gas to ammonia. But the process is extremely energy intensive, and we need to find ways to accomplish the same chemical transformation but closer to how nitrogen-fixing bacteria do it at ambient temperature and pressure. Another example of an area in need of new breakthroughs is electricity storage, particularly in the form of batteries, which are central to much of the technology we use. Developing batteries that are high performing, reliable, inexpensive, and safe will require a revolution in the chemistry and technology underlying their operation. Some materials used in batteries and electronics, such as lithium, have a finite supply or are limited in their geographic distribution. Next-generation materials need to be developed that get around these limitations. Many of these challenges will be the focus of the ACS Campaign for a Sustainable Future approved by the ACS Board of Directors at the end of 2021 (

As we work on these various challenges related to sustainable development, we also need to think about what the scientific community has learned over the past 2.5 years about doing and communicating science. We have lived through a pandemic unlike anything experienced in the past 100 years. I don’t think any of us would have predicted the speed and scale of the discoveries and breakthroughs regarding the SARS-CoV-2 virus or the multiple vaccines for protection against the disease that are available today. The clinical, research, and engineering communities came together to identify not only questions and problems but also possible solutions that could be quickly tested. Effective international collaborations and rapid communication of scientific results were also key. In contrast to the often slow pace and closed communication that regularly characterized science before COVID-19, what we saw during the first year of the pandemic was science being done in a much faster and open manner that was clearly aligned to pressing societal needs. While there were some rough spots and missteps in how the scientific community initially responded to COVID-19, it’s also important to ask how we can make the positive aspects of the pandemic response a permanent part of science in the rest of the 21st century.

The challenge is not just to develop chemistry that reduces or prevents adverse environmental impacts; new and emerging science are also needed.

The American Chemical Society Committee on Science works to facilitate discussion and dissemination of information on global, multidisciplinary topics as well as emerging areas of chemical science. We are looking at ways to support the ACS Campaign for a Sustainable Future and encourage the many contributions that chemistry can make toward accomplishing the SDGs. We also want to help the chemistry community remember the lessons we learned about doing science during the pandemic. As part of our discussions, we are interested in hearing from ACS members. If you have an idea or perspective to contribute to the conversation, please reach out to us at Together, we can work toward achieving chemistry’s full potential to contribute to the accomplishment of the SDGs.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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