Essential knowledge for environmentalists

15th September 2011


Intraining

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Paul Reeve continues his journey through the syllabus of the IEMA Associate certificate course, providing notes on the fundamentals of environment management

The first article in this series noted that sustainable development (SD) is defined as the process of “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. It also reported that in 2005, the UK government published “Securing the future”, a landmark national strategy for SD.

Now the government says that SD means “making the necessary decisions now to realise our vision of stimulating economic growth and tackling the deficit, maximising wellbeing and protecting our environment, without negatively impacting on the ability of future generations to do the same”.

This statement, it adds, updates the “principles underpinning the UK’s 2005 sustainable development strategy, by recognising the needs of the economy, society and the natural environment”.

The precautionary principle

The 2005 strategy set out the following principles of SD:

  • living within environmental limits;
  • ensuring a healthy and cohesive society;
  • achieving a sustainable economy;
  • promoting good governance; and
  • using sound science responsibly.

A key principle of SD is that there are limits to what can be emitted into the air, sent to landfill, or how much of an environmental resource, such as biodiversity (see box below), can be lost before there is significant environmental, social or economic harm. A fundamental problem is that society does not always know what the environmental limits are.

This is particularly important if there is a risk of major, and possibly unpredictable or irreversible, environmental impacts. To help deal with the problem of uncertainty and significant risks to the environment, Principle 15 of the 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration set out the “precautionary principle”.

It emphasises that absolute scientific certainty is not required before policy measures are developed or implemented. Global impacts that have invoked the precautionary principle include stratospheric ozone depletion (by certain halogenated chemicals) and climate change (substantially due to carbon dioxide).

Action in support of SD

At a national level, “Securing the future” included the following UK priorities for action: climate change and energy, and natural resource protection. In addition to national strategies, organisations may decide – or find they are compelled – to take a range of actions to support SD. For example:

Resource/supply chain options
  • Substitute materials or energy from non-renewable resources with sustainable renewable resources (eg from accredited sources).
  • Consider transport impacts (eg local sourcing).
  • Minimise packaging, preferably using recyclable or reusable packaging.
Operational options
  • Enhanced resource productivity (eg using fewer materials and less energy per unit of output).
  • Minimise waste through reuse and recovery.
  • Shift from pollution abatement only, to intrinsically cleaner technology.
  • Improve the use of transport (eg alternative communication methods or transport fuels).
Market-related options
  • Design products for durability, repair, reuse or recyclability (eg easy disassembly, parts common to different equipment).
  • More efficient products (eg using less energy, water).
Cross-cutting practices
  • Life-cycle thinking to “design out” major impacts.
  • Partnerships with suppliers, contractors and customers.

Two parameters that affect an organisation’s choices are acceptability and feasibility. The former refers to financial imperatives, such as profitability and financial risk, as well as internal and external stakeholders’ views. Feasibility relates to the constraints on taking action, such as the availability of technology, materials and skills at an acceptable cost, the readiness of the supply chain.

The term “anthropogenic” refers to human – as opposed to natural – activities that emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the environment. In the case of GHGs (see below) significant anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other GHGs – most notably methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride – are believed to be accelerating global warming, a precursor of climate change.

Significant global and regional changes in climate will affect the environment, societies and economies. As such, environment managers are increasingly involved in assisting with adapting to climate change, in addition to controlling anthropogenic GHG emissions at source.


The carbon cycle and greenhouse-gas emissions

Two fundamentally important natural processes are the breakdown and recycling of substances, including essential chemicals. There are various natural cycles for essential substances such as water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.

For example, the “carbon cycle” involves both the (very) long- and short-term recycling of carbon materials. Photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into the biomass of plants, as organic carbon. Herbivores then obtain this carbon by eating plants, while carnivores (or omnivores) obtain the carbon by eating herbivores (and plants). When plants or animals die, organic matter is consumed by decomposer organisms. These return carbon to the soil, or to the atmosphere as respiratory carbon dioxide.

A similar biological carbon cycle occurs in marine (and other aqueous) environments. When marine life dies and decomposes, a significant amount of organic carbon builds up in underwater sediments, while some is returned to seawater as respiratory carbon dioxide.

Billions of tonnes of sedimentary carbon have been deposited, over geological timescales, as hydrocarbons (notably to create fossil deposits of coal, gas and oil) or as calcium carbonate (for example, from shells and other skeletal material) to form limestone or chalk. The eventual combustion or dissolution of these carbonaceous materials ultimately returns the carbon to the atmosphere or water, mainly as carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately, compelling scientific evidence suggests that society’s prodigious combustion of fossil fuel for energy is affecting the carbon cycle. Burning huge quantities of fossil fuel has, within generations, returned geological carbon to the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide) from deposits that were created over millions of years.

Deforestation and other habitat loss can also return carbon to the atmosphere that is stored in biomass or soils. Examples are burning timber and other biomass and the degradation or exploitation of carbon-bearing soils (such as peat).

Carbon dioxide contributes to global climate change via the so-called “greenhouse” effect (greenhouse gases absorb solar energy that is re-radiated from the Earth, and which would otherwise radiate into space).


IEMA Associate certificate – Module 1 The key aim is to understand the issues, science and philosophy that underpin environmental sustainability.

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