EPA should broaden sustainability analysis, NRC says

By Daniel Enoch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, 2014 - The EPA should broaden its decision-making approach from its traditional emphasis on reducing emissions and waste releases from individual point sources to “consider 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.”

That's one of the key recommendations in a report released today by the National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences. The report - Sustainability Concepts in Decision Making: Tools and Approaches for U.S. EPA -- recommends that for every major decision, EPA should include a strategy to assess its environmental, social and economic implications - “the three dimensions of sustainability” -- in an integrated manner.

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“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,” Michael Kavanaugh of Geosyntec Consultants in Oakland, California, and chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said in a news release.

The report builds on a 2011 NRC study, Sustainability and the EPA, which recommended that the agency adopt a sustainability framework that would “incorporate a more holistic assessment of environmental, economic, and social factors in its decision making.” It called for EPA develop a “sustainability toolbox” of analytic tools that would help it implement this approach. EPA then asked the NRC for advice on tools and analytic approaches, and the new report responds to that request.

NRC said EPA had already summarized 22 types of tools for conducting sustainability assessments in a recent report Sustainability Analytics: Assessment Tools and Approaches. The tools can be used for projects ranging from economic benefit-cost analysis and risk analysis to environmental-justice analysis. And it said the agency should use a publicly available Internet-based mechanism - for example, an online wiki -- to track updates about existing and emerging tools.

One potentially important tool 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.” Given the prominence of climate-change mitigation issues for EPA, the agency should include it in its Sustainability Analytics list in the future, NRC said.

The council also recommended that the EPA collaborate more with industry and other organizations to leverage their experience and insights, and share leading companies' insights and best practices with businesses that have not made as much progress in incorporating sustainability concepts.

“We hope sustainability approaches will play an increasingly influential role in EPA's risk-management decisions going forward,” Kavanaugh said.

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