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Sustainability Impact Assessment

Sustainability impact assessment (IA) is a combination of procedures, methods, and tools by which a policy, program, or project may be judged as to its potential impacts on the sustainability of a system and the distribution of those impacts within and among the economic, social, and environmental dimensions.

Sustainability impact assessments are most commonly applied through a multi-criteria decision analytic approach, which helps stakeholders investigate the combined economic, environmental and social impacts of proposed policies. This approach can be used to guide stakeholder and decision-maker engagement and collaboration throughout the entire planning process.[243] The purpose for conducting a sustainability impact assessment is twofold: inform policy development by explicitly considering impacts within and among the economic, social, and environmental systems; and, assess potential economic, social, and environmental impacts resulting from a proposed policy. [243] Explicit in a sustainability impact assessment is the integration of all three sustainability pillars; consideration of both spatial and temporal impacts; stakeholder involvement; transparency; accountability; and, match between the level of detail in the assessment and the impacts.[243]

How can Sustainability Impact Assessment contribute to Sustainability?

As stated above, explicit consideration of potential impacts within and among the economic, social, and environmental systems, as well as crosscutting issues like spatial scale, time scale and resilience are fundamental to sustainability impact assessments.[244] Sustainability impact assessments integrate the results from multiple sources in order to create an index or several sub-indices.[196] For example, in order to substantively address environmental impacts, it may be necessary to use impact information related to water quality or human health or ecological conditions. Such specific impact information may come through application of sustainability tools like life-cycle assess, futures methods, and benefit-cost analysis among others.[243, 244]

Sustainability Impact Assessment

What are the main steps in a Sustainability Impact Assessment?

While each sustainability impact assessment will be conducted based on the specific needs of the stakeholders and decision-makers, steps are:[243, 245]

  • Step 1—engage and collaborate with stakeholders to ensure they can effectively participate throughout the assessment process;
  • Step 2—determine the scope of the assessment to ensure the depth and breadth will be appropriate to the decision or policy being evaluated;
  • Step 3—identify the methodological approach and analytical tools most suitable to the need and scope of the assessment;
  • Step 4—analyze the impacts of the decision or policy across economic, social, and environmental considerations;
  • Step 5—assess synergies, conflicts, and trade-offs among the different potential impacts identified; and,
  • Step 6—communicate the results of the assessment.

Part of the scoping process for a sustainability impact assessment involves determining the appropriate analytical tools and data to be used. After the appropriate suite of tools is selected, the results from those analyses must be weighed appropriately across the sustainability pillars. Weighing each input within the sustainability impact assessment may be done qualitatively or quantitatively such as with tools for multi-criteria decision analysis. Multi-criteria decision analysis can provide a framework that assists in weighing different kinds of information (e.g., economic data and environmental data) expressed in different units.[243-245]

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What are the strengths and limits of Sustainability Impact Assessment in a sustainability context?

Inherent to sustainability impact assessment are four key principles: [243]

  • Explicit incorporation of the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.
  • Capacity for looking at impacts comprehensively across the sustainability pillars; across system boundaries, and across time.
  • Emphasis on balancing quantifiable impacts with those impacts that are less readily quantified.
  • Flexibility in fitting the methodological steps and analytical tools to the issue being analyzed.

Sustainability impact assessment may help decision-makers focus beyond numbers, to ensure quantitative analysis does not outweigh more qualitative forms and participatory approaches. However, broader application of this tool has some challenges. There is a lack of consistency in how similar issues are analyzed. For instance, a research project assessing European sustainability impact assessment identified substantial variation in impact assessment approaches used by expert teams targeting the exact same policy initiatives promoting biofuels production. This variation is especially noteworthy because the selection of impacts to be studied "strongly influences the outcome of the assessment."[245] The lack of consistency as well as transdisciplinary nature of many sustainability impact assessments has resulted in a lack of consistent, common terminology associated with sustainability impact assessments.[243] This limitation, together with this variability and lack of consistency makes it difficult to ensure the quality of sustainability impact assessments.[245] Quality assurance should be undertaken by people independent of the impact selection and assessment process, and transparency can help ensure better quality.[243]

Sustainability IAs can be improved by using the principles of good decision-making practices gleaned from multi-criteria decision analysis, social impact assessment (see discussion on page 48), and other decision support tools. These principles relate to stakeholder inclusion, transparency, use of experts, understanding the role of societal values, and learning.

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How could Sustainability Impact Assessment be used to support EPA decision-making?

EPA does not currently use sustainability impact assessment to support decision-making. Through community partnerships, however, EPA is assisting communities interested in using sustainability impact assessments to inform localized policy decisions related to smart growth and water quality.[197, 246, 247]
Internationally, a few countries have integrated sustainability criteria into existing impact assessment requirements. For instance, the Swiss government uses a scoring system that assesses initiatives against 23 criteria (five for each pillar of sustainability, as well as eight applicable to all pillars), and looks for conflicts between at least two pillars. Screening approaches like this can also be used to choose the appropriate breadth and depth for the assessment—what the OECD calls "proportionate analysis.”[243]

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Where can I find more about Sustainability Impact Assessment?

  • The OECD has created a useful primer on sustainability IA that summarizes the history and common practices of the technique, and identifies several additional helpful examples and resources. The 2010 Guidance on Sustainability Impact Assessment (PDF) (34 pp, 2.7MB) Exit EPA Disclaimer is available online from the OECD.
  • The website Exit EPA Disclaimer for the European Commission presents all sustainability impact assessments conducted since 2003, organized by policy topic (such as environment, energy and mobility/transport).

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Illustrative Approached Applying Sustainability Impact Assessment

  • EPA Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Program: Public Involvement Plan

    Source: EPA Office of Sustainable Communities[253]
    Sustainability assessment tools and approaches: collaborative problem-solving; environmental justice; sustainability impact assessment
    Sustainable communities strive to foster economic growth, protect environmental resources, enhance public health, and plan for development. However, many communities lack the tools, resources, and information to achieve these goals. In response to this need, EPA developed the SGIA Program. The SGIA Program is an annual, competitive assistance opportunity for state, local, regional, and tribal governments (and non-profits that have partnered with governmental entities) that want to incorporate smart growth techniques into their future development plans. The program provides assistance in the form of a contractor team of national experts, rather than through a grant. These experts conduct site visits and develop detailed reports that provide information to help the community achieve its goal of encouraging growth that fosters economic progress and environmental protection.

    The city of Las Cruces, New Mexico requested SGIA assistance to develop a Public Involvement Plan and Toolkit to engage residents in the local planning process—especially those from ethnically diverse, low-income populations and others that had limited to no previous involvement in community planning—. The city government collaborated with EPA, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Department of Transportation, and other local stakeholders using a CPS approach.

    Using the principles of CPS, the community developed a strategy for achieving local participation in planning and decision-making. The process was implemented in two visioning workshops for the El Paseo corridor, a 1.7-mile corridor in downtown Las Cruces. The Public Involvement Plan and Toolkit have been successful in providing a framework for meaningful public engagement, outreach, and participation strategies necessary to build trust, excitement, and support among Las Cruces residents for city projects and initiatives.[246]

  • Green Report: Maryland

    Source: Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) Green Report: Case Studies on State Efforts to Achieve Sustainability, March 2012 [254] [Used with permission from the Environmental Research Institute of the States (ERIS), the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), and the State of Maryland]

    Suite of sustainability tools: environmental justice analysis; ecosystem service valuation; sustainability impact assessment

    The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE or “the Department”) has adopted the definition of sustainability that the United Nations World Commission on Environmental Development adopted in 1987. According to the commission, sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

    Maryland created the Smart, Green & Growing (SGG) initiative in 2009 to serve as the organizing force behind Maryland’s sustainability efforts by providing a place where citizens, businesses, organizations, and governments can come together to strengthen the state’s economy, protect its environment, and improve the quality of life of Maryland’s citizens. Many state agencies are involved in SGG, with different agencies taking the lead on different issues.

    The sustainability activities Maryland is undertaking include:

  • Chesapeake Bay Cleanup
    The Department is leading State efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay. An unprecedented effort is underway to meet the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, the pollution diet for the bay. The Department is working in concert with its sister agencies and US EPA to ensure that it will meet its obligations to clean up Chesapeake Bay.

    A healthy Chesapeake Bay is critical to a Sustainable Maryland. In addition to being a cultural icon, the bay is a major economic driver for shipping, recreation (swimming, fishing, boating), fisheries (crabs, oysters, striped bass), and real estate. The effort of restoring the bay also will have a significant positive impact on restoration jobs, local streams, and even drinking water.

    Climate Change
    Maryland is working diligently on evaluating solutions to reduce the state’s impact on the climate. With the passage of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009 (GGRA), Maryland has committed to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% by 2020 and to preparing a plan to meet a longer-term goal of reducing GHG emissions by up to 90% by 2050. The plan will promote new green jobs, protect existing jobs, and positively influence the state’s economy. Maryland’s commitment to regional initiatives such as the Low-Carbon Fuel Standard will help obtain the goals of the GGRA.

    The Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative
    The Department is undertaking the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative. This initiative will assist state policymakers and regulators in determining whether and how gas production from the Marcellus Shale in Maryland can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health and safety, the environment, and natural resources. MDE and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, in consultation with an advisory commission made up of a broad array of stakeholders, is tasked with undertaking a study of drilling for natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Western Maryland. Maryland recognizes that domestic energy production is important to the state’s and country’s long-term sustainability. However, it is equally important for the state to consider protection of public health, safety, the environment, and natural resources to ensure long-term sustainability. This initiative serves as an opportunity for Maryland to achieve the balance necessary to ensure all of these goals can be realized.

    Water Resource Management
    While Maryland has relatively abundant water supplies, in some areas of the state the current pattern of water use may exceed the sustainable supply. Ensuring a sustainable use of water includes planning and management of water resources in a comprehensive way that responds and adapts to changing conditions, balances competing uses of water, and promotes efficient use of the resource. In order to accomplish this goal, Maryland has undertaken a number of initiatives, including studies to better define its groundwater resources, encouraging local governments to better plan for their needs, assess hydrologic conditions, develop appropriate responses to drought conditions, and prepare for the potential impacts of climate change.

    Environmental Justice
    EJ at MDE parallels the Department’s mission and emphasizes quality of life, economic development, and environmental protection improvements in all communities, particularly those far removed from decision-making. The EJ policies at MDE are working to improve the quality of life in communities through a vision of partnerships and collaborations. A primary goal of EJ policies is to integrate the goals of all concerned parties to resolve concerns and assist in revitalization efforts through approaches that are aimed at protecting and restoring the environment, as well as stimulating economic growth and safe, healthy communities. Other key components of the EJ efforts at MDE include initiating collaborations among government, public, and private stakeholders; developing new platforms for public participation, community, and business participation; and, creating new and innovative ideas to assist in land and community revitalization.

    Pollution Prevention (P2)
    MDE’s Pollution Prevention program assists businesses in adopting P2 practices that reduce pollution at the source, including conserving water and energy resources. Pollution Prevention is an approach that aims to prevent pollution, avoiding treatment and recycling when there are avoidance/efficiency options. Pollution prevention is the Department’s preferred approach to dealing with environmental pollution. Pollution prevention enables the Department to encourage businesses to go beyond compliance. Results and best practices are shared through case studies and articles, as well as through a pollution prevention recognition program managed by MDE called the Maryland Green Registry. The P2 services currently offered by MDE include:

        • Environmental Management System Implementation Assistance
        • On-Site Pollution Prevention Technical Assistance
        • Pollution Prevention Intern Program
        • Lean & Clean Assessments

    There are a variety of tools being utilized to evaluate Maryland’s sustainability activities. Maryland’s major programs and progress are measured through the Governor’s StateSTAT process. StateSTAT is a performance-measurement and management tool implemented by Governor Martin O'Malley to make Maryland state government more accountable and efficient.

    Additionally, the Governor’s office created BaySTAT to assess, coordinate, and target Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay restoration programs and to provide citizens with a way to track our progress. BaySTAT has helped identify strategies, actions, and short-term milestones to restore Chesapeake Bay.
    Maryland also utilizes interactive mapping tools to track its progress. Tools such as GrowthPrint, GreenPrint and AgPrint are helping guide growth and protection of Maryland’s most important landscapes.

    Maryland developed its Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) to measure how development activities impact long-term prosperity, both positively and negatively. Traditional indicators like the Gross Domestic/State Products address only economic transactions. They do not include environmental and social costs, quality of life, or the significant contributions of our natural systems. The GPI is factoring social and environmental costs and values into traditional economic indicators. The GPI helps the state find a balance between advancing economic gain and ensuring social well-being.

  • Green Report: Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ)

    Source: ECOS Green Report: Case Studies on State Efforts to Achieve Sustainability, March 2012 [254] [Used with permission from the Environmental Research Institute of the States (ERIS), the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), and the State of Wyoming]
    Suite of sustainability tools: social network analysis; sustainability impact assessment
    The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) does not have an official definition for sustainability at this time.
    WDEQ has a robust Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP) that is involved in state sustainability and pollution prevention planning. Other state agencies also have a variety of sustainability efforts.

    Pollution Prevention                  
    In 2011, a new rule took effect in Wyoming stating that facilities must be implementing a P2 Plan consistent with the promulgated Voluntary Remediation Program (VRP) law in order to be eligible to enter a contaminated site into the VRP. The VRP launched a statewide outreach campaign utilizing a variety of media to inform Wyoming facility owners and operators about Pollution Prevention Planning and the new rule. Components of the outreach campaign included:

    • A mass mailing to more than 15,000 entities in Wyoming;
    • Development of two 60-second P2 public service announcements (PSAs) that aired on multiple radio stations over several months;
    • Development of two 30-second PSAs in video format that aired on both local and cable TV outlets statewide;
    • Two half-page color display PSAs published in the only state-wide newspaper in Wyoming; and,
    • Development of an “Interactive Toolbox” for the VRP website that provides Best Management Practices for P2, and a variety of other electronic P2 resources for Wyoming business owners and operators.

    While the outreach campaign served several purposes, the VRP believes P2 is an important component of sustainability in Wyoming. Reducing pollution sources, minimizing waste, and preventing environmental contaminate spills are all goals of P2, and in accomplishing those goals, continued sustainable use of Wyoming’s natural resources is an additional benefit.

    Green and Sustainable Remediation
    The Wyoming Environmental Quality Act requires the VRP to consider various balancing criteria when evaluating and selecting remedies for contaminated sites [§35-11-1605(b)]. Many of these balancing criteria aid the VRP in evaluating the sustainability of a potential site remedy by considering: long-term risks to human health and the environment; risks to workers and the community from remedy construction and implementation; short- and long-term disruptions to land use; traffic disruptions; visual, noise, and odor impacts; disruptions to ecological receptors; impacts to habitat; and, cost.

    In addition to considering the above-mentioned balancing criteria during remedy selection, the VRP recently developed a draft Green and Sustainable Remediation (GSR) policy and guidance for implementation at contaminated sites enrolled in the program. The goal of the GSR policy and guidance is to minimize the environmental impacts of, and increase the sustainability of, the overall cleanup process at VRP sites. GSR concepts and practices take into consideration the potential adverse environmental and social impacts of contaminated site remedies, and once finalized, the GSR policy and guidance will complement the VRP’s commitment to encourage, support, and implement GSR efforts at contaminated sites in Wyoming.

    The draft GSR policy and guidance advocate the use of GSR best management practices (BMPs) during all phases of the site remediation process, while meeting the balancing criteria for remediation. GSR BMPs are practices that, when implemented as standard protocol during site cleanup help to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of site investigation and remedy implementation activities and increase the overall sustainability of the cleanup project. The GSR BMPs highlighted in the draft VRP guidance focus on:

    • reducing the quantity of energy and non-renewable resources required to implement site remedies;
    • reducing the quantity of emissions and waste generated as remedy by-products, and;
    • improving community relations (and realizing other social benefits) during the site cleanup process.

    The draft GSR guidance also advocates the use of free online tools for evaluating quantitative GSR metrics such as emissions and the use of non-renewable resources. The draft GSR policy and guidance requests that VRP Project Managers and responsible parties document GSR efforts in site work plans and reports. Subsequent to finalization and implementation of the GSR policy and guidance, the VRP plans to establish a GSR webpage to highlight GSR success stories. The VRP’s goal is to finalize and implement the draft GSR policy and guidance in 2012.

    It is important to note that the GSR policy and guidance is still in draft form and is therefore considered internal guidance until finalized.

  • Sustainable Rain Water Runoff Management at Shepherd Creek

    Sources: EPA Office of Research and Development[271]
    Suite of sustainability tools: sustainability impact assessment; collaborative problem-solving

    Stormwater runoff is a major concern for water management, particularly for residential and urban areas with combined sewage overflows. In these systems, stormwater runoff and raw sewage is released into waterways without water treatment during heavy rainfall conditions as storm sewer capacity is exceeded. In Cincinnati, Ohio, such releases raise concerns for Shepherd Creek, which ultimately drains into the Ohio River. Rather than increasing water treatment capacity, EPA ORD partnered with other stakeholders to create a program in Cincinnati that reduces stormwater runoff by developing green infrastructure. This program increases the permeable surface area, which results in more ground absorption of rain water.

    The goal has been to engage citizens and other stakeholders to make stormwater management a part of everyday life for sustained effectiveness. EPA conducted a field experiment to reduce runoff into Shepherd Creek as a practical test of sustainability through the exchange of social and technological resources. The test was to develop market-based incentives to persuade residents to decrease their stormwater runoff. EPA offered rain barrels and rain gardens for installation on private property in a reverse auction on eBay. In the auction, EPA asked residents the amount they wanted EPA to pay them to install rain barrels or rain gardens. Remarkably, about 66% of respondents said “0.” They were willing to accept rain barrels and gardens if they received assistance in setting them up. Approximately 25% of households participated in the auction.

    The EPA measured several parameters of water quality over the course of the project as well as an “environmental benefits index.” In 2007 and 2008, a total of 270 rain barrels and 130 rain gardens were installed. ORD is exploring further economic incentives by creating a new “credit calculator,” based on a model in Germany, to put economic value on the cost savings to the municipality in order to credit homeowners’ water bill as an added incentive to participate.

    This project used a market-based approach to reduce regulatory compliance costs by being flexible about how compliance is reached. The Shepherd Creek project illustrates how sustainability projects can simultaneously promote social equity, economic stabilization and improved environmental quality along with Clean Water Act compliance.

  • Measuring Sustainability

    Source: EPA Office of Research and Development [272]
    Suite of sustainability tools: sustainability impact assessment; collaborative problem-solving; environmental footprint analysis; resilience analysis
    “There is no definition of good health; however, you know if your health is getting better or worse,” says Heriberto Cabezas, PhD, senior science advisor to the Sustainable Technology Division in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Cabezas and colleagues Matthew Hopton, PhD and Matthew Heberling, PhD recently finished co-leading a collaborative pilot study designed to help scientists know whether the environmental health of a region is declining or improving. He and his research partners explored ways to measure and monitor whether a large area of south-central Colorado, San Luis Basin, has been moving toward or away from sustainability.

    The ultimate goal of the research is to provide information that will help decision-makers determine if a given region is in on a sustainable path.
    Sustainability is a simple but powerful principle that recognizes that the natural environment is the foundation for human survival and well-being. Achieving sustainability means creating and maintaining the conditions with which people and nature can coexist in productive harmony—conditions that provide people with social, economic and other benefits—today and in future generations. Developing the science and engineering that people need to move in that direction is the “true north” of EPA’s collective research and development efforts.

    As one can imagine, assessing and measuring something as broad as sustainability across a large area is a major challenge. To start, Cabezas and his co-workers sought research partners from a broad spectrum of disciplines. He assembled a multidisciplinary team with the capabilities and expertise to examine several fundamental components of an environmental system and how these components relate to key aspects of human well being, including social and economic factors.

    In the San Luis Basin, the team found an ideal research site for their pilot study. The area is large enough to require complex data collection and analysis, but somewhat limited in scope with easily defined, natural hydrological boundaries and a limited population (around 50,000). Large amounts of publicly owned land simplified access for data collection and environmental monitoring. In addition, government officials from EPA’s local Region 8 (mountains and plains) and the National Park service expressed support for the study. 

    Approximately the size of Massachusetts, the area contains seven counties, the Upper Rio Grande River Basin, the San Luis Valley, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

    The team set out to develop a straightforward, affordable method to measure and monitor sustainability for the area. To do so, researchers set three primary objectives: (1) determine if existing historical data sets could be used to estimate sustainability at a regional scale; (2) calculate sustainability metrics through time (1980–2005); and, (3) compare and contrast the results they found to determine if the region is moving toward or away from sustainability. 

    Cabezas and the team utilized available environmental, economic, and social data to calculate sustainability across four different metrics (standards of measurement). Each metric provides insight into important sustainability measurements. The “ecological footprint” metric, for example, linked the total area of biologically productive land available with measurements of human consumption and waste generation. An aggregate calculation of how much “natural capital” is being used or conserved (the “Green Net Regional Product” metric) was another. The researchers used other metrics to explore aggregate measurements of energy flows and inputs (the “Energy” metric), and the overall stability and order of natural systems (“Fisher Information and Order”).

    Together, the four metrics provide information to answer basic questions central to determining sustainability: How well can a region cope with change? How healthy is it economically? Is its energy use self-sufficient? Is its human population causing ecological damage?

    An example of how using sustainability metrics can illuminate what threatens a region’s long-term sustainability is the snowpack found on the high mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley. “The existence of stored water at high elevations allows all of the geopotential energy of this water to be released in a short period of time, and in the process, it recharges the groundwater and maintains unique geological an ecological features of the valley like the Great Sand Dunes and wetlands. One consequence of this fact is that the natural and agricultural systems of the region are vulnerable to climate changes that affect the snowpack,” Cabezas and fellow co-authors point out.[259]

    When all their calculations where completed, the team found evidence that over time the area was slightly trending away from a sustainability. “The trend away from sustainability is slight, so our advice to the local community in the San Luis Valley and to EPA Region 8 was that while no immediate corrective action is warranted, plans do have to be developed to move the trend back to sustainability” explains Cabezas. “Action is being taken to do that exactly. The first step is the awarding of an EPA contract for a third party to work with Region 8 and the local community in the San Luis Basin to implement the metrics and methods developed as part of the project in local decision-making.”

    Now that the major part of the pilot has concluded, Cabezas hopes that an organization will step up to continue monitoring the San Luis Basin. The team has developed user interfaces and spreadsheets to calculate the metrics and is ready to provide any technical support that the community needs. “The next part of the project is to work with the public in developing a means of implementing these ideas into public decision-making,” he says.
    Cabezas and the team were recognized with the 2011 Science Award from the EPA Region 8 Administrator. “This was the first place anywhere that this work has been tried, so the project was the proof of concept,” says Cabezas. Following its success, a second project using Puerto Rico as a test site is planned under the leadership of Drs. Hopton and Heberling.

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