The growing identification of sustainability as both a process and a goal to ensure long-term human well-being that does not threaten the continued availability of critical natural resources 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 that 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 the complex and challenging issues that go beyond current risk management of major threats. Third, sustainability is being used as a common approach to address broader social, environmental, and economic issues by international bodies 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.
Recognizing the importance of sustainability in meeting the agency’s mission, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson, formally requested that the National Research Council (NRC) undertake a study to strengthen the scientific basis for incorporating sustainability concepts into EPA’s decision making. Ms. Jackson stated that incorporating sustainability into EPA’s decision making is “a step toward the more effective pursuit of all of our work, including our statutory requirements, by incorporating sustainability into our foundations” (Jackson 2010). Sustainability is a fast-moving subject, for example, the White House’s Council on Environmental
Quality (CEQ) recently issued guidance to the federal agencies and requested plans on incorporating sustainability into their operations. Given the time line of this NRC report, the CEQ submissions could not be factored in.
The 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) declared that the “continuing policy of the Federal Government” is 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” (42 U.S.C. 4331(a)). That policy expresses what is now described as sustainable development. Meeting the goal of sustainable development requires an integration of social, environmental, and economic policies, necessitating interdisciplinary coordination among federal agencies with varying missions to address this goal. International acceptance of sustainable development was spurred by the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, of which former EPA administrator, William D. Ruckelshaus, was a member (WCED 1987). Lead author of this report, Jim MacNeill, has recognized progress in institutionalizing sustainable development; however, he notes that “the need for a global transition to more sustainable forms of development, especially in the energy field, is far more urgent today than it was in 1987” when the report first issued a call for such a transition (OECD 2007). In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the United States and other countries endorsed a global plan of action for sustainable development and a set of principles to guide that effort (UNCED 1992a,b).
As explained more fully in Chapter 2, EPA was created in 1970 to consolidate many activities that were previously administered by several agencies. Many of the statutes administered by the new agency were intended to protect both human health and the environment from the adverse effects of pollution.1 In spite of its name, EPA has never focused only on environmental protection.
Today, the agency’s primary goals set forth in its 2011–2015 strategic plan (EPA 2010) are the following:
- Take action on climate change and improving air quality.
- Protect U.S. waters.
- Clean up communities and advance sustainable development.
- Ensure the safety of chemicals and prevent pollution.
- Enforce environmental laws.
EPA’s authorizing statutes provide numerous approaches for achieving its mission and objectives. Those approaches include the following:
- Set and enforce environmental quality standards as well as standards of performance for industrial, agricultural, and governmental sources of pollution and for producers of chemicals and pesticide products.
- Issue permits and approvals and take enforcement actions for noncompliance or do so through state environmental agencies.
- Provide grants to states and municipalities for program support and infrastructure financing.
- Provide technical guidance and assistance in both regulatory and nonregulatory programs.
- Conduct and sponsor scientific research on environmental risks and assessment, control, and measurement tools.
- Convene and collaborate with other government agencies, private corporations, academic institutions, and nongovernmental organizations on problem solving.
EPA’s statutes give primary weight to protection of the environment and human health. These statutes do so for historical reasons, the most prominent being the insufficient consideration of environmental and human health protection in the past. The reasons also reflect the reality that other statutes and policies have encouraged economic development and social well-being (Friedman 2005). Nothing in this report is intended to disturb or undermine EPA’s historical mission. Indeed, the committee understands part of its task as providing guidance to EPA on how it might implement its existing statutory authority to contribute more fully to a more sustainable-development trajectory for the United States.
Each agency or department of the federal government has distinct responsibilities for various social, environmental, and economic aspects of sustainability. Each agency or department can thus make a contribution to sustainability within the parameters of its existing statutory authority. The committee’s purpose is to examine the benefits, where EPA has statutory authority and discretion in regulatory and nonregulatory programs, of building sustainability considerations into its administration of the statutes. The committee has not examined whether or to what extent all EPA statutes are compatible with various aspects of sustainability.
EPA’s mission is based on the understanding that human health and the environment are related; what is good for the environment also tends to be good for human health, and what is good for human health tends to be good for the environment. Because EPA attempts to foster human and environmental well-being at the same time for the benefit of present and future generations, EPA’s mission is consistent with sustainability. The same general drivers for sustainability described above all support an intensified effort for sustainability at EPA that would try to maximize the social, environmental, and economic benefits of
EPA’s activities, and not simply reduce risk to human health and the environment. Sustainability is fully consistent with EPA’s historical mission and does not undermine EPA’s role of applying government regulations and policies in response to congressional mandates to protect human health and the environment and of furthering advances in environmental science and technology.
In addition, several other federal agencies have begun to integrate sustainability into their work, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS 2007), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE 2010), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Lubchenco and Sutley 2010), among others. The USGS, for example, is implementing a series of six science directions chosen to build on existing strengths: “understanding ecosystems and predicting ecosystem change; climate variability and change; energy and minerals for America’s future; a national hazards, risk, and resilience assessment program; the role of environment and wildlife in human health; and a water census of the United States” (USGS 2007). USGS determined that central to their “deliberations on the content of each of the six directions was a structured framework that addressed the need to (1) identify and measure key variables, (2) map the resulting data spatially, (3) understand the fundamental natural science processes involved, (4) monitor essential variables over time, (5) predict or forecast the future course of natural science events, and (6) engage stakeholders in the use of this information for problem solving” (USGS 2007).
Additionally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 2010 Strategic Plan states the mission for the agency as “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources” and their vision is stated as “healthy ecosystems, communities, and economies that are resilient in the face of change” (NOAA 2010). In order to meet their stated mission and vision, NOAA focused on four long-term outcomes: climate adaption and mitigation; being prepared for and responding to weather-related events; healthy oceans and sustained, productive ecosystems; and resilient coastal communities and economies (NOAA 2010).
EPA has undertaken several sustainability initiatives and can claim success in developing processes leading to sustainability. It has established various sustainability programs at the program office and regional level and has adopted a sustainability research plan and highlighted sustainability in its strategic plan for 2011–2015 (EPA 2010). The agency has also examined applications in a variety of areas to better incorporate sustainability in its decision making, programs, and operations. However, as is evident in its request for the formation of this committee, EPA recognizes that to obtain the full benefits of using sustainability as a process and as a goal, the agency needs to institutionalize sustainability more broadly into its activities. Paul Anastas, assistant administrator for research and development at EPA when discussing the scientific challenge of sustainability stated, that “addressing the unsustainable trajectory of the planet has often been
thought to be one that is best dealt with through government action, behavioral change, and public policy…. In the absence of new materials for alternative energy, food production, water purification and medicines, there are no policies that can be put into place to avoid catastrophic consequence. The magnitude and urgency of the scientific challenge cannot be understated [sic]” (Anastas 2010).
To further strengthen the analytic and scientific basis for sustainability as it applies to human health and environmental protection, the agency requested that the NRC convene a committee under the Science and Technology for Sustainability Program to address the following 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?
- What scientific and analytical tools are needed to support the framework?
- What expertise is needed to support the framework?
In response to EPA’s request, the NRC appointed the Committee on Incorporating Sustainability in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which prepared this report. To accomplish its task, the committee held meetings in December 2010 and February 2011. The latter meeting was a week long intensive session, which included extensive reviews 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. During these public sessions, the committee heard from several EPA officials on topics ranging from the history of sustainability efforts at EPA, the principles and decision criteria for incorporating sustainability in EPA programs, and the ongoing sustainability efforts at the regional level. In addition, various state-level environmental agencies provided their perspectives on how they would use a similar sustainability framework in their programs.
Finally, the committee heard from several speakers from industry, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and former EPA officials who provided a business perspective on sustainable development and environmental stewardship and the perspectives of various environmental groups. The committee reviewed a large body of written material on sustainability, including literature that informed the committee on how EPA could further strengthen its sustainability efforts as applicable to human health and environmental protection within the agency’s decision-making process. The available data included other NRC reports, published research articles, and both U.S. and international governmental reports.
The committee also reviewed many other documents related to EPA’s structure and function. The documents had the common theme of the need to balance EPA’s media-specific approaches to environmental laws with its responsibilities to integrate across programs efficiently to achieve maximal environmental benefits (EPA 1992).
The committee recognized that many state and local agencies already were actively involved in advancing sustainability, and that there is also a broad range of sustainability activities in other federal agencies. 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 science 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.
The committee’s charge also did not deal with EPA’s legal mandates, organizational structure, or institutional framework. There may be significant opportunities for promoting sustainability by examining these subjects but the committee was precluded from addressing these issues as they were not part of the Statement of Task. 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 ; EO 135142).
The phrase, “create and maintain,” captures the two senses in which the term sustainability is used by the committee in this report—as a process and as a goal. Sustainability is a process because the United States and other countries are a long way from being sustainable, and it is thus necessary to create the conditions for sustainability (NRC 1999). Sustainability is also a goal. As sustainability is achieved in particular places and contexts, it is necessary to maintain the conditions supporting it in the face of social, technological, environmental, and other changes. Although the exact nature of a sustainable society is difficult to know in advance, the basic conditions for that society (e.g., absence of large
2 Executive Order 13514; Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance; was signed on October 5, 2009.
scale poverty and environmental degradation and intergenerational responsibility) can be stated (WCED 1987).
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.
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. 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 addressed its task by providing guidance to EPA on the processes necessary to incorporate sustainability into the agency’s work but not on the specific direction EPA should take to accomplish this task. In a presentation to the committee at the first meeting, the Office of Research and Development’s assistant administrator, Paul Anastas, suggested that the committee draft its recommendations in a manner following the 1983 NRC report Risk Assessment in the Federal Government, otherwise known as the “Red Book.” The Red Book provided the agency with a framework for risk assessment and risk management (NRC 1983) that served as a driver for EPA’s activities and for environmental regulations. Dr. Anastas emphasized that the sustainability equivalents of the four-box risk paradigm are needed now to serve as the critical elements of whether an action will advance or impair sustainability.
The remainder of this report is organized into seven chapters. Chapter 2 includes a history of sustainable-development activities in the United States and internationally, including documentation of the early development of sustainability concepts in U.S. environmental law. Chapter 3 describes the proposed Sustainability Framework. Chapter 4 discusses the processes and tools to support the proposed framework for sustainability at EPA. Chapter 5 provides guidance on integrating the new Sustainability Framework and the EPA decision-making process, which is rooted in the RA/RM paradigm. A discussion of cultural “change management” is provided in Chapter 6. Chapter 7 examines the relevance and utility of sustainability considerations in EPA’s accomplishment of its mission. Chapters 6 and 7 also provide examples of successful sustainability initiatives.
The committee’s report, although providing background information about
the history and rationale for sustainability goals and processes, has not focused on precisely defining or justifying sustainability. On the basis of the Statement of Task, our focus has been on providing an operational framework that helps facilitate the further incorporation of goals for sustainability and processes in sustainability into the daily work routine of EPA.
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