About UNEP
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
top image
space space space

Newsletter and Technical Publications
<Technical Workbook on Environmental Management Tools for Decision Analysis>

Environmental Management Systems (EMS)

Toru Tamura



Many organizations and entities like local governments and corporations are realizing the importance of having on Environmental Management System (EMS) to help them meet growing public expectations for environmental responsibility and increasingly stringent regulatory requirements. An EMS within an organization is one that follows the well-known Quality Management Approach of "Plan, Do, Check, Improve." It is a problem identification and problem solving tool which can be implemented in many different ways depending on the precise sector or activity, and the needs perceived by management. There is no single best approach to the development and implementation of an EMS, but several common core elements should be present, namely, Environmental Policy, Environmental Program or Action Plan, Organizational Structure, Integration into Operations, Monitoring/ Measurement and Record-Keeping, Corrective & Preventive Action, EMS Audits, Management Review, Training and External Communications. These are discussed in this paper.


One of the outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit conference was Agenda 21, a "global consensus and political commitment at the highest level" on how governments, organizations, non-governmental organizations, and all sectors of society can cooperate to solve the crucial environmental problems of our time.

Because the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) wanted to ensure that business would participate in the process of discussion and decision making, he sought the help of a leading Swiss industrialist in establishing the Business Council on Sustainable Development (BCSD). The BCSD published an important report entitled, "Changing Course," and it also approached the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to discuss the development of environmental standards.

Parallel with these developments, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) developed the Business Charter for Sustainable Development in 1990 which was launched the following year at the Second World Industry Conference on Environmental Management (WICEM).

One of the most important activities of the last few years is perhaps the development of standards in the environmental field, especially those being undertaken by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These are essential if EMS is to be applied within the context of a "level playing field" as required by international trade agreements both within the European Union and the rest of the world (GATT/WTO). Standard developments at the national and European level are also affecting industry worldwide, the main developments being the recognition of the British Standard for EMS (BS 7750) in many countries and the implementation of the Eco Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) in the European Union.

Because of these and many other factors, organizations and entities like local governments are realizing the importance of having an Environment Management System (EMS). This will enable them to meet growing public expectations for environmental responsibility and to ensure compliance with regulatory and industry requirements.


An Environmental Management System within an organization is one that follows the well-known Quality Management approach of "Plan, Do, Check, Improve." It is a problem identification and problem solving tool which can be implemented in many different ways depending on the precise sector or activity and the needs perceived by management.

ISO defines on EMS as "the part of the overall management system that includes organizational structure, planning activities, responsibilities, practices, procedures, processes and resources for developing, implementing, achieving, reviewing and maintaining the environmental policy."

Effective environmental management strives to achieve goals for optimizing resource use and minimizing environmental impact while at the same time maintaining economic/businesses growth and viability. It should ideally be integrated in an organization's overall management system, rather than be treated as a separate effort.

In addition, organizations have an important role to play in promoting sustainable development. An organization may be a company, corporation, firm, organization or institution, or part or combination thereof, whether incorporated or not, public or private, that has its own functions and administration. For organizations with more than one operating unit, a single operating unit may be defined as an organization.

In its 1987 Report entitled Our Common Future, the "Brundtland Commission" (World Commission on Environment and Development) defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Core elements of EMS

There is no single best approach to the development and implementation of an EMS since it depends on the nature, size and complexity of the activities, products and services within the organization. Yet all Environmental Management Systems have a number of core elements in common. These are as follows:

  1. An Environmental Policy is usually published as a written Environmental Policy Statement, expressing the commitment of senior management to improving appropriate environmental performance. It is most often
    understood as a public statement of the intentions and principles of action for the organization regarding the environment. The policy statement should define the broad environmental goals the organization has decided to achieve. These are most clear if they are quantified. For example, a chemical company issued a policy statement: "to reduce emissions of pollutants by 95% within five years." A municipality might adopt the policy: "to provide sewerage and biological treatment of sludge for 60% of the population within three years."
  2. An Environmental Program or Action Plan describes the measures the organization will take over the coming year(s). The Environmental Program or Action Plan translates the environmental policies of the organization into objectives and targets and identifies the activities to achieve them, defines responsibilities and commits the necessary human and financial resources for implementation. Whether in companies or local government, the action plan commits the necessary funds and staff to meet each goal, and provides for monitoring and coordination of progress towards these separate goals and the overall policy goal. The program also uses the assembled overview of the environmental aspects of the organization and the overview of legal and other requirements that have to be fulfilled. This information is collected for the first time by performing an Environmental Review.
  3. Organizational structures establish assignments, delegate authority and assign responsibility for actions. In the case of organizations with multiple sites or different activities, this includes organizational structures for the organization as a whole as well as for the separate operating units. The senior staff member responsible for the environment typically has a direct reporting relationship to the head of the organization. Individuals holding strategic or line environmental responsibilities should be adequately supported with human and financial resources.
  4. The integration of environmental management into regular operations, which includes procedures for incorporating environmental measures into other aspects of the organization's operations such as the protection of workers, purchasing, R & D, product development, mergers and acquisitions, marketing, finance, etc. in the case of companies, or the safety, health, and welfare of the community in the case of a local government. This encompasses the development of specific environmental procedures, usually detailed in operating manuals and other operating instructions describing measures and actions to take in the implementation of the Environmental Programme or Action Plan.
    Environmental procedures can include:
    • Awareness raising on relevant environmental issues, environ-mental policy, objectives, targets, and role of every employee or of the community in the environmental management system.
    • Internal communication, receiving and responding to communication from external interested parties.
    • EMS documentation and document control.
    • Operational control: procedures and criteria for the operations and activities, as well as goods and services and the suppliers and contractors of the organization.
    • Risk assessment and emergency response plans to identify potential accidents and prevent them from becoming catastrophes.


{short description of image}

Table of Contents

  • Brochure
  • IETC Brochure

  • International Year of Forests
  • International Year of Forests

  • World Environment Day
  • ??????

  • UNEP Campaign
  • UNite to Combat Climate Change