EPA's Report on the Environment (ROE)

Sustainability and the ROE

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is about meeting today's needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is about taking action to protect our shared environment—air, water, land, and ecosystems—in ways that are economically viable, beneficial to human health and well-being, and socially just in the long term. “Sustainability” is not a new term. In 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) made sustainable development an ongoing policy priority of the federal government, with the goal to “create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

In practice, sustainability refers to efforts to align economic development with environmental protection and human well-being. Sustainability is commonly characterized in terms of the interdependence among three broad dimensions—environment, economy, and society—while considering both present and future generations. The diagram to the right represents these dimensions as nested, with a resilient and robust economy existing within a healthy society dependent on an intact and functional environment. Because of sustainability's increasing importance to EPA, the Agency has added this “Sustainability and the ROE” section to the ROE to provide ROE users with a brief introduction to the topic and a systems-level approach to conceptualize the connections between ROE indicators.

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What does sustainability mean for EPA?

As EPA continues to advance environmental protection, sustainability has gained increasing attention across the Agency. EPA's 2014-2018 Strategic Plan (PDF) (80 pp, 2MB) includes “Working Toward a Sustainable Future” as a cross-cutting theme, with the goal that EPA decisions and actions advance environmental outcomes and optimize economic and social outcomes. This plan commits EPA to considering and applying sustainability principles to its work. Going forward, EPA aims to make sustainability the next level of environmental protection by drawing on advances in science and technology to protect human health and the environment while promoting innovative solutions.

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Why is sustainability in the ROE?

Sustainability-Related Indicators in the ROE

All ROE indicators present trends in environmental stressors or conditions, and a number of them describe how economic or social factors can influence those trends. Inspired by EPA's sustainability lens on environmental protection, EPA has added four resource consumption indicators that quantify that influence: Energy Use, Freshwater Withdrawals, Municipal Solid Waste, and Hazardous Waste. These indicators are examined from both an economic and population perspective to provide a more complete picture of how underlying drivers influence observable outcomes. For example, in the Freshwater Withdrawals indicator, Exhibits 1 and 2 present trends over time in total nationwide withdrawals of fresh water, while Exhibit 3 shows patterns of freshwater withdrawals per dollar of real gross domestic product and per capita. In other words, Exhibit 3 of this indicator uses intensity metrics as one way to integrate the environmental, economic, and social dimensions.

The intensity metrics presented with these indicators cannot fully answer the question of whether resource use is truly “sustainable.” In addition, the metrics cannot be used to gauge if 1) a trend in resource use is moving toward sustainability, 2) sustainability is close to being attained, or 3) sustainability practices are resulting in improvements. Instead, they provide an example of natural resource consumption (fresh water in this case) in the context of economic and population growth. The “Limitations” sections of these four indicators recognize that the indicators have limitations to their utility in the context of sustainability. However, the ROE intensity metrics do provide useful information on the extent to which the United States has decoupled resource use from economic and population growth.

As EPA works to identify and pursue solutions to achieve environmental outcomes with optimal economic and social outcomes using sustainability principles, the ROE has an important role. As a source of information about trends in the condition of the U.S. environment and human health, the ROE indicators can inform decision-making when the desired outcome must balance human health, environmental, social, and economic risks and benefits.

The ROE will continue to focus on scientific indicators that inform five mission-driven themes (Air, Water, Land, Human Exposure and Health, and Ecological Condition). Over time, though, EPA will integrate sustainability-related questions with the existing ROE themes and add new indicators to address aspects of sustainability relevant to EPA's mission. In this version of the ROE, most of the indicators address environmental conditions and some address social (human health and exposure) conditions. Although none of the current indicators directly addresses economic conditions, several indicators have been added to address natural resource consumption; these have an economic component.

The ROE includes a systems-based sustainability framework that depicts some of the relationships among the three dimensions of sustainability. The framework is useful to illustrate how ROE indicators can be integrated into sustainability and to conceptualize important causal connections between quantitative ROE indicators (e.g., Volatile Organic Compounds Emissions) associated with the underlying system elements (e.g., transportation) and attributes (e.g., vehicle emissions). These are just first steps toward providing new information that supports sustainability-based environmental protection.

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Why is a sustainability framework useful?

Since the concept of sustainability, or sustainable development, is based on the fundamental interdependence between human and natural systems, EPA has adapted for the ROE a systems approach that illustrates the linkages among the three dimensions (environment, society, economy) of sustainability. This approach is illustrated in the conceptual framework in the figure below, which shows how the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of the broader human ecological system are interrelated. Human decisions related to any of the three dimensions affect the entire system. Using this framework can help identify the critical relationships among these system dimensions. ROE indicators can be used to inform decisions based on these complex relationships, and this framework can help identify gaps where new indicators could be developed. Learn more »

The conceptual framework shown below represents the world as three interrelated, interdependent, interacting dimensions of our human-ecological system: environment, society, and economy. The arrows in the figure show the flows among the three dimensions.

About the Three Dimensions of Our Human-Ecological System

  • The environment represents the natural world, including native animals and plants, mineral deposits, soil, water, and air.
  • The economy comprises activities that provide products and services to people. These include manufacturing, agriculture, mining, power generation, drinking water treatment, wastewater treatment, solid waste management, health care, construction, and commercial fishing and aquaculture.
  • Society represents people, their actions, and their quality of life. This includes human health and well-being, government and other institutions, buildings, transportation and utility infrastructure, and recreation.

Interrelationships Among the Dimensions of Our Human-Ecological System

  • The environment provides ecological services to the economy and to society. Examples include provision of goods such as fish, crops, air, water, timber, raw materials, and fuel; purification of air and water; pollination of crops and natural vegetation; maintenance of biodiversity; decomposition of wastes; moderation of weather extremes; contribution to climate stability; and provision of recreation.
  • The economy produces products and services for society. It deposits wastes into the environment, and can also protect and restore environmental systems through recovery and recycling operations.
  • Society supplies labor and talent to the economy. It generates wastes that are deposited in the environment or recycled to the economy. It regulates the economy and protects the environment.
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This conceptual framework shows the flows along three interrelated and interacting systems: economy, society, and environment. The environment provides ecological services to the economy and to society. The economy produces products and services for society. It deposits runoff, wastes, emissions, and discharges into the environment, and creates land cover change. These activities deplete resources, degrade ecosystems, and expose humans to waste. Some wastes are recycled for reuse in the economic sector. Society supplies labor to the economy and regulates the economy. Society generates runoff, wastes, emissions, and discharges that are deposited in the environment, depleting resources, degrading ecosystems, and changing land cover. Society can also work to restore and protect the environment.

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How do ROE indicators support the systems view of sustainability?

To illustrate how the systems view of the three dimensions of sustainability could be used for identifying and organizing quantitative information relevant to specific problems, EPA has created a series of figures to show how ROE indicators relate to six issues of concern to the Agency: acid deposition, coastal hypoxia, fish mercury contamination, nutrient impacts, tropospheric ozone, and wetland loss. These environmental issues were chosen because they are examples of cross-thematic problems (as presented in EPA's Strategic Plan (PDF) (80 pp, 2MB)) that are supported by existing ROE indicators. The examples illustrate causal connections that, without appropriate human intervention, may result in adverse outcomes (e.g., fish contaminated with mercury due to emissions from various industrial processes). The systems view can be used to visualize important components of an array of complex environmental problems and will be applied in that way in the future, as the ROE continues to evolve to meet changing Agency priorities.

For each issue, there are three successive figures:

  • Overview. First, an “Overview” figure shows elements of the environment, economy, and society that contribute to the issue; factors that affect stressors (e.g. pollutant levels); the environmental, economic, and societal impacts that make this an issue; and how all of these are interrelated.
    • Contributors: Red boxes signify elements that contribute to the issue, and red-highlighted text describes factors affecting stressors.
    • Impacts: Blue boxes signify elements affected by the issue and blue-highlighted text describes adverse impacts.
  • Key attributes. The second figure shows the key attributes associated with the issue, and how they interrelate. Key attributes are measureable characteristics that represent sources, stresses, and effects most directly related to the issue. Each attribute is a potential area for indicator development. Ideally, indicators would be available for all attributes in the figure, to monitor the trends associated with the issue over time.
    • Contributors: Attributes that represent sources and stresses that contribute to the issue are shown in red boxes.
    • Impacts: Attributes that represent adverse impacts associated with the issue are shown in blue boxes.
  • Relevant ROE indicators. The final figure shows (in dark blue “bubbles”) the ROE indicators relevant to the issue and which attributes they are associated with. Attributes with indicators are highlighted; attributes without indicators are faded. To view an indicator, click on the indicator bubble.

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