The Use of Environmental Limits in Regulating Environmental Systems – How Could the Concept be Applied by Environmental Agencies?

January 2010


1.1 Background

Following the publication of the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA 2005), it is now increasingly recognised that natural resource systems can provide a range of benefits to people. These benefits include for example, clean and regular water supply, the production of food and fibre, and the protection of communities from hazards. External pressures, such as pollution or over-use of resources, may impact upon natural resource systems and diminish the number or quality of the benefits that the systems resources provide. Eventually the system may reach a tipping point or people may judge that a critical point has been reached, beyond which the reduction in benefit is no longer acceptable or tolerable. A review of recent peer-reviewed literature suggests that such a critical level can best be described as an environmental limit (EL).

In the UK, the importance of understanding ELs has been highlighted by the ‘UK Sustainable Development Strategy’; ‘Choosing Our Future: Scotland's Sustainable Development Strategy’; and ‘First Steps Towards Sustainability: Northern Ireland Sustainable Development Strategy’.

The UK Sustainable Development Strategy identified “Living within Environmental Limits” as one of the principles for sustainable development. The strategy committed the government to review current concepts of ELs, collate research to identify shortfalls in understanding and make a strategic assessment of future research needs. Although such work is progressing, the task is particularly challenging. The EL concept cuts across a number of different knowledge areas and information is often incomplete, fragmented and/ or difficult to access.

A report published by Defra in 20061 suggests that while good scientific understanding of the concept is emerging, the use of this knowledge in a robust way to underpin legislative and regulatory frameworks remains problematic. As a result this research, commissioned by SNIFFER is both appropriate and timely.

Due to the emphasis which both the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly have placed on sustainable development, it is recognised that the environmental regulators (SEPA and NIEA in the current context) have a significant role to play in understanding and respecting the limits of the planet’s environment. It can be stated that all environmental regulators have practical familiarity with the concepts of Els and/ or thresholds, regardless if their application is explicit or implicit. Nevertheless, there is concern from environmental practitioners that the application of the concept of ELs is widely ignored throughout significant areas of policy-making (e.g. fisheries management) and that the term itself may end up corrupted or becoming practically meaningless.

Questions about ELs, and their implications for policies related to natural resource protection, have emerged as important drivers in discussions of how the goals of sustainable development might be achieved. In the international arena, for example, the importance of understanding environmental limits and thresholds has been emphasised by the EU, through its 7th Framework Programme2. The latter has supported several major integrated projects3 that seek to develop the concept as one of the tools for sustainability assessment.

1.2 Project Objectives

The key project objectives are:

  1. 1Provide a working definition of EL for use by environmental regulators by reviewing the differing definitions and effectiveness of the use of the concept in relation to sustainable development in the UK;
  2. 2Identify the mechanisms by which EL is currently incorporated into regulatory decision making by means of a case study (e.g. soil protection);
  3. 3Identify strengths, weaknesses gaps and inconsistencies in application;
  4. 4Using the same case study, explore potential changes which may impact upon the requirement for regulators to incorporate the concept of EL; and
  5. 5To identify if there is a need for developing generic guidance and/or detailed checklist guidance on incorporating the concept of EL into environmental regulation and recommend options on how this could be achieved.

1.3 Project Structure

The project consisted of the following main tasks:

  1. Task 1 – Desk study review of the concept of EL;
  2. Task 2 – Case Study: Soil Protection: identification of how ELs are currently incorporated into regulatory decision-making and where this (incorporation of EL) could be improved by means of a case study area; soil protection;
  3. Task 3 – Regulators Workshop and need for guidance: regulators workshop establish whether there is a need for guidance on the use of EL (both generic and for soil protection), and its incorporation into environmental regulation; and
  4. Task 4 – Production of project report: summary of the findings of each of the tasks and recommendations on future work and ways forward.

1.4 Task 4 – Final Report

This report addresses Task 4; incorporating the outcomes of Tasks 1, 2 and 3 as well as recommendations on future work and ways forward.

This report is structured in the following sections:

  1. Introduction (Section 1);
  2. What is an EL? (Section 2);
  3. Current use of ELs – soil protection as a case study (Section 3);
  4. Incorporation of EL and emerging soil legislation (Section 4); and
  5. Do we need guidance on how to use ELs? (Section 5).

1 Haines-Young, R. and Potschin, M. and D. Cheshire (2006): Defining and Identifying Environmental
3 and

Copies of this report are available from the Foundation, in electronic format on CDRom at £20.00 + VAT or hard copy at £25.00, less 20% to FWR members.

N.B. The report is available for download from the SNIFFER Website