Knowledge maintenance - sustainable development

14th July 2011


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  • Skills ,
  • Pollution & Waste Management



Chartered environmentalist Paul Reeve begins his journey through the syllabus of the IEMA associate certificate course by looking at sustainable development

Sustainable development (SD) is a process on the way to a crucially important goal: sustainability. Achieving sustainability requires supporting action from all sectors of society, including business and other organisations.

The so-called “Brundtland definition” is the most commonly used meaning of sustainable development. It was devised by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development, which in 1983 was chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, then prime minister of Norway. It states that SD is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The sum of human-related environmental impacts affecting the earth’s systems can be thought of as a function of:

  • total – and growing – human population;
  • the average consumption level of each person – which varies widely across the globe; and
  • the technologies servicing that consumption.

Society places huge and increasing demands on the earth’s resources. The earth is our source of land, raw materials and energy, in addition to providing “sinks” for the disposal of gaseous, liquid and solid waste.

Agenda 21 – the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development – is a complex plan of global and national action to achieve SD. It has been adopted by 180 governments since the UN Conference on Environment and Development in the Brazilian capital in June 1992.

In 2005, the UK government adopted a revised framework for SD. This acknowledged that SD must recognise environmental limits, and that these limits influence all the other actions in support of sustainable development.

A strategic issue for organisations

Although the term “sustainable development” is very widely used, it is not always clear what it means for specific organisations, or what they need to do. Businesses have two basic goals: survival and success. The sustainability agenda can have a major bearing on both these goals and it tends to present organisations with both challenges and opportunities.

Organisations that understand the sustainability issues that matter most to them, and why, can modify their practices to survive and be more successful. The vital role of sustainability becomes obvious when the implications of unsustainable activity are considered.

Essentially, an organisation that has unsustainable needs, or that is operating unsustainably, will need to modify its behaviour if it is to survive. This points to using sustainable resources, using resources much more efficiently, having sustainable products and services, and innovation. Many organisations have already experienced the direct effects of major environmental sustainability issues, such as energy taxes, higher waste disposal costs or end-of-life recovery obligations.

Strategic thinking can be incorporated into environmental management, to support the identification and evaluation of activities, policy goals and corporate objectives, and management reviews that lead to effective action.

Strategic thinking includes:

  • considering the future – so that emerging issues are understood and assessed in terms of opportunities and threats; and
  • life-cycle analysis – so the implications of emerging issues are understood in terms of immediate operations, the supply chain and future markets.

An example is the availability of, and access to, resources such as raw materials and sources of energy, or sinks for wastes. These may become increasingly constrained through depletion (e.g. non-renewable resources), degradation (polluted resources), over-exploitation (of renewable resources), regulation (bans and restrictions), stakeholder concerns (eg customer avoidance of certain products, protests at planned new facilities) or economics (e.g. increased costs due to supply issues or through eco-taxes). Alternatively, other resources may become more attractive (e.g. renewable energy or recovered materials).

SD is the framework for the future “operating space” of any organisation – determining what it can (and cannot) do and, for the commercial organisation, what it can continue to supply.

The environment - Back to basics

Environmental management deals mainly with the impact of organisations on the environment. For simplicity, the surrounding environment can be subdivided into three main components – air, water and land (also known as environmental “media”).

These three media are part of a series of complex and dynamic biological, physical and chemical interrelationships, such as ecosystems, and the water and carbon cycles. Society processes the earth’s resources to provide a vast, and increasingly sophisticated, range of goods and services. These processes and associated activities lead to various environmental impacts.

Pollution results from the introduction of substances or energy into the environment. In addition to substances, outputs can also be energy such as noise, vibration, heat and light. Once released, outputs can follow natural pathways – eg air, flowing water, permeable ground, the food chain – and affect parts of the environment that are sensitive to them (“receptors”).

Harm can occur over the short or longer term, depending on the nature of the pollutant and the sensitivity of the receptor. There is not always a clear-cut distinction between receptors and pathways. For example, environmental media such as water can be both pathways and receptors, as can organisms in a food chain.

Although the environment is the “sink” for our waste products, there are limits to what can be sustainably emitted into the air, sent to landfill, or how much resource can be taken from the environment.

This article and the following "In training" series is based on the popular textbook Essentials of environmental management, co-authored by Paul Reeve and Paul Hyde.


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