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Report Offers Framework To Guide EPA On Incorporating Sustainability In Its Decision Making

August 2, 2011

A new report from the National Research Council presents a framework for incorporating sustainability into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s principles and decision making. The framework, which was requested by EPA, is intended to help the agency better assess the social, environmental, and economic impacts of various options as it makes decisions.

The committee that developed the framework used the definition of sustainability based on a declaration of federal policy in the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act and included in a 2009 Executive Order: “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations.”

“EPA is already engaged in many projects that further sustainability aims, but the adoption of this framework — implemented in stages — will lead to a growing body of experiences and successes with sustainability,” said Bernard Goldstein, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

The recommended sustainability approach both incorporates and goes beyond an approach based on assessing and managing the risks posed by pollutants that has largely shaped environmental policy since the 1980s. Although risk-based methods have led to many successes and remain important tools, the committee said, they are not adequate to address many of the complex problems that put current and future generations at risk, such as depletion of natural resources, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. Moreover, sophisticated tools are increasingly available to address cross-cutting, complex, and challenging issues that go beyond risk management.

The report recommends that EPA formally adopt as its sustainability paradigm the widely used “three pillars” approach, which means considering the environmental, social, and economic impacts of an action or decision. Health should be expressly included in the “social” pillar. EPA should also articulate its vision for sustainability and develop a set of sustainability principles that would underlie all agency policies and programs.

In addition, the report describes a more intensive process called “sustainability assessment and management” that EPA can use to incorporate sustainability in specifically chosen activities and decisions. For example, the agency might decide to apply this process to new rules, programs, and policies, or to complex and important emerging issues, such as the impacts of biofuels. EPA should develop a screening process that can guide agency managers in deciding whether a particular activity should undergo this assessment.

For those selected, EPA would then use analytical tools to assess the potential consequences of alternative decisions on a full range of social, environmental, and economic indicators. To conduct these analyses, the agency should develop a suite of tools including methods such as life-cycle assessment, which is a “cradle to grave” analysis of a product’s environmental impacts; benefit-cost analysis; and sustainability impact assessments, which analyze a project’s likely social, environmental, and economic effects. Risk assessment should be an important tool in informing decisions in the sustainability assessment and management approach, the report says. The major results of these analyses should then be summarized and presented to decision makers. Finally, once decisions are made and implemented, there should be a follow-up evaluation of outcomes on important dimensions of sustainability.

Although incorporating sustainability into EPA’s culture and process will take time, it will offer wide-ranging benefits, the committee said. “Assuming that EPA adopts the goal of sustainability, there will be benefits for the United States as a whole,” said Goldstein. “There is likely to be a closer meshing of economic and environmental policies, and the result should be both a cleaner environment and a stronger economy.”

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