Environmental Governance

Traditionally, states and provinces have had a "Ministry/Department of Environment" whose purpose has to been to protect the health and well being of their constituents. Regulations are created with the intention of controlling corporate and public behavior to meet various objectives. It has become increasingly clear as we look towards a sustainable future (e.g. living in a way that could remain stable for thousands of years) that we are dealing with highly dependent inter-related systems. This means that any approach that is centered around specific problems like a landfill, or is limited to an area of responsibility (department of mines, department of forestry, oceans and fisheries) is unlikely to work well. Measuring success is also difficult; parameters like CO2 emissions, mercury levels and respirable dust do affect us and can be measured, but focusing exclusively on such specific problems is misguided. I propose that the effort needs to be focused on creating sustainability, and that metrics need to be developed to measure the degree of sustainability. This is not to discount specific hazards. Dumping raw sewage into harbors, allowing mine workers to die from asbestosis, silicosis, radon gas exposure etc. are specific problems that need regulation and penalties for non-compliance -- but shouldn't be the focus of environmental governance.


Let's define sustainability with some examples and explore the difference between "creating sustainability" and "reducing unsustainablity". We can't grow our population forever, and all non-renewable resources that can be economically extracted will be exhausted by future generations. A sustainable society will not be able to rely on non-renewable materials and fuels, and will be adapted to live within the limits of local energy supplies; photovoltaic, solar, wind and photosynthesis. Since transportation is energy intensive, most food would be locally produced (e.g. local potatoes, not Idaho or P.E.I. potatoes shipped thousands of miles), residential and commercial areas would be co-mingled, long distance commuting would be virtually nonexistent. Most materials will be recycled. Sewage will be digested into methane and used in agriculture.

Now let's look at some green concepts. Let's say that you pass a regulation to insist that new homes have a long coil of PEX (plastic pipe) buried, slinky style around the foundation to support the installation ground source heat pumps, remove the need for drilling deep wells in to aquifers, and discourage people from using the city water supply and dumping it into the sewer. So far so good, you are reducing the electric heating demand by two thirds which is definitely "reducing unsustainably". However, compare this to commissioning a local university's engineering department and local architects to design appropriate "solar passive homes". The passive solar home will be almost free to heat forever and has the potential to be very low maintenance. The passive home is "creating sustainability". The difference between "reducing unsustainability" and "creating sustainability" is an important distinction when you are trying to use policy to direct society for the benefit of future generations.

Many traditional industries claim to be green, but are simply exploiting the environmental movement as a marketing tool. Consider marketing terms like "Clean Coal". There is nothing clean about a coal mining operation, nor is burning it clean. CO2, low levels of radioactivity, mercury and other pollutants are released. Even if you could sequester the carbon dioxide and reforest the strip mines, it is nothing more than a tiny portion of "reducing sustainability". Coal is non-renewable and will eventually be consumed. All future generations get out of it is a mess; toxic metals in streams, sink holes and other hazards. Expecting the shareholders to clean up after themselves is also foolhardy. The cost of the cleanup plan to be built into the cost of extraction, via taxes. If the costs are too high, then mining the resource is simply not viable and should not be mined.

Consider the motivation behind corporate behavior

I have worked in many polluting industries, including uranium mining, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing and have yet to see one that wasn't focused on short term profits, primarily due to the way executives are compensated. Optimizing activities for sustainability doesn't make sense for them. They look at environmental regulation as a business hazard, something akin to "loss management", something for lawyers to monitor, something to lobby against. They look at "green" and "corporate social responsiblity" as a marketing tools to influence public image. Their "green" statements is about as real as the "company credo" that they attempt to indoctrinate employees with. Their real vision does not extend beyond the next financial results and returns in sustainability don't exist in these short time frames. By contrast, governmental vision should extend well past the next election and onto future generations.

The Focus on Scapegoats

There is also an obsession with villains, such as ozone, PCB's and asbestos. Asbestos is a great example. In the days before workers were protected with respirators and protective clothing, people were exposed to vast quantities of fibers. I had a tour through an asbestos mine in Baie Verte, Newfoundland in early 1970's and was given a box of assorted fibers to take home as a souvenir. In Manville New Jersey, workers used to go home covered from head to toe with with fibers and apparently resembled snowmen. These massive exposures, and the physical nature of the fibers, resulted in many deaths. The problem wasn't asbestos per se, it was a gross misunderstanding of the effect of short fibers on human cells.

Today, we avoid the use of asbestos, have a billion dollar asbestos removal industry, and an industry that makes synthetic fibers. Ironically, the characteristics that make these new replacement fibers a good insulator also make them dangerous to human cells. No one is going to cover people with head to toe with carbon nanotubes, but if they did, workers would likely suffer the same fate. See our page Is Asbestos Good for more. What was really needed was workplace regulation, education, and a prohibition of using any respirable fiber (aramid, nanotubes, asbestos, etc) in applications where it is likely people will breath them.

Each of these villains becomes a rally cry, spawns a removal industry and diverts a great deal of funds away from where it really make sense. Just as it would make little sense to spend billions to cure a rare genetic disorder at the expense of multi-drug resistant TB, SARS, AIDS or breast cancer which kills millions, it makes no sense to spend billions in disturbing old waste sites unless you can prove it brings value and is the best use of limited resources.

Using Regulations to support sustainability:

Regulation can be a powerful tool to influence anti-sustainable behavior where economics alone is not effective in producing the desired outcome. Consider the following examples:

  1. A tax on disposable items that is equal to the cost of their collection and recycling. For example, if a plastic coffee cup cost a dime, using refillable thermal mugs would be more popular. If the radioactive sources in smoke detectors were taxed to pay for mandatory collection, other technologies that did not require radioactive isotopes would rapidly replace them.
  2. Container deposits. Standardized bottles like mason jars and beer bottles will be returned by homeowners or kids on bottle drives trying to finance their school trips. The goal here is not so much landfill (bottles are harmless silica) but to reduce the energy required in manufacturing. Washing beer bottles takes less energy than manufacturing new ones.
  3. Comprehensive land use management programs that include watershed management, food production, energy collection, residential and commercial spaces. Everything needs to work together, and here is where you have to cross traditional departmental boundaries and gain broad cooperation. A simple example of cooperation across departments might be redesigning a parking lot (dept of transportation and public works) to allow water to sink down rather than washing off into storm sewer that feeds a sewer facilitiy (municipal).
  4. A ranking of all existing initiatives against key performance indicators, like life span, infant mortality, frequency of respiratory problems, etc. The tax payers need to understand the return on their investment. There are programs out there (like chloroform emissions from deep wells), where if you were to calculate the reduction in mortality against the program cost - are truly absurd. Hundreds of millions of dollars per life saved in some cases. Meanwhile, there are inexpensive programs that have made a huge impact on the quality of life. Vaccination programs are a good example of something that is cost effective and measurable.

Public Education and Communication

It is important that the public be aware of the priorities, and that the priorities are not politically motivated. They should be based on science, be measurable, and be chosen such that it provides the maximum benefit for the tax payer. The public needs to be presented with a "score card" showing key performance indicators and how their tax dollars are being optimally spent.

It is also important to counter lobbying efforts and to balance misleading press coverage. For example, we hear of the "hydrogen economy", "clean coal" and "carbon emissions" and read press releases created by professional marketers that have been paid to promote agendas that have nothing to do with the public good. Missing from this equation is a counter balancing force with the fortitude to question and challenge conventional wisdom. This force needs to be supplied by government.

Strategic Shifts

An effective approach to moving towards sustainability and a modern vision of environmental management would encompass the following:

  1. A move away from a simple command and control model (specific regulations enforced by a single department) and towards environmental management as a multi-disciplinary effort that spans many government functions, departments and scientific disciplines.
  2. Greater emphasis on continuous improvement and away from minimum standards. Municipalities that find lead in the drinking water often find that the levels are within "guidelines" and that the guide lines were set were set low for political reasons. A better approach is to constantly push for incremental improvements.
  3. A move towards management of systems, such as watersheds, as an organism. Air pollution, roads, agricultural fertilizer runoff all contribute to the overall quality of the water supply -- and there can be trade offs and negotiation such that the total pollution load is managed. Concentrating on air, water, land use, roads independently misses the point that they are all inter-related to the problem at hand - the quality and quantity of the municipal water supply.
  4. A performance based approach to environmental compliance, and a move away from focusing solely on minimum standards for stationary point polluters (like power plants, paper mills and oil refineries). Tough inspection and enforcement is still needed to ensure compliance, but so are economic incentives, technological help, cooperation with non-governmental organizations and addressing distributed sources (non-single point) of pollution.
  5. Governments don't usually have the resources to do this all themselves, and should delegate some responsibilities to municipalities and other local bodies, while maintaining accountability. There are many members of the scientific community including individuals and non-profit organizations that with minimal funding, could take on responsibilities - environmental monitoring is a good example. For the design of drainage systems, sustainable homes, environmental sensors to measure compliance remotely, and other things of an engineering nature, local public ally funded universities should be directed to work on solutions. The public infrastructure already exists -- it just needs to work towards a common goal. Universities are good for research and product development. Ideally, public funding for research into sustainability that is needed by society would be driven only by the returns to society, thus having no practical budegary limits.

Economic Advantages

For early adopters of a fully integrated approach, regional benefits will be substantial. Initially after the complaining subsides, new products and technique will be developed to meet the requirements. These products will have both local and international markets. Germany is a leader in solar technology because it increased power rates to make solar power viable, sparking a huge local industry. In North America, with grid power costing around 10 cents/kWh, these systems don't make sense.

Let's explore an hypothetical example. There is a single point of pollution, a supplementary 490MW fuel oil fired power station. Because of global warming and the desire to comply with international standards, a new power plant is being considered which has experimental CO2 sequesterization technology. The cost is huge. The benefit to society is reduced emissions of C02, but it is not possible to measure the benefit to residents in any tangible way.

Now, let's take a different approach. The new Ministry of the Environment works with the crown corporation that generates electricity. They jointly decide that the electric rate should start at 10 cents/kWh for the first 1000kWh per month. This is ample for anyone's non heating needs. After that, it is time of day and quantity based. The Ministry works to arrange a provincial budget allocation for the cost of replacing all residential power meters with electronic ones which support time of day rates and remote reading. Customers are given kWh monitors to keep track of daily usage and track their energy budgets.

Eight million a year (a fraction of the proposed power plant conversion cost) is allocated to a local public university to develop a sustainable solar home with the idea of building a showcase home in a new, popular, sub-division and making plans available free of charge. The house is auctioned off for charity. The same offer is made to all the trade schools and a healthy competition ensues.

A new law is passed to protect homeowner's access to the sun (e.g. thou shalt not shade me).

So what happens now?

a) Everyone goes out and purchases a programmable thermostat and sets their hot water to warm with off peak power using a timer. Peak electric demand starts to fall. The free monitors make everyone aware of their power usage vastly raising public awareness.

b) Components of the new sustainable home become popular with local builders because of public demand. Window's no longer face north, new subdivisions are oriented to get the southern sun (in cold climates of course) and roofs are designed to accept solar panels. The electrical demand in new houses drops substantially. Things are moving in the right direction.

c) Local heating contractors have a booming business in ground source heatpump retrofits. With a COP (coefficient of performance of three) and the new higher power rates, it is now cheaper to use ground source heat pumps. Since heating demand is the largest energy user in northern homes, electric consumption falls 60% in some sub-divisions.

d) The university program becomes extremely popular. Work term students are guaranteed jobs, a new department of Sustainability is created in the Engineering faculty. A house is entered in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathalon in Washington DC. It doesn't win, the German's do again. However, local architects get involved and sponsor a design competition. International recognition follows. New graduating students form local companies to exploit and market the technologies.

The old power plant is no longer needed but remains in service as an emergency backup facility and for the occasional unexpected spike in demand. Local hydro electric plants provide sufficient power. All C02 emissions from oil fired generation of electricity cease.

Now which scenario makes more sense? How do we make it happen? Are there any fundamental reasons why things like this can't be done?

An Example of Cross Departmental Integration

A plague of spruce budworms is killing timber stocks. The Department of Forestry is planning to spray with Bacillus Thuringiensis, a bacteria that infects the guts of caterpillars and moths. The motivation is saving some local lumber mills. The Ministry of the environment is concerned about some nearby watersheds. The Ministry of Economic Development is working to develop some mussel farms to supplement jobs being lost from the forestry industry.

What would happen if a team of inter-disciplinary scientists got together and made the following conclusions:

1) The problem is not the spruce budworms. The problem is a mono-culture of identical species, all spruce, and the result of forest management techniques designed to provide wood for the pulp and paper industry. Mono-cultures are unnatural and are subject to plagues and complete destruction. They should be avoided.

2) It would be best to let the spruce die, harvest as much as possible, and replant with a mix of tree and plant species. Hardwoods like birch, softwoods like pine and larch, spruce and aspen, and a mix of fruit bearing shrubs. The idea is to be able to recreate an environment more like the original climax forests and to provide a mix of hardwood and software species, plus berries for birds and local consumption. The biologists were supplied from several departments (agriculture, forestry and fisheries), a geologist was supplied from the department of mines to, and the ministry of Health supplied a statistician to help analyze some data - and all worked together despite having different bosses in the organization chart.

3) Grants are provided to modernize the mill equipment. For versatility, lumber can now be cut into both metric and english dimensions for sale to Europe and the waste converted into wood pellets for local wood stoves.

4) A soil preservation plan is drawn up. It is important that after the spruce die off that excessive soil erosion does not affect local mussel farms, nor pollute the watershed. In the process, it is decided that a proposed road being built by the department of transportation should be rerouted around one section of a nearby pond due to erosion concerns.

A this point, multiple governmental departments are working to manage a larger inter-connected system. Some of the decision that would have been made (like the spray program) ended up giving way to a much larger vision that provided tangible benefits, including job creation, fewer boil orders in the local water supply, and an increase in the growth rates of the mussels. Visions, like the forestry department's goal to eliminate forest fire fighting by allowing natural fires to clear out underbrush are not so far fetched anymore now that the idea of spruce mono cultures to support the defunct pulp and paper industry are on the way out. As for the pulp mills, good riddance. They were one of the major environmental polluters.

There is absolutely nothing to stop governments from taking a systems approach, and reorganizing departments to support the vision. All it needs is a directive from the governor's or premier's office that departments must work together, and since differences in opinion are inevitable, a dispute resolution mechanism.

The Public Interface

Much of these benefits will go unnoticed by the public, and as a frontline monitoring system, it is important to have people involved. An effective way to manage solve this problem is by borrowing some ideas from industry, in particular, Stategic Enterprise Management and Key Performance Indicators.

Key performance indicators should be things that the public can wrap their minds around, things which are measurable and important. Examples could be a) Life span in years b) infant mortality c) number of drinking water boil orders d) acres of forest replanted as mixed species e) citizen reports investigated. These are then prioritized based on the importance, and can be given costs. If citizens understand the relative importance and that their tax money is being prioritzed effectively, they are in a position to understand the tradeoffs.

People are everywhere. They should be able to go to a web site or send an email to report things like a) Huge clouds of insects b) two dead moose with huge cancerous growths c) someone imported snakes and let them go in the back yard d) all the fish in pond xxx are dead and floating. People can now take high quality cell phone photos and add the GPS coordinates. They should get a reply too. A simple tracking system would suffice, like any business does with customer service requests.

Amateur scientists should be able to send weather data (temp, humidity, solar insulation, pollen counts) to a database. This is not difficult to write either. For strategic locations, equipment could be loaned to anyone willing to maintain and operate them, with the intention of inexpensively creating a province/state wide environemental monitoring network. The Maryland Energy Administration has a loan program for anemometers which could be used as a model.

Success stories! Good things do happen, and writeups with pictures of the people that were involved (e.g. The new mill retrofit, mill workers, and pictures of the new growth in the mixed forest) should be placed on the home page.

I have been involved with software development for decades, and am convinced that most of these types applications can be developed by one or two people, using inexpensive tools. The trick is to keep it simple. Expensive ERP systems (Oracle, SAP etc.) are not applicable, nor are consulting companies needed. Everything developed should be offered free to other states/provinces. Turn it into a sourceforge project and ask the open-source community to contribute. Be creative.

There are many excellent software projects in the public sector. For example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have vans equipped with three video cameras that drive every road in the state and populate a video database. Anyone can access the website, pick a road from a map, and then see what the driver of the van saw as it traveled the section. This allows transportation workers to check out road conditions remotely and helps with the prioritization of repair jobs. It has lots of other fans too ... lawyers like to check out stop signs to see of they are obscured by trees when a client claims he didn't see the sign. My point here is that a great deal of interesting, custom development is done with public monies and yet, because of lack of sharing and cooperation, doesn't get reused. I haven't seen any indication that cooperation isn't possible -- just that nobody in government has made it a priority.

January 2009