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| Innovative tools for dealing with complexity in environmental decision-making



Environmental considerations have become an integral part of policy-making for governments and local authorities. However, environmental factors are complex, they are many and they have many interactions, leading to an array of decision-support tools. By consolidating the best parts of these tools, the SusTools project developed an integrated methodology to help decision-makers apply a practical approach to complex issues, such as waste management and the use of fertilisers.

Tools for Sustainable Development
Tools for Sustainable Development
How we farm our countryside, how we dispose of our waste, where our roads will go, and whether land is used for agriculture, tourism or housing – these are the types of decisions that regularly confront public authorities and decision-makers. These decisions involve choosing between options that usually have different consequences for the natural environment. Over the last decade, in line with commitments to combating climate change and supporting sustainable development, environmental considerations have played a growing role in such decision-making.

To help decision-makers take proper account of environmental concerns, a variety of independent tools for evaluating environmental policy options have been developed over the years – impact pathway analysis (IPA), life-cycle impact assessment (LCA), and multi-criteria analysis (MCA) to name but a few. However, these tools, although powerful in some areas, are not always effective for assessing the numerous and complex trade-offs between competing environmental policy options. To address this fragmentation, the EU-funded SusTools project reviewed the most common methodologies in environmental problem analysis, listing their strengths and weaknesses, fields of application, and any particular problems that can arise when applying them. Then it combined the best aspects of these tools into an integrated framework, which gives a more coherent picture of the costs and benefits and the winners and losers over a wide range of environmental policy issues.


Right tools for the right job

The key steps of the integrated framework are first to use LCA to define the system boundaries and list the environmental burdens. Then, the impacts and costs of environmental damage are quantified by means of an IPA, followed by a cost-benefit analysis of possible actions to reduce these impacts. In all steps, easily understandable indicators are defined. This facilitates multi-criteria analysis involving a wide range of stakeholders and brings non-quantifiable aspects, such as people’s perceptions, into the analysis. Finally, the preferred policy option is selected. “By using the integrated framework, decisions can be based on more complete information than if any single tool had been used alone,” says Ari Rabl, SusTool’s coordinator from the Ecole des Mines de Paris in France.

But Rabl warns: “A great danger in complex analysis arises if tools are wrongly applied – this undermines the whole result.” Therefore, the consortium members, who have extensive experience in the analysis of environmental problems, listed the dangers in applying each of the tools; then a user-checklist was compiled to help avoid these often elementary but dangerous errors.

The SusTools integrated framework is related to the DPSIR framework, often used in structuring environmental problems (see Table 1): starting with a Demand/Driver (e.g. for nitrogen fertilisers); which causes a Pressure (formation of nitrates that are leached); resulting in a State (increased amounts of nitrates in drinking water); which has an Impact (adverse health outcomes); requiring a Response (e.g. limit fertiliser use or water purification). This front-to-back structure of the DPSIR framework, which links all the elements in the decision-making process, is an important feature that prompts users to consider the wider context. For example, are there other demands/drivers that are generating the same pressure on the environment? Or are there other demands/drivers that have different pressures but the same impacts?

Table 1. Linking the individual tools to the DPSIR framework. V shows cases where a tool is relevant to a stage of the framework (even if relevance is very limited), VV shows the stages that the outputs of each tool are most concerned with

Sustainability indicators

Life cycle assessment

Multi-criteria analysis

Cost-effectiveness analysis

Impact pathway analysis

Cost-benefit analysis

Precautionary principle

Demand/Driver

V

V

V

V

Pressure

VV

VV

V

V

V

State

VV

V

V

V

V

Impact

V

V

VV

Response

V

VV

VV

VV

VV

The integrated framework of SusTools was successfully tested in case studies. The first examined the choice between waste disposal by landfill or incineration in France, and the second compared different waste incineration technologies in Flanders (Belgium). In both cases, technologies ranging from energy recovery to disposal  were assessed and compared on the basis of the environmental damage caused.

In a third case study, the damage costs due to nitrogen fertiliser used in agriculture were modelled. Nitrogen fertiliser releases the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide to the atmosphere; it also leaches into the water supply causing severe damage to aquatic life. For this reason its use is controlled in many Member States. Given the severity of the damage, the study went further and looked at policy options to internalise the external costs of using such fertilisers, comparing environmental taxation, tradable permits, improved practices and restrictions on use. Applying the framework to fertiliser use in the UK showed an optimum economic usage for farmers, and a different, socially optimum usage, that is lower. ”If the damage costs of fertiliser are internalised by free permits, the loss of income for farmers is very small,” reports Rabl, but he cautions, “The analysis highlights that emissions and leaching are very dependent on local climate and soil conditions, so the damage costs should be calculated for the specific local conditions before choosing the best option”.


Applying the framework

The case studies were presented to stakeholders at workshops using a multi-criteria analysis approach and the results supported the applicability of the integrated framework. The consortium, with the help of the Environment Centre of Charles University in Prague and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, both partners in Sustools, then implemented the framework in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania, deriving the total external costs of fertiliser use in each country, which is critical to understanding how they arise and how they might be treated. Similarly, the consortium derived the external costs of actual landfill and incineration activities in these countries. They then went on to consider mitigation options based on energy recovery.

Rabl concludes: “All this is valuable information for policy-makers in these countries who are seeking sustainable development solutions to environmental problems. This is possible because of the robustness of the integrated framework.” In fact, the SusTools analysis on waste was considered for the preparation of the Impact Assessment of the Waste Thematic Strategy by the Commission.

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