EIA and Sustainable Development: Recommendations from the Entropy Law, and Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Defining Sustainability…

The management of the Earth’s resources in a way that does not threaten the ability of future generations to use the same resources

-The Brundtland Commission Report

The problem of achieving sustainability lies in the challenge of today’s societies figuring out how to “provide for the well-being of future generations given [Earth’s] ecological constraints” [2].

Earth as a Closed System

Consumers may not think of the creation, use, and destruction of a product as a cyclical process when they pick it off a Wal-Mart shelf.

The fact is they should! And so should EIA practitioners with a project.

When one “throws something out”, where do they think they are throwing it out to? The Earth is a closed system, and the reality is that they are throwing it out into the environment. It may be temporarily contained by an impermeable landfill, or incinerated into gases which are released and diluted into the atmosphere… but is this truly eliminating the product? No.

Over long periods of time the landfills may leach, and the atmosphere will become even more saturated with incinerated chemicals. The solution to “disposal” of products or projects is to not think of is as “disposal” at all. It must be considered as a cyclical process with the natural environment as both source and sink.

We are responsible for keeping our sink clean.

Earth

Figure 1: Hierarchy of physical and economic systems, adapted from [2]

Thermodynamics: The Entropy Law

Our production levels far exceed the levels of the Earth to assimilate our used outputs [2], and this is a problem for sustainability.

The second law of thermodynamics, the Entropy Law, takes into account the irreversibility of using inputs from the natural environment [2].

All physical process convert low-entropy energy and materials into high-entropy wastes.

– McMahon and Mrozek, 1997, 504

The directionality of the entropy law states that over time, the world becomes more disordered, and entropy increases. McMahon and Mrozek (1997) argue that the entropy law will be the eventual constraint to economic growth, and thus to sustainability, under our current neoclassical economic theory.*

Limited resources

Once a product is disposed of and forgotten, consumers often concede that it is no longer their problem. This mentality has pocketed the Earth with massive waste piles. Societies are digging massive holes to pump unused, high-entropy refuse into. We are hoping to never have our waste cross our minds again.

That is, until we collectively realized that mineral resources are becoming scarcer. After all, “resources may appear abundant until shortly before they are exhausted” [2].

The big question: Which processes and tools could help achieve sustainability?

EIA

EIA practitioners are instructed to use EIA as a tool for improved planning and decision-making for activities which involve the natural and human environments. CEAA ensures Canadians that EIA regulatory mechanisms are in the business of sustainable development because they are used to assess impacts and to mitigate accordingly, always with the future in mind [1].

Life-Cycle Analysis

Just as its very name implies, Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) “is a tool designed to evaluate the impacts of the production, use and waste management of goods”, or in other words, to evaluate goods from “cradle-to-grave” [5].

Thus, it is suggested that the EIA process should not only be about project development but also about acknowledging Life-Cycle Assessment of inputs and outputs required to operationalize and decommission these development projects.

LCA is flexible in that choices on how to proceed in LCA (i.e. specific methodologies) can be determined based on “the goal of an LCA study” as well as “on the scientific perspectives of the researcher or practitioners” [3].

So why could it not be used to assess large-scale projects and not just the “cradle-to-grave” of one product?

Bringing EIA, Entropy and LCA Together…

What EIA practitioners must do is ensure that the development of projects does not continue to proceed in a linear fashion. LCA can offer the tools to ensure this. By examining life-cycles of large scale projects and minimizing inputs and outputs, a minimum of entropy is created where the planet is no longer a wasteworld of our damaging practices.

As societies become more aware of the importance of EIA and its role in sustainable development, EA practitioners could help consumers become aware of the importance of LCA.

LCA is a strategy to further reduce environmental impacts, increase societal awareness of resource use (and disuse). It also adds to proponent accountability for environmentally sound project development.


*Under neoclassical economic theory, sustainability lies in technological capabilities and societal innovations; but over time, substitutability will be less possible as entropy increases and low-entropy inputs become scarcer [2].


Sources

[1] Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. (2013a). Overview: Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. Retrieved November 17, 2013 from Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency: http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/

(Note: At the time of retrieval the word “sustainability” was used on this webpage. It has since been modified (January 21, 2014) and the word omitted. This gives clear indication that EIA practitioners should be armed with knowledge and tools such as LCA to address sustainable development in EIA in the future.)

[2] McMahon, G. F., & Mrozek, J. R. (1997). Economics, entropy and sustainability. Hydrological Sciences Journal, 42(4), 501-512. doi: 10.1080/02626669709492050

[3] Rebitzer, G., et al. (2004). Life cycle assessment: Part 1: Framework, goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, and applications. Environment International, 30(5), 701-720.

[4] The World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Tukker, A. (2000). Life cycle assessment as a tool in environmental impact assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 20(4), 435-456.

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