It’s that festive time of the year, environmental practitioners let’s be positive!

It’s the time of the year when we all start to feel a bit happier than usual, holidays are on their way and as such we can all recharge our batteries and spend some time with our friends and family. I think it’s easy when you are involved in environmental management to be miserable. In some ways I wonder if I am in the business of gloom and doom, after all the process of training people about environmental management generally starts off with a long trawl through how humanity is destroying the environment. From climate change, to waste production to plastic pollution etc we seem to be having a significant impact on our planet.

However, we should consider that a risk presents an opportunity. In ISO 14001:2015 the term risk and opportunity are defined as being potential adverse effects (or threats) and potential beneficial effects (or opportunities). If we consider this for a minute, we therefore need to clearly identify a problem area, or a risk, before we can identify an improvement to that problem, or an opportunity. We need to be miserable before we can be positive!

An organisation needs a systematic framework in place to identify and assess organisational environmental risks. Organisations that are ISO 14001 certified must understand the environmental aspects and impacts (or risks) associated with its activities, products or services, evaluate the importance of these risks and document the findings.

Generally, the process involves assessing what a business does in some detail, breaking activities down into manageable chunks, followed by working out how organisational activities interact with the environment (such as materials usage, energy usage, waste production and pollution production). These are called ‘environmental aspects’. The next stage involves determining how each aspect harms the environment, which are generally known as ‘environmental impacts’. So, for example driving a car (activity) could lead to emissions of carbon dioxide (environmental aspect) which would contribute to climate change (environmental impact). We then need some way of determining what is significant or important. There are many ways to do this, but a common approach is to consider the likelihood (how often it occurs) and consequences (the scale of the effect should it occur) of the aspect and impact. Next there is a need to document aspects and impacts, this is often completed by identifying aspects and impacts in the form of a register. If you want to another example, take a look at another blog post I wrote on this topic a few years back (shameless self-promotion over!).

By completing an aspect and impacts assessment, if done properly, we should now be aware of the significant environmental risks of the organisation. Our next stage is to move onto opportunities. I have a bit of mantra when running courses that goes something along the lines of ‘a risk creates an opportunity’. For our negative environmental aspects and impacts we should be positive as this then creates an opportunity to improve. For our example of carbon dioxide emissions from a car this gives us an opportunity to prevent or reduce those emissions and reduce our carbon footprint. Identifying appropriate opportunities moves our process on from assessment to prevention and control. As with assessment we need a framework for improvement. This is achieved by considering at least one broad improvement aim for each aspect and impact, so let’s say reduction in carbon dioxide emissions for our driving example. Followed by an action plan of how this aim will be met, that could by based around a plan, do check, act approach. Good practice requires that in most cases objectives are SMART , that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound. We have now moved from risk assessment to having clearly identified opportunities for improvement.

You can all too easily concentrate on the damage that we are doing to the environment as an environmental practitioner and feel overwhelmed. It is however important to realise that when we identify a key issue that we look on this positively in that it creates an opportunity to improve. Now we are aware of it we can do something about it and reduce the impact that humanity is having on the environment.

Have a great holiday and a happy new year!

John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MSc, MIEMA

With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.