Sustainability is based on a simple and long-recognized factual premise: Everything that humans require for their survival and well-being depends, directly or indirectly, on the natural environment.1 The environment provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It defines in fundamental ways the communities in which we live and is the source for renewable and nonrenewable resources on which civilization depends. Our health and well-being, our economy, and our security all require a high quality environment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working to create programs and examining applications in a variety of areas to better incorporate sustainability into decision making at the agency. To further strengthen the analytic and scientific basis for sustainability as it applies to human health and environmental protection, EPA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to convene a committee under the Science and Technology for Sustainability Program to provide an operational framework for integrating sustainability as one of the key drivers within the regulatory responsibilities of EPA. Specifically, the committee was tasked to answer four key questions:
- What should be the operational framework for sustainability for EPA?
- How can the EPA decision-making process rooted in the risk assessment/ risk management (RA/RM) paradigm be integrated into this new sustainability framework?
1 Marsh, G.P. 1864. Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- What scientific and analytical tools are needed to support the framework?
- What expertise is needed to support the framework?
The NRC has looked in depth at the use of the RA/RM framework as a decision-making tool at EPA.2 This study was to build on that in answering these four key questions. EPA has undertaken several sustainability initiatives and can claim success in developing processes leading toward a more sustainable future. EPA has established various programs incorporating sustainability at the program office and regional level and has adopted a sustainability research plan and highlighted sustainability in its strategic plan for 2011–2015; however, the agency recognizes that to obtain the benefits of using sustainability as a process and as a goal, it needs to further improve and institutionalize sustainability. Paul Anastas, the assistant administrator for research and development at EPA, stated, “Sustainability is our true north. The work that we do—the research, the assessments, the policy development—is part of ensuring that we have a sustainable society; a sustainable civilization.”3
The growing identification of sustainability as both a process and a goal to ensure long-term human well-being is based on four converging drivers. The first is the recognition that current approaches aimed at decreasing existing risks, however successful, are not capable of avoiding the complex problems in the United States and globally that threaten the planet’s critical natural resources and put current and future human generations at risk, including population growth, the widening gaps between the rich and the poor, depletion of finite natural resources, biodiversity loss, climate change, and disruption of nutrient cycles. Second, sophisticated tools are increasingly available to address cross-cutting, complex, and challenging issues that go beyond the current approach, which is, risk management of major threats. Third, sustainability is being used by international organizations as a common approach to address the three sustainability pillars (social, environmental, and economic issues) in agreements in which the United States is an active participant. Finally, the potential economic value of sustainability to the United States is recognized to not merely decrease environmental risks but also to optimize the social and economic benefits of environmental protection.
To accomplish its task of answering the four key questions posed by EPA, the committee held meetings in December 2010 and February 2011 and conducted weekly conference calls to discuss the report draft. The February meeting was a weeklong intensive session, which included extensive review and discussion of relevant literature, deliberation, and drafting of the report. In addition, data-gathering sessions that were open to the public were held during both meetings, where the committee heard from EPA officials, state-level environmental agencies, industry,
2 NRC (National Research Council). 1983. Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
3 Anastas, P. 2010. Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Science and Technology March 10, 2010 [online]. Available: http://www.epa.gov/ocirpage/hearings/testimony/111_2009_2010/2010_0310_pa.pdf [accessed Apr. 19, 2011].
universities, and nongovernmental organizations that provided a range of perspectives on sustainable development and environmental stewardship. The committee addressed its task by providing guidance to EPA on the processes necessary to incorporate sustainability into the agency’s work. The committee did not provide guidance on the specific direction the agency should take to accomplish this task.
The committee reviewed a large body of written material on sustainability in the United States, as well as internationally, and reviewed many other documents related to EPA’s structure and function. The committee also did not devote significant time to defining sustainability but used the definition from Executive Order 13514, where it is defined as
Sustainability: “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” (NEPA; E. O.135144).
The committee has not examined whether or to what extent all EPA statutes are compatible with various aspects of sustainability. Because EPA did not request that the committee address laws pertaining to EPA or organizational and institutional aspects of the agency’s operations, the committee did not examine these topics. The committee did, however, examine the benefits, where EPA has statutory authority and discretion in regulatory and nonregulatory programs, of building sustainability considerations into its administration of these statutes. The committee developed the Sustainability Framework and the Sustainability Assessment and Management approach (Figure S-1) to provide guidance to EPA on incorporating sustainability into decision making. The Sustainability Assessment and Management process is intended to be equally applicable to all types of issues, including human health and ecological risks.
The committee emphasizes in the report that the adoption of the Sustainability Framework and the application of the Sustainability Assessment and Management approach to particular EPA programs, activities, and decisions are discretionary. The committee expects that EPA will choose where to focus its attention and resources in operationalizing sustainability and in implementing its agenda and will adapt the scale and depth of the assessment according to the type of decision and its potential impact. Although it will take time and experience to incorporate sustainability broadly into EPA’s culture and process, the committee anticipates that over time there will be an increasing use of the framework.
There is a broad range of sustainability activities in other federal agencies, and the committee envisions EPA working closely with these other agencies as they implement the framework. Although addressing how EPA should engage other agencies is beyond the scope of this current report, this effort will complement other programs that are addressing national and global needs for integrating sci-
4 Executive Order 13514; Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance; was signed on October 5, 2009.
ence and technology for sustainability, such as the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability. In addition to engaging other agencies as EPA implements the framework, other stakeholders will also be important to engage, such as state regulators, local officials, industry, academia, community and advocacy groups, and the international community. This will better inform agency decision makers as the framework is refined to promote innovative solutions that are enriched by the growing knowledge of the interconnections of societal, environmental, and economic systems.
As with all decision making at EPA, uncertainty needs to be acknowledged and addressed, the approach needs to be transparent, and key stakeholders need to be engaged. In addition to uncertainty, tradeoff and synergy analysis is a fundamental component of the Sustainability Assessment and Management approach. The objective is to maximize social, environmental, and economic benefits of a decision and to minimize the adverse effects of conflicts among the three pillars.
The committee limited its recommendations to EPA, but these recommendations are pertinent to the concerted effort by all federal agencies and sectors of society needed to meet the challenges of achieving a sustainable future. The following recommendations were identified by the committee as key recommendations because of their importance in directly addressing the four key questions of the statement of task:
- The committee recommends that EPA adopt or adapt the comprehensive Sustainability Framework proposed in Figure S-1. The proposed Sustainability Framework requires a comprehensive approach including specific processes for incorporating sustainability into decisions and actions. As part of the framework, EPA should incorporate upfront consideration of sustainability options and analyses5 that cover the three sustainability pillars (social, environmental, and economic), as well as trade-off considerations into its decision making. This framework was developed with the intent that EPA could apply it to any decision to which a need arose. (Recommendation 3.1)
- For programs, EPA should set several strategic 3–5 year breakthrough objectives6 related to its sustainability implementation and its performance indicators and associated metrics.7 These goals would be designed to improve performance throughout the agency by extending its
5 Sustainability options and subsequent analyses refer to the range of options and the associated social (including health), environmental and economic impacts for each option along with any tradeoff analyses that may have been undertaken.
6 Commonly referred to in the business community, breakthrough objectives are goals that extend far beyond the current capabilities and experiences of an organization and require new strategies and approaches to ensure successful attainment of these goals. These objectives are generally designed to improve performance throughout an organization.
7 Throughout the report, the committee refers to indicators and associated metrics. Indicators, in general, are measures that provide information on the state of, or change in, a system (see Box 3-3).
current capabilities and experiences and by requiring new strategies and approaches to ensure their attainment. EPA should begin periodic public sustainability reporting to transparently review its progress versus goals. (Recommendation 3.2)
- The committee recommends expressly including the term “health” in the social pillar to help ensure that EPA regulatory and scientific staff primarily concerned with human-health issues recognize their existing role in sustainability and recommends that EPA pay particular attention to explaining the role of human health in the social pillar, thereby ensuring that staff and stakeholders involved in the area of human health recognize that their activities are an integral part of EPA’s sustainability work. Further, expressly including health in the social pillar will more clearly communicate outside of EPA the agency’s role in that pillar of sustainability. (Recommendation 3.3)
- EPA should develop a “sustainability toolbox” that includes a suite of tools for use in the Sustainability Assessment and Management approach. Collectively, the suite of tools should have the ability to analyze present and future consequences of alternative decision options on the full range of social, environmental, and economic indicators. Application of these tools, ranging from simple to complex, should have the capability of showing the distributional impacts of options with particular reference to vulnerable or disadvantaged groups and ecosystems. (Recommendation 4.1)
- EPA should include risk assessment as a tool, when appropriate, as a key input into its sustainability decision making. (Recommendation 5.1)
- The committee recommends that EPA institute a focused program of change management to achieve the goal of incorporating sustainability into all of the agency’s thinking to optimize the social, environmental, and economic benefits of its decisions; and to create a new culture among all EPA employees. (Recommendation 6.1)
- EPA should hire multidisciplinary professionals who are proficient in many disciplines, who have experience in the development and implementation in the sustainability assessment tools described, and who have a working knowledge in all three pillars and their application to environmental issues. The agency should hire leaders and scientists including from outside sectors to aid the agency in shifting to a more cross cutting mindset. Although EPA has existing staff in all the main areas of sustainability related fields, the agency should further facilitate collaboration among existing professional expertise to encourage dialogue and understanding of the various fields and work already being done within EPA. (Recommendation 6.10)