ISO 14001:2015 was released on September 14, 2015. This updated standard for environmental management addresses the ever-changing nature and understanding of anthropogenic environmental problems. Revisions to ISO 14001 include life-cycle thinking and inclusion of the Annex SL, which will also be important for the update of ISO 9001. All of these changes have been thoroughly discussed in past posts.
When it comes to the environment, many issues arise directly from human society and the use of natural resources for industry. This includes somewhat simple concepts like cutting down trees to acquire wood, which can easily be monitored and mitigated, but also more complex ones, such as the burning of natural resources to generate energy, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
An increased atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases can contribute to climate change, a concept that we have described in past posts. However, truly understanding the impact of climate change can be difficult to wrap your head around. Since people cannot easily observe its effects, they find it hard to understand the dangers that can derive from it.
Some people might see trends of snowfall that are no different than those they have been seeing for their entire lives and arrive at the conclusion that the climate is not changing. For this assertion, there is a simple answer: weather is not climate. One, or many, days of snow in the winter is not necessarily representative of the climate, or long-term weather patterns, of a region. While scientists currently cannot attribute climate change to the effects of significant storms and hurricanes in recent years, such as Superstorm Sandy, there is scientific consensus that climate change has the potential to cause storms similar to these in the near future.
Some parts of the world have already been observably impacted by climate change. In northwest Alaska, the melting of the polar ice has been detrimental to the wildlife that the locals depend upon as a source of food. In a local village with a population of 400, Kivalina, the locals are suffering from this loss of wildlife in addition to the rising sea levels near their homes. At this point, they believe that their only option is to relocate the entire town in the next several years, something that could cost millions.
For the rest of the world, one of the reasons why we are not seeing a similar impact now is because of the ability of the Earth to absorb heat. The oceans act as giant sinks, taking in a large amount of the greenhouse gases and heat so that they do not remain in the atmosphere. Also, the oceans are kept cool by the polar ice caps. The ice in the poles acts as a buffer, preventing the ocean from heating. In the Earth’s climate system, when the oceans absorb a significant portion heat from the atmosphere, a lot of that heat is taken in by the polar ice. This has been a key factor in delaying the effects of climate change.
For the oceans, the effects of increased carbon content can be severe. More carbon dioxide in ocean water can lead to ocean acidification, which at extreme amounts prevents the bicarbonate shells of marine life from forming. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the ocean’s acidity has changed by 30 percent, so there is a direct correlation between carbon dioxide emissions and ocean acidification. The raised temperatures and sea levels can have even more widespread effects. Higher sea levels can alter the ocean’s currents, affecting the frequency and magnitude of storms.
If the ocean were unable to manage the Earth’s greenhouse gases and heat, a greater amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would produce an even greater increase of heat in the Earth’s air.
In the past, climate change has caused a great loss of life. The life on Earth has gone through five mass extinctions, each putting an end to a significant amount of the animal species on the planet in a limited amount of time. The most well-known of these occurred 65 million years ago, when an asteroid collided with the Earth to craft the still-formed Chicxulub Crater. This spread countless particles and gases throughout the atmosphere, and the resulting change in climate was too much for the dinosaur inhabitants of the planet to bear, causing them to die out.
According to an article in The New Yorker, we are undergoing the sixth mass extinction event, which is directly related to human activity . Currently, species are reaching extinction at a rate 100 times higher than normal. This can only become worse with a changing climate, since climatic change has been one of the contributing factors of the past mass extinctions. For example, the largest extinction event to ever occur happened 250 million years ago. The Permian extinction, resulting from the carbon dioxide that heated the Earth and the other gases that cooled the Earth through the “haze effect”, ended 95 percent of all marine life and 70 percent of terrestrial life on the planet.
If the “sixth extinction” occurs, humans likely will not go extinct, but they will not be completely untouched from the effects of climate change. Storms occurring from rising sea levels easily have the ability to reach coastal cities, which can have profound effects on the inhabitants. Rising atmospheric temperatures can also increase the dangers of already-hot regions of the globe, not just from health reasons such as heatstroke, but also from the stresses placed on natural resources. For example, greater temperatures can cause a significant portion of the water supply in these regions to evaporate. This can increase tension between adjacent nations, leading to international conflict.
So what exactly does ISO 14001 have to do with all of this? Greenhouse gas emissions, similar to many anthropogenic environmental issues, have occurred at extreme amounts from a lack of care for the environment. Strategy and planning have been poorly utilized for waste or related externalities until recent years. Some of the key revisions to ISO 14001 are in direct opposition to this past point of view, including a greater commitment from leadership, an increased alignment with strategic direction, and more effective communication. Even the inclusion of life-cycle thinking, which we discussed in a previous post, helps to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the options for emissions in excessive amounts during the different stages of the product life-cycle.
Interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere occur over very long periods of time. So, even if all greenhouse gas emissions were cut tomorrow, it would be difficult to predict when exactly the atmospheric carbon levels would return to levels similar to those prior to the Industrial Revolution. This uncertainty makes it extremely important that action is taken as soon as possible. The mindset with ISO 14001 is aligned with the environmental management interests of the future.