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True North: Sustainability Research at EPA

The Agency’s focus on sustainability brings an integrated approach to research, partnerships, and seeking solutions to help society now—and in the future.

A compass pointing north

To arrive at a destination, one needs to chart a course. For EPA research, the destination is sustainability—the ability for society to meet its present needs while preserving the ability of future generations to meet their own. “Our solution to a problem must not only solve the problem at hand, but it also must not create a new problem as a result. Sustainability must be our true north,” says Dr. Paul Anastas, the Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Under Anastas’ leadership, the Office of Research and Development is aligning much of its diverse research portfolio into four major sustainability themes: 1) air, climate, and energy; 2) sustainable water; 3) healthy and sustainable communities; and 4) safer chemicals for sustainability. 

With that effort already well underway, Anastas joined EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and National Academy of Sciences (NAS) President Ralph Cicerone on November 30, 2010 to announce that the Agency has commissioned a National Research Council (NRC) study Exit EPA Disclaimer that will define how to incorporate sustainability concepts across all EPA programs.

The final publication, informally called the “Green Book,” will follow in the tradition of the historic “Red BookExit EPA Disclaimer Academy report on risk assessment. “There’s a lot of ongoing Agency workgroups thinking about sustainability in different contexts and they’ll be ready to hit the ground running when the ‘Green Book’ comes out in the summer,” explains EPA scientist Dr. Alan Hecht.

Hecht, a leader in sustainability and Senior Advisor to the Assistant Administrator, helped guide the 2007 release of EPA’s Sustainability Research Strategy (PDF) (72 pp, 9.2 MB). The strategy highlights six themes that help define the Agency’s research approach to sustainability:

  • Renewable Resource Systems – sustainable natural systems
  • Non-Renewable Resource Systems – extraction of fossil fuels and minerals
  • Long-Term Chemical and Biological Impacts – evaluating long-term threats and promoting a shift to environmentally preferable materials
  • Human-Built Systems and Land Use – building design, efficiency, and managing urban impacts
  • Economics and Human Behavior – ecosystem and health values, and incentives for human choices
  • Information and Decision-Making – metrics, conditions, and satellite observations.

 “We need to work with others to plan more sustainably, efficiently, and effectively given the economic, environmental, and climate stresses we will face over the next several decades,” emphasizes Hecht. “Pursuing partnerships to get research out to the right people, coordinating with other agencies, and addressing public policy decisions in ways that positively reinforce actions rather than creating additional regulations are key,” says Hecht.

Momentum for such sustainability partnerships is growing, according to Dr. Joseph Fiksel, a sustainability expert from The Ohio State University Exit EPA Disclaimer who is currently on a special appointment at EPA helping to incorporate systems thinking into the Agency's research programs. He points out that there has been a significant upswing recently in the number of businesses with an interest in sustainable product and process design, green certification, clean manufacturing, and lifecycle management. “Businesses are responding to customer pressures to ‘green’ their processes and supply chains in order to differentiate their products in the marketplace,” explains Fiksel.

An extensive EPA cross-program working group on green products has been busy meeting with businesses and other agencies to help clarify EPA’s role in defining green products.  Advancing the idea of green and sustainable products—which goes beyond typical regulatory issues—requires research on product manufacturing, green chemistry, and “green” certification in the marketplace.

According to Fiksel, another shift in EPA’s approach to sustainability involves moving from a focus on waste management to materials management. Two critical elements that he identifies are:  1) including the concerns of stakeholders when addressing sustainability challenges, and 2) introducing indicators and metrics to measure and guide progress. “Typically, no single indicator will work. Multiple metrics are needed to represent sustainability, and communicating those to the public on a regular basis is important,” Fiksel says.

He believes that there are virtually no environmental problems at the national level that cannot be addressed in a more integrated way, including, for example, transportation technologies, natural gas extraction methods such as hydraulic fracturing, and recycling of waste materials. In the energy field, the challenges confronting biofuels, renewable energy technologies, and fossil fuels could all benefit from a broader perspective based on systems thinking, Fiksel says. 

Historically, environmental programs have largely focused on how to reduce air and water pollution, and how to identify and monitor chemical and environmental risks to human health and the environment. Today’s challenges depend on the sustainable use of natural resources, and require solutions that stress the linkages between energy use, water use, land use, material consumption, environmental protection, human health, quality of life, and the global economy.  The Green Book and efforts to strategically align its research efforts will help the Agency chart a course that addresses this complex suite of modern environmental challenges through science and research efforts that provide innovative, sustainable solutions.

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