EPA Should Incorporate Sustainability Tools and Approaches in its Decision Making More Broadly, Collaborate With NGOs and Private Sector
WASHINGTON -- A broad array of tools is available to help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency incorporate sustainability concepts into its decision making, and the agency should do so across its spectrum of activities, says a new report from the National Research Council. For every major decision, EPA should include a strategy to assess implications for the three dimensions of sustainability – environmental, social, and economic -- in an integrated manner. EPA should also collaborate with private-sector companies and non-government organizations (NGOs), leveraging their insights and experiences with sustainability and sharing best practices with companies that have not made much progress in incorporating sustainability concepts into their business models.
“We hope sustainability approaches will play an increasingly influential role in EPA’s risk-management decisions going forward,” said Michael Kavanaugh of Geosyntec Consultants in Oakland, Calif., and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “The complexity of the challenges facing the agency and the nation – such as climate change and greater consumption of natural resources – make the use of these approaches vital for protecting current and future generations, encouraging innovation in problem solving, and building solutions relevant to the scale of the problems we face.”
The new report builds on a 2011 report by the National Research Council, Sustainability and the EPA, referred to as the Green Book. The Green Book recommended that EPA adopt a sustainability framework that would incorporate a more holistic assessment of environmental, economic, and social factors in its decision making. It recommended that EPA develop a “sustainability toolbox” of analytic tools that would help the agency implement this approach. EPA then asked the National Research Council for advice on tools and analytic approaches, and the new report responds to that request.
A broad array of sustainability tools and approaches could be applied by EPA to assess potential environmental, social, and economic outcomes in the agency’s decision-making context. EPA took a good first step by collecting a set for its recent report Sustainability Analytics: Assessment Tools and Approaches, which summarizes 22 types of tools for conducting sustainability assessments, ranging from economic benefit-cost analysis to risk analysis to environmental-justice analysis. Some of the tools are well-developed and widely used, while others are still in development.
The new Research Council report says EPA should consider using a consistent set of criteria to rate those and other sustainability tools, a step that will help the agency determine which approaches are developed enough for use and what tools are appropriate for a particular situation. The report offers a set of rating criteria, examples of which include the adequacy of data to support a tool’s application and the degree of consensus among stakeholders and the scientific community as to how the method should be used. EPA should consistently use similar criteria to periodically evaluate and update its views and experiences with sustainability tools. The agency should also use a publicly available Internet-based mechanism – for example, an online wiki -- to track updates about existing and emerging tools.
A potentially important tool that was not included in EPA’s Sustainability Analytics report is analysis of the social cost of carbon -- an estimate of the monetized damage associated with future potential effects of an incremental increase in greenhouse gas emissions. This approach allows government agencies to evaluate and incorporate the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Given the prominence of climate-change mitigation issues for EPA, the agency should include it in its Sustainability Analytics list in the future. The committee also recommended that EPA develop a process to determine when uncertainty analysis is an essential component of the use of a tool.
The report provides several case studies to illustrate how EPA can incorporate sustainability tools into decisions. One case study illustrates how to build consideration of the sustainability pillars – social, environmental, and economic dimensions -- into the criteria used to select a remedy for a site remediation project. Life-cycle analysis was used to take into account greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and other environmental effects, while analyses of the costs of possible remedies and their potential effects on the community shed light on the economic and social impacts.
Without losing focus on its existing regulatory mandates, the report says, EPA should broaden its considerations from its traditional emphasis on reducing emissions or waste releases from individual point sources in specific economic sectors to an approach that considers life-cycle effects of business processes along the entire “value chain” of a product’s development, including raw material extraction, manufacture, consumer use, and reuse.
Although private-sector experiences are not applicable to all of EPA’s mission-related activities, the agency should collaborate with industry and other organizations and leverage their experience and insights, the report adds. The last decade has seen a dramatic expansion in collaborative relationships created by NGOs and global companies in order to address sustainability challenges. By working with these companies and organizations, EPA and other government agencies can gain new insights that will help them define performance requirements, using a combination of regulatory and non-regulatory approaches to improve performance on key sustainability indicators. In addition, as EPA develops its greenhouse gas management policies, it should strive to learn from private-sector experiences how well-designed economic incentives can approach sustainability objectives. EPA should also share leading companies’ insights and best practices with businesses that have not made as much progress in incorporating sustainability concepts.
The study was sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit http://national-academies.org. A committee roster follows.
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Copies of Sustainability Concepts in Decision Making: Tools and Approaches for U.S. EPA are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu or by calling tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
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NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology
Committee on Scientific Tools and Approaches for Sustainability
Michael C. Kavanaugh* (chair)
Geosyntec Consultants Inc.
Sherburne B. Abbott
Vice President for Sustainability Initiatives, and
University Professor of Sustainability Science and Policy
David T. Allen
Melvin H. Gertz Regents Chair in Chemical Engineering
Department of Chemical Engineering, and
Center for Energy and Environmental Resources
University of Texas
Praveen K. Amar
Ingrid C. Burke
Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and of the Ruckelshaus Institute, and
Wyoming Excellence Chair
Department of Botany and Department of Ecosystem Science and Management
University of Wyoming
John C. Crittenden*
Director and Professor
Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems
Georgia Institute of Technology
PE International; and
Five Winds International
West Chester, Pa.
Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer
Covanta Energy Corp.
Michael R. Greenberg
Distinguished Professor and Associate Dean, and
Environmental Assessment and Communication Group
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey
Andrew M. Hutson
Global Value Chain Initiatives
Environmental Defense Fund
New York City
Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Economics, and
Center for Agricultural and Rural Development
Iowa State University
H. Scott Matthews
Green Design Institute; and
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and of Engineering and Public Policy
Carnegie Mellon University
Environmental Compliance and Sustainability
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Helen H. Suh
Department of Health Sciences
Northeastern University; and
Harvard School of Public Health
Terry F. Yosie
President and CEO
World Environment Center
*Member, National Academy of Engineering