ISO 14001 environmental management systems business unusual

Issue 37 – April 2012

This article by Lynn Johansson, an expert on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) technical committee (TC) 207, 'Environmental management', was first published in ISO Focus+, January 2012. It is summarised with permission from ISO.

I believe that ISO 14001:2004 Environmental management systems – Requirements with guidance for use can be used to dramatically accelerate better management of humankind's relationship with the environment. This requires that we demonstrate its true value today. Clearly, our future depends on radically reducing our collective footprint and our unsustainable debt.

How did humanity get to be so mired in debt? Let's start at the beginning.

Astronomers believe that 12 to 20 billion years ago, a big bang occurred that exploded matter into the universe. As aeons passed, the matter cooled and condensed into galaxies and stars. Our galactic interest revolves around our Sun and, of course, our home planet – Earth.

If all the major events that led to today were compressed into a 24-hour period, humans would have only lived for 2 seconds. In a mere fraction of that time, human activities have immeasurably altered the face of the planet. Some of these changes are visible from space, such as the desertification of Lake Chad.

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling fiasco off the coast of Louisiana released approximately 4.9 million barrels or 205.8 million gallons of crude oil, making it the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.

We have yet to work within the rules of Mother Nature. Is she now returning fire?

For example, as a consequence of Eyjafjallajökull's eruption, one of Iceland's smaller ice-cap covered volcanoes, the International Air Transport Association estimated that the airline industry worldwide lost US$200 million a day during the air travel disruptions.

The media reports that economic losses caused by extreme weather in the first 6 months of 2011 are five times the average of the previous decade. The cost for that six-month period was US$265 billion; whereas from 2001 to 2010, costs totalled USD$47.4 billion. Note, too, that these are only numbers that relate to 'special events'. These numbers do not demonstrate the daily inefficiencies that plague our relationship with Mother Nature.

Ecological debt

We are in debt ecologically. In the late 1980s, Germany summarised an Ecological Balance Sheet showing the accumulation of everyday inefficiency, which was well in excess of 103.5 thousand million Deutsche marks. That was for just one country – one admired for its culture of quality and efficiency.

According to the Global Footprint Network, humans overshot the planet's biocapacity limit in 1987. Biocapacity is the capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and to absorb carbon dioxide generated by humans, using current management schemes and extraction technologies.

'Useful biological materials' are defined as those used by the human economy. Hence what is considered 'useful' can change from year to year, fluctuating like commodities. Yearly, the Earth Overshoot Day is calculated. It marks an unfortunate milestone: it is the day on which we exhaust our ecological budget for the year. In 1980, it was 11 December. By 2010 it happened on 21 August. By 2036, again projecting forward, it could be as early as 5 May – a very disturbing thought!

Where is this heading? Humans still operate at high levels of chronic inefficiency as compared to Mother Nature, due in part to our eco-illiteracy. While natural disaster piques our attention, chronic human inefficiency is the underwater iceberg.

We exist in a culture of accelerating debt. If the world financial debt was evenly spread over the 6.9 billion people, in 2011 we would each have another US$11,000 of debt. That is up from US$158 per capita in 1991. (As a Canadian citizen, my portion of the national debt is already US$38,234.41.

If we erred on projecting our debt into 2036, without any of what renowned author Nassim Taleb refers to as 'black swan' events, spread with equal thickness, per capita financial debt conservatively will be just under US$25,000. The story does not end here. There is a lot of instability in the world at the moment.

Grey tsunami

How will society be able to cope with this debt? It could be challenging for we are entering the era of the grey tsunami. The post-WWII babies are ageing, and by 2036, many of us will be considered dependants, that is, we will be over 65.

If we look at Canadian statistics as an example, while today our dependent population is about 44%, by 2036 it will have ballooned to over 66%. This will largely be due to the over-65 crowd. This means 1.5 dependents for 1 worker, causing some to have 'boomerangst' even now. Is it 'game over'?

Absolutely not. However, anyone who believes they can stay the course of 'business as usual' has their head in the sand. We are at a turning point, as much of last century's infrastructure is in need of replacement, including outmoded highways, energy and communication networks, water treatment facilities, factories – even economic models. Our inefficiency in current product design hovers around 94% (an estimation by weight of the ratio of resources consumed and waste generated compared to the final product). Opportunity for improvement is everywhere.

We are facing what represents the single largest challenge ever known to humans, which will test our collective creativity and intellectual spirit as never before. As the problem is not contained to one continent or one country, everyone must be part of the solution.

What we need is nothing less than a full-scale industrial revolution in which we drive radical changes by embracing the rules of Mother Nature. We need to green innovation enabling us to do much better with less; the benefit being innovation is a primary driver of economic growth.

Biomimicry, the science and art of mimicking Mother Nature, is demonstrating that radical shifts in efficiency are possible. It will require much greater collaboration: between engineers and biologists; between companies upstream and downstream in supply chains; between governments, internationally, nationally, regionally, and locally, and the public.

Better communication

How can collaboration be enhanced? ISO 14001 is under used. While many hold the number of certificates out as the measure of its success, conservatively there are 143 million legally constituted entities on the planet, as many as 70% have not even heard of ISO 14001. For me this gap reinforces a critical need for us to be more innovative in how we market ISO 14001 – now.

I think ISO 14001 has the potential for being a good tool for fostering collaboration and innovation because it enables users to have a common framework. Better communication between individuals, governments, and entities is important, and this is being enabled by the web – LinkedIn, Skype, and other social media that offer instant connection, including face-to-face in some cases. It is time to show the value of ISO 14001 in a 'business unusual' market. Are you ready?

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Published in environment.

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