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Environmental Risk: Harmonising Assessment, Protecting Biodiversity

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EFSA has published two Scientific Opinions on environmental risk assessment (ERA), with a third to follow shortly. Reinhilde Schoonjans explains the issues at the heart of this major project.

How is ERA relevant to EFSA’s work?

Environmental risk assessment is central to much of what we do. EFSA performs ERA as part of its evaluations of “regulated products” – pesticides, genetically modified organisms, and additives in food and animal feed – and of invasive alien species that are harmful to plant health. So as well as assessing the potential risks to human health from such products, we also look at the harm they may cause to the environment.


Why have you produced these opinions?

It has become apparent in recent years that because of the different requirements laid down in legislative frameworks, we have developed a variety of approaches to ERA. The aim of the current documents is to harmonise the way we approach ERA at EFSA. We identified three areas in particular where we could – and should – establish common approaches: the specification of biodiversity-related protection goals at the start of the assessment; coverage of endangered species; and the potential for ecological recovery following damage.

So the new documents propose a more consistent approach to performing ERA?

“The decline of biodiversity is a concern for us all that needs to be addressed urgently.”


Yes. When implemented by EFSA’s panels of scientific experts, these documents will help to harmonise assessment of potential “stressors” – such as feed additives, invasive species or pesticides – before they are allowed on to the market or spread into our environment. Many of the principles described are also applicable to stressors that are assessed outside EFSA, such as biocides.
The three documents help to clarify what a risk assessor needs to focus on. For society, these documents allow a transparent overview of how EFSA conducts its work and which criteria underlie the steps and choices made in ERA.

What are protection goals and why are they important?

Protection goals are included in legislative frameworks with one purpose: to protect humans, animals and the environment from harm. One example of a protection goal is biodiversity. This is a very broad term that people use all the time. But for risk assessors it is too broad. It has to be interpreted and defined before it can be used in ERA. We have to know exactly which aspects of biodiversity we want focus on.
To put it another way, a policy protection goal has to be translated into an operational or specific protection goal for the ERA of regulated products. One way to do this is to identify first the “ecosystem service” that can be affected by the stressor under assessment. Ecosystem services deliver support to human societies through ecological functions and processes – examples include food provision, water purification, pollination and cultural benefits. As a second step in the translation of broad protection goals, the risk assessor identifies the “service providing unit”, which is most frequently a population of a given key species. One example of a service-providing unit is the honeybee, which provides the service of pollination.

Is the document on specific protection goals a guidance document?

Yes, it is intended to give practical help to risk assessors and other relevant bodies. The aim is to describe in detail all the steps needed to turn policy protection goals into operational protection goals. It extends the way we currently work on pesticides to a wider range of potential stressors assessed by EFSA, such as additives in feed. The aim is to embed this guidance in future guidance documents of EFSA’s expert panels and to apply it in problem formulation at the start of ERA.

Why look particularly at endangered species?

The decline of biodiversity is a concern for us all that needs to be addressed urgently. This Scientific Opinion explores to what extent endangered species are covered in the current ERA schemes. It also reviews the characteristics that determine vulnerability and whether endangered species can be affected more than non-endangered species by potential stressors.

Where does the concept of recovery fit in?

When regulated products are used, it is sometimes inevitable that there will be effects at different ecological levels – individual, population, community. This is because risk managers make trade-off decisions – for example, to ensure food security. These trade-off decisions, however, should be supported by explicit information on how the affected ecological entities recover – where and over what time span. Also, invasive alien species may impact upon the ecosystems they invade; in these cases it is essential to have knowledge of the rate and degree to which affected ecosystems recover in order to take appropriate measures against the invaders. This Scientific Opinion describes what information is needed to estimate when the affected ecological entity is likely to return to its normal function and the ecosystem services it provides be restored.

What happens next?

The three documents will improve our understanding of the complexity of the European environment potentially impacted by stressors that fall under the remit of EFSA. The documents will enable us to better address the direct and indirect effects that stressors can have on entities providing ecosystem services and on biodiversity. Risk assessors and risk managers will now discuss how to make best use of these common frameworks.

Energy

Are the UK Governments Plans for the Energy Sector Smart?

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The revolution in the energy sector marches on, wind turbines and solar panels are harnessing more renewable energy than ever before – so where is it all leading?

The UK government have recently announced plans to modernise the way we produce, store and use electricity. And, if realised, the plans could be just the thing to bring the energy sector in line with 21st century technology and ideologies.


Central to the plans is an initiative that will see smart meters installed in homes and businesses the length and breadth of the country – and their aim? To create an environment where electricity can be managed more efficiently.

The news has prompted some speculation about how energy suppliers will react and many are predicting a price war. This could benefit consumers of electricity and investors, many of whom may be looking to make a profit by trading energy company shares online using platforms such as Oanda – but the potential for good news doesn’t end there.

Introducing New Technology

The plan, titled Smart Systems and Flexibility is being rolled out in the hope that it will have a positive impact in three core areas.

  • To offer consumers greater control by making smart meters available for all homes and businesses by 2020. Energy users will be able to monitor, control and record the amount of energy they use.
  • Incentivise energy suppliers to change the manner in which they buy electricity, to offer more smart tariffs and more off-peak periods for energy consumption.
  • Introduce new standards for electrical appliances – it is hoped that the new wave of appliances will recognise when electricity is at its cheapest and at its most expensive and respond accordingly.

How the Plans Will Affect Solar Energy

Around 7 million houses in the UK have solar panels and the government say that their plan will benefit them as they will be able to store electricity on batteries. The stored energy can then be used by the household and excess energy can be exported to the national grid – in this instance lower tariffs or even payment for the excess energy will bring down annual costs significantly.


The rate of return on energy exported to the national grid is currently between 6% and 10%, but there are many variables to take into account, such as, the cost of battery storage and light levels. Still, those with state-of-the-art solar electricity systems could end up with an annual profit after selling their excess energy.

The Internet of Things

Much of what the plans set out to achieve are linked to the now ubiquitous “internet of things” – where, for example, appliances and heating systems are connected to the internet in order to make them function more smartly.

Companies like Hive have already made great inroads into this type of technology, but the road that the government plans are heading down, will, potentially, go much further -blockchain technology looms and has already proved to be a game changer in the world of currency.

Blockchain Technology

It has already been suggested that the peer to peer selling of energy and exporting it to the national grid may eventually be done using blockchain technology.

“The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.”

Don and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution (2016)

The upshot of the government’s plans for the revolution of the energy sector, is that technology will play an indelible role in making it more efficient, more flexible and ultimately more sustainable.

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Energy

4 Case Studies on the Benefits of Solar Energy

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Demand for solar energy is growing at a surprising rate. New figures from SolarPower Europe show that solar energy production has risen 50% since the summer of 2016.

However, many people are still skeptical of the benefits of solar energy.Does it actually make a significant reduction in our carbon footprint? Is it actually cost-effective for the company over the long-run?


A number of case studies have been conducted, which indicate solar energy can be enormously beneficial. Here are some of the most compelling studies on the subject.

1.     Boulder Nissan

When you think of companies that leverage solar power, car dealerships probably aren’t the first ones that come to mind. However, Boulder Nissan is highly committed to promoting green energy. They worked with Independent Power Systems to setup a number of solar cells. Here were the results:

  • Boulder Nissan has reduced coal generated electricity by 65%.
  • They are on track to run on 100% renewable energy within the next 13 years.
  • Boulder Nissan reduced CO2 emissions by 416,000 lbs. within the first year after installing their solar panels.

This is one of the most impressive solar energy case studies a small business has published in recent years. It shows that even small companies in rural communities can make a major difference by adapting solar energy.

2.     Valley Electric Association

In 2015, the Valley Electric Association (VEA) created an 80-acre solar garden. Before retiring from the legislature, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid praised the new project as a way to make the state more energy dependent and reduce our carbon footprint.


“This facility will provide its customers with the opportunity to purchase 100 percent of their electricity from clean energy produced in Nevada,” Reid told reporters with the Pahrump Valley Times. “That’s a step forward for the Silver State, but it also proves that utilities can work with customers to provide clean renewable energy that they demand.”

The solar energy that VEA produced was drastically higher than anyone would have predicted. SolarWorld estimates that the solar garden created 32,680,000 kwh every year, which was enough to power nearly 4,000 homes.

This was a major undertaking for a purple state, which may inspire their peers throughout the Midwest to develop solar gardens of their own. It will reduce dependency on the electric grid, which is a problem for many remote states in the central part of the country.

3.     Las Vegas Casinos

A number of Las Vegas casinos have started investing in solar panels over the last couple of years. The Guardian reports that many of these casinos have cut costs considerably. Some of them are even selling the energy back to the grid.

“It’s no accident that we put the array on top of a conference center. This is good business for us,” Cindy Ortega, chief sustainability officer at MGM Resorts told Guardian reporters. “We are looking at leaving the power system, and one of the reasons for that is we can procure more renewable energy on the open market.”

There have been many benefits for casinos using solar energy. They are some of the most energy-intensive institutions in the world, so this has helped them become much more cost-effective. It also helps minimize disruptions to their customers learning online keno strategies in the event of any problems with the electric grid.

4.     Boston College

Boston College has been committed to many green initiatives over the years. A group of researchers experimented with solar cells on different parts of the campus to see where they could produce the most electricity. They discovered that the best locationwas at St. Clement’sHall. The solar cells there dramatically. It would also reduce CO2 emissions by 521,702 lbs. a year and be enough to save 10,869 trees.

Boston College is exploring new ways to expand their usage of solar cells. They may be able to invest in more effective solar panels that can generate far more solar energy.

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