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Civil Sanctions – new regulatory tool in action!

27 Jul

The Environment Agency is the first to use its powers under Part 3 of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008 against an organisation that failed to comply with environmental regulations. By using these enforcement powers the Environment Agency is ensuring legal compliance at the same time continuing with its objectives to drive environmental improvement and compliance within business.

The Environment Agency accepted an offer of £21,000 from an engineering and information technology company who had failed to register the group and some of its subsidiaries with the packaging waste regulations. The organisation self-reported the offences which had occurred between 1998 and 2010.

In addition to implementing improvements to comply with the regulations, the organisation offered to fund environmental improvement projects in the local community equivalent to the cost of the offences. The funds will be used to drive environmental improvements and also cover the costs of Environment Agency investigations and future monitoring.

Applicable in England and Wales, Environment Civil Sanctions Orders came into force on 6th April and 15th July 2010 respectively and can be used by the Environment Agency as an alternative to prosecution. They allow the Environment Agency to take action that is proportionate to the offence and the offender and reflect the fact that a number of offences committed by business may be unintentional.

In this instance the organisation failed to register under the packaging waste regulations believing the obligations were applicable to each separate business (meaning they fell below the business threshold) whereas the regulations can also apply to a group of businesses.

The Environment Agency and Defra have published guidance explaining how these powers will be used. Briefly the sanctions include:

  1. Fixed monetary penalty: tend to be at the lower end of the range of potential financial penalties and have a capped maximum the same as could be imposed in a Magistrate’s Court.
  2. Enforcement undertakings: an agreement between the regulator and the operator or individual to require certain works, for example, to be undertaken.
  3. Stop Notices: as the name suggests allows the regulator to serve a notice to require a certain activity to cease, subject to compensatory provisions if the notice is ill-founded.
  4. Discretionary requirements including variable monetary penalties (VMPs)

In the case above the approach taken allows the operator to deal with the regulatory breach in a way that does not attract issues of liability or the negativity of a prosecution. For the regulator and any external stakeholders who may be concerned about the incident, the advantage of this approach is that the focus is on putting right what has previously gone wrong, rather than simply applying a punishment.

More serious offences, such as overtly criminal, reckless, and deliberate acts undertaken with a view to profit, will still result in prosecution. It is expected however that some 20 per cent of matters which have been subject to prosecution may shift to the civil sanctions regime. Moreover it is likely that incidents that are currently subject to warning letters or formal cautions will move to the civil sanctions regime.

As a regulatory tool, and taking this case as the first example, civil sanctions could play a significant part in improving compliance and environmental performance across UK business. It remains to be seen how effective these powers are, however with increased dialogue it seems to me the relationship between regulator and operator can only improve, and local communities stand to benefit too.

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State of the Planet – reap what we sow

20 Jul

We’re currently in the throws of updating our environmental diploma course, within which the first topic explores the state of the global environment and the complex inter-relationship between environmental, social, economic, political and demographic drivers and pressures.

Referring to source material from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) it’s clear the health of our environment remains under seemingly relentless pressure. For example, releases of greenhouse gases continue to rise and our marine and coastal environment is at significant risk.

For those interested in a few facts, just to illustrate the point, the globally averaged mixing ratios of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (NO2) reportedly reached new heights in 2009. These values are greater than those in pre-industrial times (before 1750) by 38%, 158% and 19% respectively. And with regard to the oceans and the marine environment, as much as 80% of the pollution load in coastal waters and the deep oceans originate from land-based activities.

The latter statistic, linking with another diploma subject area – environmental monitoring – serves to demonstrate the complexity of environmental systems and the nature of pollution. While legislation aims to control and indeed prevent harm to the environment, the persistent, synergistic and cumulative effect of our releases illustrates the insidious nature of pollution and the substances we use, and ultimately release into the environment. Regulatory control therefore is not necessarily going to work on its own.

In the environmental news this week Brittany has been struck by tonnes of toxic algae washing up on the beaches. This has caused the death of local livestock, not to mention significantly harmed the tourist industry. Such events are increasingly common where nutrient loading and high organic discharges lead to algal blooms. And in June this year a report by the International Programme of the State of the Ocean (IPSO) highlighted the plight of the oceans, indicating that ocean life is “at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history”. The combined effects of pollution, over-fishing and climate change are acting together in ways not previously recognised, and the consequences are already affecting humanity.

I highlight these because at the same time the most recent talks on climate change, held in Bonn, failed (again) to agree on emission limits, the future of Kyoto and finance. While some technical solutions were agreed, the ongoing stumbling point is agreeing on future target reductions and apparent lack of progress in achieving existing targets. The UK’s former chief scientist Sir David King also added to the debate recently suggesting that Kyoto should be abandoned and instead each country should set itself a carbon quota based on population size.

It’s clear that to achieve the required modes of sustainable consumption and production for a healthy planet we need a fundamental change in our collective behaviour and attitude to the environment. This of course is a huge undertaking however if we fail to agree and act now, as Galatians 6:7 advises, the future looks rather bleak. Or to put another way… because there is no Planet B.

The Price of Energy – the inevitable rise

15 Jul

It may have passed you by but there’s been an important development in the environmental arena this week. The Electricity Market Reform (EMR) White Paper has been published starting the biggest shake up in the electricity market since privatisation.

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne announced the paper this week explaining that the current electricity market simply isn’t up to the job to meet predicted future demands. With our continuing reliance on fossil fuel imports, we would be exposed to volatile energy prices which we, as private and business consumers, would need to pay for. The EMR therefore aims to protect the UK consumer from price instability as well as ensure security of supply and meet our low-carbon objectives.

The EMR was originally launched in December 2010 but this week the white paper confirms four key elements:

  1. A carbon floor price of £16 per tonne to encourage low carbon technology
  2. Long-term ‘contracts for difference’ promoting low-carbon energy generation and establishment of feed-in tariffs
  3. A contract framework for capacity through either central procurement or a market-wide approach
  4. Emissions standard for all new power plant

Opponents to the proposals suggest that the reforms are over complex and may actually hinder competition in the energy market. For energy suppliers they need certainty in energy markets to allow them to invest in the technology and infrastructure needed to meet carbon reductions. With an industry currently geared to deliver energy at the lowest cost, in order to deliver energy with lower carbon emissions the industry claims they will need support as they will be required to use technology which is not lowest cost.

The Renewable Energy Federation (REF) also suggests there is a significant cost attached to the EMR proposals which could put the Governments low carbon objectives at risk. With energy prices already increasing, the REF indicate that if the EMR does not deliver lower cost energy then a degree of ‘consumer rebellion’ will be expected especially if domestic as well as business consumers find it increasingly difficult to pay for their energy.

The EMR aims to provide certainty in the market which it is claimed will provide cheaper capital leading to lower development costs for new power plant and stable, if not lower, priced energy.  The Energy Secretary claims the EMR is the only way forward. The electricity market in it’s current form will mean energy prices are certain to rise and with demand predicted to double by 2050 there will be a higher risk of black outs. The system needs to change.

The overall aim of the EMR is to make a fundamental shift away from fossil fuel generation and to open the market up to smaller producers. Opponents suggest the EMR is unlikely to achieve either of these, however one thing does seem certain. The price of energy will continue to rise, even with a move towards low carbon technology, and we all face higher and ongoing energy price increases in the future.

Sustainable Business Practice – it’s BIGGER than you think!

7 Jul

I recently attended an IEMA Sustainable Business Practice workshop and was struck not only by the enthusiasm of the participants, but also the wider impact of sustainable development principles on business strategies and operations. These interactive sessions running across the UK complement IEMA’s previous research in this area, aiming to raise the profile of the environmental and sustainability professional, to understand how we can lead, shape and contribute to sustainable business practice, but also to identify and highlight business opportunities and threats arising from sustainability issues.

As a group, there were around 25 of us representing industry, local government and sustainability professionals, we were tasked with discussing and answering three questions, the first of which on face value appeared quite a straight forward question: ‘how will your organisation’s business strategy be influenced by major environmental challenges?’

Okay – initial thoughts? Individually we spent 5 minutes considering this and then discussing in our respective groups. First responses reflected on the nature and time scales of any impact on business strategy, typically the financial burden associated with increasing costs – energy and fuel for example, and the regulatory burden for some organisations which will also increase in the short term. For one manufacturing organisation present they had calculated that the cost of forthcoming European greenhouse gas emission limits would cost them approximately €150m over the next 10 to 15 years, so they are already planning changes to their business operations.

For smaller organisations who are suppliers to large corporate business entities, in the retail sector for example, these organisations are being asked to develop sustainable business practices or risk losing their contract. There appeared to be an increasing prevalence of supply chain pressure. And for the public sector bodies present, their strategies needed to consider the actual and potential costs of maintaining local infrastructure and the vulnerability of the services they provide to their local community. For example the costs of repairing and maintaining buildings and property affected by flooding.

British Safety Council is not immune either and we should also be aware of the impacts of environmental change. Whilst first thoughts may be the immediate short term impact of rising fuel bills and the operational costs of delivering our services, our business strategy should also consider how we service our members and, more importantly perhaps, the actual advice and training we provide.

Sustainable business practice is not simply looking internally at how we operate and ensuring we operate effectively and efficiently. It also means that in everything we do, what we say, and the services and support we provide, in everyway, we should consider how this contributes to the sustainable business practices of the organisations we work with.

Sustainable business practice is not an issue to plan for in the near future, it’s already here – right now, affecting all organisations – and its significance and impact on how and what we do can not be overstated

Environment and Sustainability – a weekly reflection!

6 Jul

Hello – and welcome to my blog! At the risk of being emotive and adding to the already saturated world of the blogging fraternity, I have been invited to contribute and comment on environmental news stories on behalf of the British Safety Council, and present a professional view and perhaps a personal perspective or two with regards to environmental news, events and developments.

I will aim to raise the visibility and continue to highlight the importance and significance of environmental protection and sustainability to individuals and businesses alike. I hope these will encourage us to think and behave differently with respect to our own daily activities and behaviours, as well as stimulate some debate and discussion to enable us to identify positive change and a sustainable future for all of us.

Thank you in advance for your contributions and I look forward to some lively blogging!