Thursday, August 13, 2009

Environmental Aspects (ISO 14001:2004, 4.3.1)

The requirement of ?4.3.1 of ISO 14001 is to establish and maintain procedures 1) for identifying the environmental aspects of the organization’s activities, products, and services that it can control and those that it can influence and 2) for determining which of those aspects have or can have a significant impact on the environment. Understanding the requirement of this element of ISO 14001 is central to understanding the concept of an environmental management system.
1 .A single manufacturing facility has potentially hundreds of environmental aspects. How far must it go in identifying its environmental aspects to satisfy the terms of the requirement? ISO 14001 specifies that the organization is to identify those aspects that it can control and those that it can influence and that it must also take into account planned or new developments and new or modified activities, products, and services. These stipulations in the requirements, without actually drawing boundaries on how far the organization must go in identifying environmental aspects, at least establish some categories of aspect that must be considered. Beyond this principle, each organization must identify its aspects comprehensively enough so as to not fail to identify a significant aspect or a legal requirement. An objection to comprehensive identification of aspects is that the organization may become so immersed in aspects identification that it loses sight of the end objective of the procedure, which is to determine significance.
2. Significant impact is not a stand-alone term in ?4.3.1.
It is accompanied by the phrase impact on the environment_ and environment_ is a defined term (see definition of environment, ?3.5). Significant aspects, then, are those environmental aspects that have or can have significant impacts on air, water, land, natural resources, flora, fauna, and humans. The organization determines, using its own criteria, what magnitude of impact on these seven environmental receptors constitutes a significant impact. Whether an aspect is regulated is not intended to be a factor in determining significance.
3. Proper execution of the environmental aspects procedure is important, in part, because it lifts environmental management out of the regulatory compliance mode and into the mode of systematically identifying environmental aspects and impacts and considering their consequences for the environment, irrespective of regulation. The organization that rigorously applies the environmental aspects procedure discovers many opportunities to improve environmental performance that regulation does not address, including:
• Use of energy
• Consumption of materials
• Environmental impacts of employee activities
•Environmental impacts of products and by-products post-manufacture, including distribution, use, reuse, and disposal
• Environmental impacts of services
• Unregulated waste streams such as carbon dioxide
Aspects vs. Impacts – Environmental aspects and environmental impacts differ by definition from one another in that an aspect is an element of an organization’s activities, products or services that can interact (emphasis added) with the environment_ while an impact is any change (emphasis added) to the environment_ resulting from an organization’s environmental aspects._ An aspect, then, is a precursor to an impact and an impact occurs when the aspect interacts with and changes the environment.
When identifying its aspects and impacts, the organization may find that there are more than one potential impacts associated with any given aspect. For example, an environmental aspect of a coal-fired power generation facility is stack emissions containing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and carbon. These emissions change the environment and become impacts by contaminating plants, soil, and surface waters; contributing to the formation of ground-level ozone; causing or exacerbating heart and lung disease in humans; entering the aquatic food chain and impairing reproductive, immune, and endocrine systems; and contributing to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide leading to global warming. One aspect, stack emissions, then can generate at least five impacts.
Other organizations, applying benefit/cost analyses to their corrective actions, may discover that creation of a beneficial impact provides a greater environmental benefit than elimination of an adverse impact.
The introduction of the beneficial environmental impact concept into the ISO 14001 Terms and Definitions suggests that it was considered by some of the ISO 14001:1996 drafters as a placeholder for the future possibility of offsetting adverse impacts with beneficial and, on balance, achieving an environmentally neutral organization.
Control and Influence – The environmental aspects procedure requires the organization to identify those environmental aspects that it can control and those that it can influence._ Circumstances where control and influence are considered separately can occur where the environmental aspects of products or services are concerned. Some examples illustrate the case:
1. No control, no influence – When an organization manufactures a product, such as lumber, and sells it to a customer that can use the product in any way that it wishes, the organization has no control over the environmental aspects of the product’s use. The customer could use the product benignly as in the manufacture of a table or to damage the environment by burning the lumber and releasing its carbon into the atmosphere. In this case, the organization would not be expected to have either control or influence over the environmental aspects of the product.
2. Control, no influence – When an organization’s environmental aspect is the use of electric power generated from coal, it may be able to control its use of electric power by using less, by buying from a different, less environmentally damaging source, or by generating its own power. Rarely, however, does the organization have influence over the power generator to an extent that it could influence it to reduce the environmental impacts of power production.
3. Influence, no control – When an organization manufactures a product, such as an automobile, which is sold to the customer without restrictions on its use, the organization may be said to have no control over the environmental aspects of the product’s use. The organization may, however, be able to assert influence with the inclusion of owner’s manuals containing instructions for low impact use of the product.
4. Control and influence – When an organization buys a product built to its specifications, it has control over the products’ environmental aspects in the sense that it can determine the environmental aspects of the product. In this case, control also includes influence.
Significant Impacts – ISO 14001 does not provide guidance as to what constitutes a significant impact on the environment_, leaving that determination to the organization.
Many organizations ignore the qualifying phrase, impact on the environment_, and add additional criteria to what they determine to be significant impacts. For example, many organizations decide that aspects that are the subject of regulation, irrespective of impact to the environment, or that can cause damage to business reputation, are significant. Legal requirements, however, are identified in ?4.3.2 and legal requirements and business requirements are specifically considered when the organization establishes its objectives and targets (?4.3.3). Adding criteria that are not relevant to impact on the environment in the determination of significance distorts the outcome of procedures for environmental aspects and objectives and targets by giving these criteria undue weight in the determination of significance. For example, an environmental aspect that is significant only because its disclosure might affect the organization’s reputation is best dealt with in the Public Relations Department rather than as an environmental aspect.
Determination of significance is a yes or no question, not a determination of relative value. It is possible, therefore, that the execution of the environmental aspects procedure will result in the determination that the organization has no significant aspects. While the organization may elect to rank its aspects from most significant to least significant, that does not necessarily mean that any rise to the level of significant impact on the environment.
Where the impact occurs can be material to determination of significance. For example, a coal-fired power plant’s air emissions can interact with the environment; these emissions are clearly environmental aspects. Whether they significantly impact the environment may depend upon where the interaction with the environment occurs.
Part of the importance of establishing significance lies in the fact that the potentially significant environmental impacts become a focus of Objectives and Targets (?4.3.3), Competence (?4.4.2), Operational Controls (?4.4.6), and Monitoring and Measurement (?4.5.1) requirements.
An organization that determines that aspects are significant because of regulation or business reputation increases the amount of work it must do in these areas.
ISO 14001 does not require the organization to establish objectives and targets for each significant environmental aspect. On the one hand, the absence of a requirement to set objectives and targets for all significant aspects gives organizations latitude to conform to the requirements of ISO 14001 while not presently dealing, for example, with the significant environmental aspects of products. On the other, a requirement to establish objectives and targets for all identified significant aspects could easily overwhelm an organization having many significant aspects. Without this latitude, organizations might choose to ignore the existence of significant aspects that they believe are insurmountable or even decide not to implement ISO 14001. As it is, many organizations choose to deny the existence of significant aspects about which they feel they can do nothing.