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The Insider

Innovative Environmental Strategies Highlight Debate Over Federal Role

Companies, state regulators and others are pursuing innovative environmental protection strategies such as voluntary programs that break from the traditional command-and-control regulation approach, highlighting the debate over how much of a role the federal government needs to play -- if any.

The most recent features on Inside EPA’s Environment Next track this important discussion, including an interview with a former top EPA official who sees a need for a continued federal presence in novel environmental protection approaches, and analysis of how a landmark pact between California and automakers on vehicle emissions could be a model for other efforts.

Environment Next, a free service to Inside EPA subscribers, features wide-ranging looks at coming developments for environmental protection and policy, including exclusive interviews, in-depth reporting and profiles of key figures, companies and other groups that are reshaping regulation and private governance on air, water, waste and climate. The features offer a new way of reporting about the shift from command-and-control regulation to innovative, market-based measures and other efforts.

Dan Fiorino, who held several top positions at EPA including director of the Performance Track voluntary program, said in a recent exclusive interview that there will always be a need for the agency’s basic existing structure to guarantee environmental protection:

Interviews: AU’s Fiorino Sees Need For Basic EPA Model While Pursuing Innovation
As debate grows over the future of environmental protection, EPA’s existing basic structure still has several strengths that should continue even as the agency and others pursue novel approaches, including partnerships with major industries and other efforts, says former top EPA official Dan Fiorino, now director of American University’s Center for Environmental Policy.

Fiorino told Environment Next that he does not subscribe to the notion that EPA needs a wholesale revamping, saying that having a national regulatory agency built upon reasonable consensus on scientific issues, working in partnership with states under congressionally established authority, is a “good general model,” although EPA’s approach to regulation could be more “diverse and varied.” Innovations such as emissions trading, information disclosure, and others are examples of how EPA has previously incorporated flexibility around its core regulatory functions.

Numerous efforts are under way to understand the nature of today’s rapidly shifting environmental policy landscape and to define a viable system to address increasingly complex and urgent problems, including multiple “circular economy” and sustainability efforts involving academia, non-governmental organizations, industry, and government. Fiorino’s Center -- which aims “to improve the nation's ability to address environmental challenges through effective governance” -- is among those holding events to debate the future of environmental protection.

He touted Performance Track, in which companies that joined the program agreed to perform “beyond compliance,” exceeding minimal regulatory requirements, a concept that is also reflected in some of today’s non-governmental sustainability leadership certification programs differentiating “leaders” from “laggards.” Not every company or sector should be treated the same, he said.

Verifying the validity of corporate sustainability or progressive actions was somewhat embodied in the Performance Track program. But environmentalists criticized the program, arguing participating companies could set their own improvement goals and few actually met their targets -- underscoring a key question about how to best oversee innovative environmental protection strategies to ensure they achieve their objectives.

California is pursuing a voluntary program with automakers to meet stricter vehicle greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards, a move designed as a backstop against the Trump administration’s pending effort to sharply roll back Obama-era auto standards.

But observers say that the agreement, while its goal is laudable, needs a federal role by EPA or other agencies to ensure adequate oversight and enforcement:

Vehicle GHG Voluntary Deal Could Be Model But Federal Role Preferred
Automakers’ voluntary deal with California to boost vehicle greenhouse gas reductions despite EPA’s rollback of national auto standards could be a model for voluntary environmental initiatives in other sectors, but observers say the vehicle deal and similar pacts will not be as protective as federal policies backed by enforcement or oversight.

“A voluntary agreement is a good thing, but it depends on the goodwill or the continuing agreement of those companies,” said Thomas Oppel, executive vice president of the American Sustainable Business Council, in an interview with Environment Next.

“Clearly there is a role for government, and clearly capitalism needs that referee of government on the field in order to produce the greatest possible benefit for the greatest number of people,” said Oppel, whose group represents more than 250,000 companies across many industries and advocates for a sustainable economy.

Alec Gerlach, a spokesman for the Center for Climate & Energy Solutions (C2ES), said the plastics, meat and steel sectors would be strong candidates for future deals on reducing or preventing pollution, as long as the terms could be enshrined in state regulations or law, while Oppel pointed to various oil and natural gas firms’ pledges to reduce their methane emissions. C2ES describes itself as “an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to forge practical solutions to climate change.”

“Because of state politics and turnover, you’d also want to codify it somehow in state regulation. So, what this gives to companies is certainty, as well as not having to hash out this concern in 50 different states. At least they’d have 20 states taken care of, or whatever it may be,” Gerlach said.

Still, companies and others continue to eye ways they can agree to steps for reducing the environmental impact of their operations even without the federal government’s involvement.

According to press reports, 32 firms including the high-fashion giant Gucci, the sportwear firm Adidas and department store chain Nordstrom signed a pact to reduce the clothing sector’s carbon emissions at a ceremony with French President Emmanuel Macron ahead of the Aug. 24-26 G7 meeting in Biarritz, France:

Clothing firms vow to embrace sustainability in ‘Fashion Pact’
Clothing and textile companies are pledging to adopt new sustainability measures at their facilities and along their supply lines in order to avert what the United Nations predicts will be a 60 percent rise in greenhouse gases from the sector by 2030, although some observers say the “Fashion Pact” is too vague to make a significant difference.

Signatories pledge to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, including a 100% renewable-energy target for their own operations and incentives for renewables in “all high impact manufacturing processes along the entire supply chain” by 2030; to implement “science-based targets” consistent with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius; and to pursue “sustainable sourcing of key raw materials” for their goods.

If successful, the agenda could help curtail emissions from an industry that the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat warned in 2018 was on track for a 60 degree increase in GHG emissions by 2030, in part because rapid changes in clothing styles lead to mass quantities of goods being wasted when they fall out of fashion.

Meanwhile, electronics recyclers are looking at options for improving the recycling of waste solar power cells, a growing issue as more states launch solar power efforts:

Growth In Solar Power Drives Effort To Improve Recycling Of Waste Cells
Electronics recyclers are seeking to ramp up the capacity and efficiency of their operations that extract resources from spent solar units in order to avoid large-scale disposal, as growth in solar power in several states is teeing up a massive increase in future waste when solar cells wear down in bulk.

Speaking on an EPA-sponsored Aug. 22 webinar, part of the agency’s “sustainable materials management” series, researchers and industry figures focused on solar recycling warned that the volume of waste cells is already rising and will spike in the coming decades as more units break down from age or damage.

“It is the highest accelerating waste of any [category],” said Garvin Heath, a senior scientist in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the federal lab dedicated to researching and deploying renewable power and energy efficiency.

And in the cruise ship sector, Carnival is voluntarily testing electrification on one of its ships, signaling a recognition by many companies about the importance of sustainability:

Eyeing sustainability, Carnival will test first cruise ship electrification
Carnival, the world’s largest leisure cruise company, has signed an agreement with a major marine battery manufacturer to install and operate a lithium-ion battery storage system aboard one of its 10 fleets, applying electrical energy from batteries onboard large cruise ships for the first time as the company eyes efforts to promote environmental sustainability.

The development marks the latest in a series of major companies recognizing that sustainability is a growing market force driving businesses to adopt cleaner energy and other measures. Besides investments in low- or zero-emitting electric vehicles, companies are exploring electric power boats and yachts, as well as electric airline flights.