At EPA’s request, the National Research Council (NRC), the policy arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has authored a report that recommends tools and approaches that EPA might use to operationalize its growing focus on sustainability. The report, Sustainability Concepts in Decision-Making: Tools and Approaches for the US Environmental Protection Agency, comes as a follow-up to a 2011 NRC report, Sustainability and the U.S. EPA (aka the Green Book), which proposed a new EPA decision-making framework based on sustainability principles and holistic analysis of environmental, economic, and social factors. The two reports reflect EPA’s increasing interest in shifting from traditional risk analysis and risk management (RA/RM) to analysis that includes sustainability assessment and management (SAM).

The second report’s key recommendations to EPA are:

  • Use of sustainability concepts to further develop a systems-thinking approach to EPA strategy and decision-making;
  • Ensure the evaluation of social, economic, and environmental impacts before every major EPA decision (since, in NRC’s view, these impacts may span geography, populations, material lifecycles, environmental media, and future generations);
  • Development of guidelines for preparing a sustainability assessment, analogous to EPA’s Guidelines for Preparing Economic Analyses;
  • Increased use of life-cycle analysis in chemical, energy, and water industries, covering the entire value chain, “from raw-material extraction through product manufacturing to end-of-life disposal, reuse, or recycling,” to evaluate the sustainability of industries and proposed regulations;
  • Inclusion of the social cost of carbon in EPA’s toolbox for sustainability analysis;
  • Continued development of ecosystem service valuations through characterization, quantification, and monetization;
  • Development of criteria to evaluate appropriateness and effectiveness of various sustainability tools;
  • Collaboration with private sector and non-governmental organizations to “define and implement value chain-wide goals and performance outcomes;”
  • Leveraging the sustainability know-how of leading organizationsto both inform EPA regulatory decision-making and facilitate sustainability practices in less developed companies and industries.

Notably, the report does not comment on whether the EPA currently possesses the requisite statutory authority needed to integrate this kind of sustainability-based analysis and decision-making into its core regulatory programs.  For NRC’s summary of EPA’s major sustainability tools, see the box here.1

The new NRC report was informed in part by the private sector’s increasing investment of staff and resources into evaluating the sustainability of their investments and operations. Many CFOs and sustainability officers are now examining much more closely the social and environmental consequences of business decisions, largely because they see those consequences as capable of hurting the long-term interests of their business.Indeed, many companies are now deeply concerned with the business risks associated with environmental phenomena, resource scarcity, and social and political disruption. The government’s parallel efforts, as illustrated by the NRC report, seem likely to ensure continued focus on the sustainability ideal and bear watching in terms of their capacity to influence public expectations regarding sustainable behaviors and the extent to which EPA attempts to infuse sustainability analysis into its regulatory decision-making.