Science & Tech

Bolstering private environmental management

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Wisdom questioned of new government regulatory approach

How can government agencies best regulate private firms’ impact on the environment? One popular new approach — advocated by state agencies and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — is to create “tracks” of environmental performance to identify strong and weak performers. Strong performers receive recognition and rewards, including flexibility in meeting enforcement goals. Two Harvard researchers question the wisdom of this philosophy, however, finding flaws in the new approach to what are called environmental management systems, or EMS. Cary Coglianese, associate professor of public policy and chair of the Regulatory Policy Program at the Kennedy School of Government, and Jennifer Nash, director of the Regulatory Policy Program, point out that “Improvements may depend much more on how effectively and ambitiously an EMS is implemented, how well the organization is managed overall, and how committed the managers are to seeing that the firm achieves real and continuous improvement. These factors will always be harder for public agencies to assess. Reduced regulatory oversight may actually weaken the EMSs that firms implement, because incentives for using EMSs aggressively to achieve positive outcomes may be reduced.”