Future Scenarios and Environmental Analysis

Can futures studies increase the usefulness of environmental analysis tools?

There is a need for prospective thinking in tools used for environmental systems analysis. Using future studies—including predictive, explorative, and normative scenario planning—could improve environmental analysis tools, making them more adequate for long term planning.

What are environmental analysis tools? These are tools that have been developed to facilitate the inclusion of environmental aspects in decision-making. Different tools are used based on what specific decisions need to be made and in what context.1

Environmental analysis tools can be organized into two segments: procedural and analytical. Procedural tools include environmental impact assessment (EIA), strategic environmental assessment (SEA), and environmental management systems (EMS). These tools focus on procedures and are often prime components of decision-making.

Analytical tools can be used within procedural frameworks and can include economic aspects, such as in cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Other analytical tools include life cycle assessment (LCA), life cycle costing (LCC) and input-output analysis (IOA), which is a main component used within the system of environmental and economic accounts (SEEA).

Since these tools are often used to describe future impacts, it would make sense to include scenarios of the future in which these impacts occur. Utilizing scenario planning could assist with this, but the nexus of future studies and environmental analysis tools is little explored. This is surprising, given that global trends require normative planning of needed scenarios—like the development of a strategic vision for environmentally sustainable sectors and regions.

How can the marriage of future studies tools and environmental analysis tools help to envision and benchmark a more sustainable future? Let’s take a look.

SEA: Strategic Environmental Assessment

SEA is a process that aims to integrate environmental concerns into strategic decisions such as policy-making, business plans and municipal programs. Although SEA has traditionally been a main provision of impact reports, it has increasingly been considered its own process for supporting decision-making.2 The SEA process itself includes a scoping situation assessment, alternatives generation, environmental analysis, valuation, documentation and a follow up plan.

Since SEA is concerned with the assessment of strategic decisions and their consequences, it needs to be able to take into account various possible futures. SEA is, in theory, future oriented, but the analysis is often static and does not account for changes in the evolving world where those decisions would take place.

Scenario planning has been used in conjunction with SEA, such as in the 2003 and 2015 Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan preparation process in Germany.3 Another impact assessment used SEA to determine an accurate waste incineration tax. Different decision alternatives were combined with forecasts on waste volumes, which were then compared with normative scenarios developed to maximize energy recovery and minimize greenhouse gas emissions.4

SEA can not only be an important part of evaluating environmental impacts of suggested decisions, it can—and should—also influence the goal formation itself, the selection of alternatives to be investigated, and representation of certain stakeholders in the process.2 In order to influence goal formation, for example, SEA could include a normative futures scenario to develop more environmentally sustainable situations.

LCA: Life Cycle Assessment

Environmental life cycle assessment is defined (based on ISO) as the compilation and evaluation of the material and energy flows and of the potential environmental impacts of the life cycle of a product. From “cradle to grave,” a life cycle assessment is meant to include not only physical stages, but service stages as well.

LCA is helpful at producing information for decision-makers by comparing the environmental impacts of products or by assessing the environmental aspects of a decision, such as the effect of using certain materials or waste management processes. LCA can also help pinpoint where in a lifecycle exists the most potential for improvement in terms of environmental performance.

In several ways, LCA inherently captures future scenarios of products by describing an entire life cycle. For example, in LCAs of products with long expected lifetimes, such as cars, housing, and power plants, the waste management phase and part of the use phase take place far into the future.

Due to resource constraints, most LCAs are still based on input data that was measured several years prior rather than current data. Plus, many LCAs run into shortcomings when trying to collect the thousands of data items necessary for an accurate life cycle assessment. This can reduce the value of long-term forecasts and other predictive scenarios.

While using LCAs to forecast long-term perspectives can be difficult, this environmental analysis tool can offer valuable information when evaluating future environmental impacts of certain products, services, suppliers, materials and waste management processes.

EMS: Environmental Management Systems

Environmental management systems (EMS) may contain the most potential on an organizational level for fusing futures tools with environmental analysis.

EMS is a standardized tool for structured and effective management of environmental issues in organizations. According to the ISO-standard ISO 14001, an EMS can “enable an organization to develop and implement a policy and objectives which take into account legal requirements and other requirements to significant environmental aspects.” An EMS is tailored according to an individual organization’s own needs and management culture, but must comply with requirements stated in the ISO standard if the organization wants to be in accordance with ISO 14001.

Today, EMSs are often used to manage present issues, with most EMS objectives focused on improvements of already existing activities. Organizations could likely benefit if EMSs were used more to develop environmental strategies that would imply a more strategic—and forward-looking—management system.

For example, predictive scenarios and what-if scenarios could be useful for short-term risk reduction and reduction of costs, such as those involved with coming legislation. Merely incorporating EMS into long-term, alternative scenario planning could influence the activities of the organization, such as helping to formulate environmental policy and long-term sustainability goals.

Companies that decide to use normative scenario planning to develop EMS activities to include more radical and long-term changes are better prepared for coming changes and experience reduction of both short- and long-term environmental risks.2

Incorporating environmental analysis tools into long-term planning can better inform current strategies and make them more realizable. Whether on the national level when making emissions reductions goals or on the company level when reducing compliance risk, informing scenario planning through environmental analysis tools, and vice versa, is a productive avenue for initiating and managing long term change.


1 Moberg, A. (2006.) Environmental systems analysis tools for decision-making: LCA and Swedish waste management as an example. Royal Institute of Technology Department of Urban Planning and Environment Environmental Strategies Research.

2 Hojer, M., Ahlroth, S., Drebor, K., Ekvall, T., Finnveden, G., Hjelm, O., et al. (2008). Scenarios in selected tools for environmental systems analysis. Journal of Cleaner Production 16, pp. 1958-1970.

3 Wende, W., Hanusch, M., Gassner, E., Guennewig, D., Koeppel, J., Lambrecht, H., et al. (2004). Requirements of the SEA directive and the German federal transport infrastructure plan. European Environment, 14, pp. 105-22.

4 Nilsson, M., Bjorkland, A., Fennveden, G., Johansson, J., (2005). Testing an Sea methodology for the energy sector—a waste incineration tax proposal. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 25, pp. 1-35.