Determining Significant Environmental Aspects.


Identifying an organisation’s environmental aspects, and which of those are significant, is one of the most important parts of ISO14001:2015 – yet it can be one of the trickiest for the uninitiated.

An ‘aspect’ is anything an organisation does that interacts with the environment, which leads to environmental impacts which can be either detrimental or beneficial. Aspects can be related to an organisation’s activities, or its products or services. So, for example, a company that uses vehicles, might have ‘use of fuel’ as an environmental aspect, with a related negative impact of air pollution, or contribution to climate change.

By examining all its environmental aspects, and determining which of those are significant, the organisation is taking a quantifiable approach to understanding what is important for it to control and improve. This helps to ensure that the focus of the Environmental Management System (EMS) is on the right areas, and that risks and compliance obligations are managed, stakeholder expectations are met, and emergency situations are prepared for.

The ISO14001 standard, and related guidance, presents various requirements and considerations when determining significant environmental aspects, which can be daunting to tackle for those who are not environmental or compliance specialists. But with some knowledge and a methodical approach, anyone can complete an effective evaluation. So, what are the key things to consider?

Firstly, the environmental aspects and impacts (related to activities, products or services) need to be relevant to the scope of the management system. This is particularly important if the organisation has more than one site – don’t assume that what goes on at one location will be identical at another; some sites might have particular activities or characteristics that set them apart. It’s also important to think about any changes that may happen. Reorganisation, new equipment or even just changes in staff numbers could affect the aspects or their significance.



Similarly, it’s essential to think about different potential scenarios, and the standard specifically requires consideration of normal, abnormal and emergency situations. Not surprisingly, ‘normal’ situations are those that are routine and everyday – people working in an office, or goods being produced in a factory. ‘Abnormal’ situations are expected to some degree but they’re likely to be less frequent; production start-up, shut-down, planned maintenance, refurbishment or seasonal peaks could be examples. Whereas ‘emergency situations’ are not intended but may have serious consequences – fire, flood, leaks, spills, vandalism etc. could all impact the organisation and the environment.

There is also a need to think about the ‘life cycle’ of products and services. This means that it’s not only important to consider what happens within the organisation’s premises, but also what may be happening up or downstream of the organisation. For example, the extraction of raw materials, logistics, product use and final disposal could be significant. For some organisations, such as services, the direct environmental impacts may be low, but the impact of the projects they work on may be much more significant. This brings in the notion of ‘control and influence’. Often, it may be suppliers or clients that have control over decisions, but the organisation should still recognise where it could influence through choices and recommendations.

All of these considerations have to be brought together and documented, along with reliable criteria that produce consistent results. Exactly how that is done is up to the organisation. But a common approach is to calculate the likelihood of something happening, multiplied by the consequence if it does, with a threshold above which it is deemed significant. Sometimes this is supplemented by scoring before and after controls are applied. Considering whether there are relevant legal or stakeholder requirements may also determine significance.

The output should be clear and helpful in the planning of the EMS. Aspects that are significant should be subject to controls, and those that are most significant are good candidates for improvement objectives and performance monitoring. If this is done well, the organisation can have confidence that environmental initiatives are properly targeted.



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