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4 Ways Environmental Management Will Change in 2021

Although we're only a few months into 2021, the field of environmental management has already undergone significant change. The ongoing pandemic, growing concerns about climate change, and a new administration in office are all shaping the role of environmental professionals within their organizations. These are the four key areas where we anticipate environmental management will change in the coming year.

1. New legislation will address environmental impacts

The new administration will usher in a massive wave of regulatory changes. President Biden's agenda includes rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, reaching net zero by 2050, and ensuring environmental justice. New laws will be aimed at reestablishing rules repealed by the former administration, as well as establishing new policies to achieve the environmental goals he's promised.

In the first week alone, President Biden signed 37 executive orders — many of which were focused on the environment. It is likely this trend will continue, so environmental professionals must be prepared to keep up with regulatory changes in order to ensure their companies stay compliant with emerging rules. 

2. ESG will become a boardroom issue

Increasingly, a broad range of stakeholders are concerned with a business’ environmental impacts. Strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance correlates with better returns, so naturally investors are looking to put their money in companies that have good ESG performance. Customers and employees, too, want to know that the businesses they’re supporting are good stewards of the environment. Regulators are also taking notice; the US Securities and Exchange Commission has even formed an enforcement task force to examine misconduct related to environmental, social and governance issues.

All of these factors mean that ESG will be seen as a strategic business issue. That’s evident from the fact that many companies are now linking executive pay to ESG performance. Indeed, organizations have begun shunning fluffy, feel-good sustainability narratives in favor of evidence-based ESG targets that hold people accountable at the highest levels of the organization. 

3. Environmental professionals will act in an advisory capacity

As regulatory risk and financial pressures increase, organizations will be looking to demonstrate their commitment to environmental stewardship. Consequently,  environmental professionals will play an important role in shaping the programs and policies of the organization. 

Executives — whose pay now depends on ESG performance — will rely on environmental professionals’ specialized expertise and knowledge to make the best decisions going forward. With the increased emphasis on environmental issues, we expect to see more environmental professionals reporting directly to the C-suite in the coming year. Indeed, NAEM found that one in four sustainability professionals reported to the CEO in 2020, compared to one in ten just four years earlier. These numbers will only increase as time goes on. 

4. The environmental function will make more use of technology, including asset-level monitoring, to oversee and improve performance

More regulations will mean more complex reporting requirements. As these demands increase, so too will the need for more timely, accurate data. Poor quality or stale data can prevent organizations from meeting new regulatory requirements and result in significant fines or penalties. 

Likewise, accurate data will be necessary in order to achieve ESG targets. Improving environmental outcomes requires a complete understanding of the business' performance. Organizations will need to be able to connect the dots between chemical use, energy consumption, production throughput, emissions, and other environmental impacts. Because of this, asset-level monitoring will be an area of particular interest. 

Asset-level monitoring refers to the practice of collecting environmental data at the source, or asset, level. For example, capturing emissions data for individual pumps and boilers. Collecting data with this level of granularity allows organizations to identify the exact areas in need of improvement so they can focus their efforts on the areas that will make the most impact. And, it saves them from spending money on efforts that don’t move the needle. 

While these kinds of tools have been available for some time now, organizations are finally catching up to the technology. That’s especially true for small- and mid-sized organizations, which have waited on the sidelines when it comes to big data and analytics. 

What’s next?

2021 may be young, but it’s clear that environmental management will be a driving force for many businesses moving forward. Regulatory changes will create more risks of running afoul. Meanwhile, the rise of ESG will challenge businesses to go beyond the benchmarks set by federal and local policies. Only time will tell how organizations will adapt, but we expect that environmental professionals — and their data — will play a key role. 

Next, six environmental data management best practices you should know. 

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