American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update on President's Council on Sustainable Development (6-19-98)

In 1993, President Clinton created the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) to advise the administration on sustainable development and to devise "bold, new approaches to achieve various economic, environmental, and equity goals".  The purposes of this advisory committee include educating communities about sustainable development; bringing together industry, environmental groups, and administrative agencies to form consensus on policy; and  implementing programs that promote sustainable development.  In advising the President, PCSD focuses on creating an environmental framework for the 21st century, domestic programs that lower greenhouse gas emissions, and policies that foster sustainable communities.  To make recommendations on these issues, PCSD formed the Metropolitan and Rural Strategies Task Force, the Climate Change Task Force, the Environmental Management Task Force, and the International Task Force.

The President's Council on Sustainable Development is comprised of representatives from industry, environmental groups, and government agencies. The co-chairs of PCSD are R. Anderson, Chairman, President, and CEO of Interface, Inc. and Jonathan Lash, President of World Resources Institute. Other members include Carol Browner, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Harry J. Pearce, Vice Chairman of General Motors Corporation; Michelle Perrault, International Vice President of the Sierra Club; and Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior. The White House Liaison is Katie McGinty, Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality.  Although only eight council members attended the June 4th meeting, the PCSD consists of about thiry members total.

In keeping with the committee's duty to report on its progress, the PCSD held a meeting on June 4, 1998. An agenda is included below. The meeting centered around the accomplishments of each of the different task forces.  Council members also discussed the goals of the "National Town Meeting for a New American Dream" seminar it will host in 1999.  In addition, PCSD took time to discuss current administrative and legislative actions that  promote sustainable development.  Such actions include the recent ISTEA legislation and the Clinton administration's budget proposal of  $6.3 billion for tax incentives and increased technology use in developing energy efficiency techniques.

The administration's attention to energy efficiency and to climate change corresponds with the concern the PCSD expressed over greenhouse gas emissions and potential global warming.  Jonathan Lash, President of  World Resources Institute, began the discussion by focusing on promising technologies for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and the various barriers to these technological innovations.  In terms of buildings, energy efficiency design and appliances have both a high short-term and long-term potential to cut emissions.  For electric power, renewable energy technology has a high potential of reducing greenhouse gases over a long-term basis.  In terms of transportation, fuel-cell powered vehicles, alternative fuels, and high-efficiency gasoline powered cars all have a high chance of  lowering emissions in the long run.  However, these long-term solutions face many obstacles.  The low cost of fossil energy and the high up-front cost of developing energy efficient technologies, the lack of public awareness concerning these technologies, and the short time frame under the Kyoto Protocol all present challenges to the implementation of energy efficient practices.

Scott Bernstein, President of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, presented some options for short-term, community-based climate solutions in his update on the Climate Change Task Force.  Bernstein noted that large numbers of small urban sources are significant greenhouse gas emitters.  By changing travel demand and land use, communities can ease their greenhouse gas emissions.  For example, Chicago and Los Angeles are beginning the  location-efficient mortgage program.  This project hopes to reduce the amount of people commuting into town while creating more homeowners.

Other council members expressed a need for early action and solutions that work in the short-term.  Many members agreed that because greenhouse gases have a long life span, postponing action would only lead to more build-up and thus, accelerated warming.  Fred Krupp, Executive Director for the Environmental Defense Fund, remarked that renewable energy technologies are only a partial solution.  A short-term solution for emissions reduction includes emissions trading.  Since the U.S. has certain allocated emissions after the year 2008, companies would be required to bring their emissions below a certain level.  They would receive an emissions credit that could be used as a credit for future emissions by that company, or they could sell that credit to an noncompliance company.  The committee seemed to endorse this solution to counter climate change since the market essentially regulates the emissions trading program.

In response to climate change and other enduring environmental problems, the PCSD announced that its Environmental Management Task Force will be active in advising President Clinton on building the new environmental management system of the 21st century.  This group will build on the achievements of EPA's Project XL and the brownfields redevelopment program.  In addition, the Environmental Management Task Force will further recommend policy improvements and opportunities to promote sustainable development.  The Environmental Management Task Force will also look ahead to social, environmental, and economic needs of the future.

The  PCSD is also planning for the future through its National Town Meetings for a New American Dream.  The purpose of this national summit is to form partnerships across the boundaries of politics, business, and the environment so as to create a national dialogue on sustainable development.  The council has planned kickoff events in order to build momentum for the summit which will occur May 2-5, 1999 in Detroit, Michigan.  During this time, PCSD hopes that community organized groups and locally sponsored groups will register so as to promote PCSD goals at the grassroots level.  The community organized groups will be linked to Detroit by satellite or computer technology whereas the locally sponsored groups will be held concurrently with the meeting in Detroit.

Creating a sustainable development program that is grounded in the Bruntland commission definition (see below for more on this and other definitions of sustainability) is the main focus of PCSD.  In order to accomplish this objective, the advisory committee must tackle several obstacles.  To begin with, the committee's goal is to move beyond a political time frame.  Yet, solutions most often become based on a political time scale (2-4 years).  Within this time frame, the PCSD must define programs that attempt to sustain the environment.  In the scientific community, however, sustaining the environment has a time scale of 10-100 years.  Based on the committee's time scale, solutions most often become politically sustainable programs, not environmentally sustainable programs.  Finally, this conflict leads to the inevitable controversy between science and politics.  Science, a discipline of observations and hypotheses, must meet the demand of a political agenda that operates on quick-fix solutions.  Yet, with technology and science becoming a part of each American's everyday life, technical experts and political leaders must find a way to bridge the gap between the two worlds.

9:30- 12:00 pm                            Public Meeting Morning Session
                                           ;          Administration Response to Sustainable America
                                           ;          National Summit Presentation
                                           ;          Presentation on Community Based Climate Solutions
                                           ;          Metropolitan & Rural Strategies Task Force Update
                                           ;          Pacific Northwest Regional Council Update
1:00- 4:00 pm                              Public Meeting Afternoon Session
                                           ;          Presentation on The Importance of Incentives on Early Action
                                           ;          Priority Climate Technologies & Barriers
                                           ;          Environment Management Task Force
                                           ;          Public Comment
Sources: President's Council on Sustainable Development meeting

Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainability is broad, and depending on the group or agency, it can mean many things.  Yet, when examining the various definitions, two categories become apparent.  Sustainability of renewable natural resources occurs when the rate of extraction equals the rate of production of that resource.  Sustainability of human living standards concentrates on the nature of the interaction between humans and Earth.  This latter notion of sustainability can be easily distorted so that the real meaning of sustainable development is unclear.

The concept of sustainable development was first proposed in 1972 at the United Nation's Conference on the Human Environment, yet it was not until 1987 that sustainable development became a policy goal.  In a report to the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development, Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland defined sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".  Although this definition was vague in nature, the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro refined the concept.   Agenda 21 claimed that countries must "seek the mutual goals of economic development and environmental protection for the purpose of fulfilling the basic needs for all".  Since then other environmental, political, and industrial groups have modified this definition to encompass a variety of interactions between humans and their use of the Earth's resources.

Because of these modifications, various groups define sustainable development differently.  The American Association of Engineering Societies accepts the United Nations' statement, but the  Department of Energy holds sustainable development to be a plan through which communities make economic decisions that support the environment and quality of life.  To the business sector, sustainable development means "adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders while protecting, sustaining, and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future".  In addition, the World Conservation Strategy devised a five-prong test to determine the depth of sustainable development.  To be considered sustainable development, the activity must integrate conservation and development, satisfy basic human needs, achieve equity and social justice, provide for social self-determination and cultural diversity, and maintain ecological integrity.  Because these concepts address different aspects of sustainable development, they remain open to interpretation.

Perhaps the best way to understand sustainable development is to examine various case studies.  The Great Plains Partnership concentrates on reforming agricultural land use practices, preventing the destruction of wildlife habitats, and improving air quality.  In addition, the Integrated Community Planning program in Oakland addresses air pollution, hazardous waste disposal, and lead contamination.  Lastly, the Integration of Environmental Protection, Economic Prosperity, and Community Well-Being project in Oregon proposes to build 1,760 sq. ft. straw bale high school classroom in order to reduce air pollution, lower energy costs, and decrease the use of timber.  In this sense, sustainable development can be considered the use of the Earth's resources in a manner which is efficient and preserves the quality of the environment as humans know it.

Sources: American Association of Engineering Societies, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, International Institute for Sustainable Development, National Research Council, and Novartis Foundation  

Non-Renewable Resources

In 1996, the National Research Council Committee on Earth Resources held a workshop to address the issue of sustainability as it applies to mineral resources.  The following summarizes their report Mineral Resources and Sustainability: Challenges for Earth Sciences.

At first glance, it seems difficult to accept the notion that development of non-renewable resources can be sustainable.  Yet, recent breakthroughs in technology point to this being the case.  To begin with, perfecting the process of exploration can enhance the rate of locating mineral deposits.  It can also pinpoint additional reserves and hidden mineral deposits at the same time as lowering the costs of discovery.  Along the lines of reducing cost, technological advancements in mining and mineral processing allow profitable mineral production.  In addition, such actions as recycling and replacing a scarce mineral with an plentiful one can also create a sense of sustainability in the production of non-renewable resources.

Although technology allows mineral depletion to be considered somewhat sustainable, scientists must overcome several challenges in order to avoid outright destruction of the land and its resources.  Researchers should improve the scientific basis for discussions of the sufficiency of mineral resources.  This foundation includes implementing narrower definitions for labeling submarginal mineral resources and fostering a better understanding of the "mineralogical barrier."  The "mineralogical barrier" refers to the fact that mineral resources occur in many ranges of enrichment and in various chemical states.  In addition, increased data on yearly alterations in mineral reserves and information on the progression of mineral resources over time give scientists the opportunity to discuss factors concerning mineral supply in a public policy arena.  The public policy realm includes correspondence to lawmakers on the changing nature of mineral supply with special attention to the notion of "running out".  Lastly, full integration of recycling and reuse concepts can go a long way in creating sustainable resource development.

Specifically, non-renewable resource development is most frequently known through the process of mining.  Although mining produces overburden-- removed soil and rock that can chemically react with water and leach acid-- there are avenues to sustainable mining.  Developers must balance the advantages of mining with its damages and costs.  Moreover, they should pursue improved methods of mining and mineral processing that can lower costs and environmental degradation.

In order to reach this goal, researchers must produce information on the environmental impacts of mining, on the expenses of environmental compliance in connection with mining, and on the best techniques of environmental management for mineral development.  Basic science should be utilized to enhance such environmental management and restoration ecology for mineral processing.  Lastly, scientists must educate policy leaders and ordinary citizens on the consequences that mining bears on the environment.

Through public policy, government can help direct activities that sustain mineral supplies.  Although incentives exist for private companies to sponsor such programs, the challenge of sustainability is too great to leave to the private sector.  Government's most vital role can be realized by funding areas that promote scientific and technological discoveries that increase the efficiency of mineral production.  For it is this technological advancement that holds the key for creating a sustained mineral development project and for minimizing the environmental consequences of mineral processing.

Source: Mineral Resources and Sustainability: Challenges for Earth Sciences, National Research Council

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Shannon Clark, AGI Government Affairs Intern

Posted June 12, 1998; Last updated June 19, 1998

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