WASHINGTON - 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."
A public meeting to discuss the report will be held at 3 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Sept. 15 at the National Academies' Keck Center, 500 Fifth St., N.W., Washington, D.C. Reporters who wish to attend should contact the Office of News and Public Information at tel. 202-334-2138 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. For more information, visit http://national-academies.
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Pre-publication copies of Sustainability and the U.S. EPA are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Policy and Global Affairs
Science and Technology for Sustainability Program
Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Bernard D. Goldstein (chair)1
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health
Graduate School of Public Health
University of Pittsburgh
Environmental Law Institute (retired)
J. Clarence Davies
Resources for the Future
John C. Dernbach
School of Law
Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer
Covanta Energy Corp.
Neil C. Hawkins
Vice President of Sustainability
Dow Chemical Co.
Michael C. Kavanaugh2
Professor of Ecological and Environmental Economics
Department of Applied Economics
University of Minnesota
Armistead G. Russell
School of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology
Sustainability Program Manager
City of Knoxville
Reproductive and Cancer Hazard Assessment Section
Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment
California Environmental Protection Agency
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
1 Member, Institute of Medicine
2 Member, National Academy of Engineering
3 Member, National Academy of Sciences