Managing Environment: Sustainability – The EHS Challenge

Sustainability has been defined as development that meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of the future. What does this mean to EHS professionals?

Sustainability has become the catch word for most of the international community of NGOs, stock analysts, banks, governments and consumer groups. It is most prominent in Europe, but gaining increasing attention in most of the major U.S.-based companies, especially those that operate internationally.

This is evidenced by the growth in companies issuing public sustainability reports (more than 1,000 in 2008, according to the Global Report Initiative) and participating in organizations such as the Carbon Disclosure Project (more than 2,000, according to the project). Some countries, such as France, even require what essentially is the equivalent of sustainability reporting for members of the CAC 40 in their annual financial reporting.

Sustainability has its origins in the Bruntland Report, released on behalf of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. In the report, “Our Common Future,” Bruntland defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, taking responsibility to maintain or improve the environment.

Over subsequent years, it has morphed into what has been termed “the three-legged stool” of social, economic and environmental sustainability. In fact, safety and industrial hygiene generally have been classified within the social aspects of sustainability as part of the right to be safe in a healthful work environment. The social and economic aspects have been greatly influenced by the myriad of NGOs and others. It is seen by most as more than just acting responsibly and economic progress for the company. It includes aspects of economic fairness to communities (such as Fair Trade), social policies for local workers, contributions to social causes and sustainability in the supply chain.

This article focuses on the environmental aspects and, more specifically, on providing a brief overview on one of the three big issues in environmental sustainability: climate change and energy. (The other two big issues are waste and water, which will be addressed in future articles.)

CLIMATE CHANGE

Anyone who does not follow the gospel of “An Inconvenient Truth” is considered by many of the prominent international NGOs as a heretic. This is especially true in Europe. Whether or not you are a proponent of the immediacy of the global warming threat, not many would argue with the concept of eco-efficiency as promoted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

Resource conservation through efficiency has been a basic tenant for most of the environmental community for a long time. In the end, eco-efficiency of energy use translates to lower carbon emissions and economic benefits. The counter argument is that it is the total of emissions that really counts and not the efficiency of producing a single product. This means that one must use “green power” if growth is in the corporate agenda. The ideal solution is a combination of conservation, eco-efficiency and the use of “green power.”

How does one develop a strategy for addressing the issue of global warming? (Even if you are not a proponent, you will still need to address the issue if your customers and other stakeholders are proponents.)

The obvious first step is to know what emissions are being generated by your operations. There has been a huge amount written on this seemingly simple concept. The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) has suggested a range of boundaries known as Scope 1, Scope 2 and Scope 3. Scope 1 includes only the on-site product of greenhouse gases (GHG), while Scope 2 is on-site GHG plus GHG from energy delivered on-site (steam or electricity most commonly). Scope 3, which is the most complicated, is GHG emissions within the entire supply chain. Scope 1 obviously is the least complicated but most analysts have established a benchmark of at least Scope 1 and 2.

ESTIMATING EMISSIONS

There are many estimation techniques that can be used to calculate Scope 1 and 2 emissions. However, the best technique is to use estimations based on actual energy use (plus any GHG generated by processes). In the end, the best approach is to make the investment and install metering on all major lines and processes and energy uses (all forms of energy including natural gas, electricity, steam, compressed air, etc.).

The old business adage of “what gets measured gets managed” is applicable here. This is something that can take a considerable amount of time (e.g., 1 or 2 years), since some processes must be shut down to install metering. Extensive metering is necessary to be able to maximize efficiencies.

Once the metering is done, it is relatively easy to do the efficiency calculations to derive the amount of energy used per process or product. This typically is expressed as kilowatt-hours (or joules or other energy measure) per product or process (e.g., mixing, curing, etc.). Monthly publication of these values especially is helpful for benchmarking processes or similar sites. This same approach can be used for research facilities, warehousing and administrative sites.

In most factories, major energy users are heating processes, compressors and lighting. Typically, 30 to 50 percent increases in efficiency can be achieved by fixing leaks in compressed air lines and steam lines, installing high efficiency boilers, installing high efficiency lighting (such as T8) and other such measures. Increasing efficiency always should be considered first before looking at low-emission energy sources.

Calculating the CO2 equivalent emissions in tons is done using charts provided by various sources, such as the International Energy Agency or the WBCSD or even data provided by the energy supplier. In all cases, the results are recommended to be in accordance with the GHG Protocol. EPA also provides extensive guidance on this issue.

GREEN POWER

There are a number of options for using “green power.” Green power is energy from renewable sources (“sustainable” sources). These include solar (usually photovoltaic but also solar thermal), wind, biomass (methane or renewable fuels), low-impact hydro, wave and geothermal. It also can include others sources such as fuel cell and, for some governments, nuclear.

Green power can be generated on-site or by purchasing renewable energy credits (REC). RECs are the U.S. system for off-setting. This means that you buy and retire power generated by renewable sources, thereby off-setting your own GHG emissions. Inherent in the system is the concept that the credits only can be used once (you cannot “double count” and you and the producer both cannot take credit for the green power). The rationale for this is that the off setting will encourage the generation of green power.

Ideally, the installation of on-site green power is the best solution, as there are other benefits such as reduced distribution systems, lower losses, etc. However, many companies, especially those with low energy requirements, may not want to be in the business of power generation. There also are “economies of scale” issues. Alternatives are “power purchase agreements” and other arrangements where a third party constructs, operates and maintains the green power on-site or off-site. In every case except for buying RECs, one actually must use the green power and not simply rent space for installation of facilities in order to ethically take credit for it. Thus, installation and use of a green power source that includes selling of the RECs would be considered by most as “double counting.”

BAD NEWS/GOOD NEWS

There is little doubt that the cost of energy will increase at a rate that is faster than the rate of inflation, independent of the outcome of “cap and trade.” The end of the current recession and economic recovery will determine the rate of change.

The good news is that most organizations will benefit from the increasing use of green power in the national grid. This will result in lower GHG emissions, assuming that power use remains constant.


Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP, is a consultant in sustainability and EHS. He is a former senior vice president, L'Oreal, and a past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He can be reached at [email protected].

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