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What is an Environmental Audit?

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  • Written By: David Larson
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2016
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An environmental audit is essentially a performance review of activities that have or might have an impact on the environment. Environmental audits are carried out by environmental auditors or consultants usually registered with the Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment (IEMA). An environmental audit typically measures the performance of the company, organization, or country being audited against environmental standards established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

An environmental audit might include evaluation of performance in three primary areas of environmental concern: liability, management, and activity. A liability audit evaluates compliance with environmental laws and regulations applicable to the company or organization. An activity or functional audit may focus on such issues as waste management or energy consumption. A management audit compares performance with established objectives as stated in an organization’s Environment Management Strategy (EMS). Financial audits relating to compliance with a corporate EMS might measure the financial impact of energy savings, improved efficiencies, and the avoidance of fines and penalties for environmental infractions.

An EMS is a formal organizational structure within a company established primarily for environmental protection. A typical EMS will include the position statement of the organization toward environmental issues. In addition, the EMS will identify planning, implementation, and documentation of activities relating to the EMS position statement. Suggestions to improve EMS performance are often made via an environmental audit.

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Most EMS documents derive from environmental standards established by the ISO. These standards are created through consensus of ISO members, which include 163 countries worldwide as well as national and international business associations. Standards such as ISO 14001, updated in 2006, recommend voluntary inclusion of beneficial environmental activity in corporate or governmental EMS documents. Separate sets of standards are set forth for special needs and groups such as developing nations.

The process for creating standards such as ISO 14001 is consensual, and compliance with agreed-upon standards by members is voluntary. To establish or update a standard, each member nation develops a position document. Drafts of these documents are then sent out to all other member nations, and a series of negotiations takes place until consensus is reached, with voting by all member countries.

Within each ISO member country, various stakeholders participate in the creation of the member’s position document. These stakeholders might include government agencies, non-government agencies, and business interests. When negotiations among members are complete and voting has validated a final standards document, members and their various stakeholders establish individual EMS. Compliance with these standards then becomes the province of an environmental audit.

Auditing an EMS when the environmental audit is undertaken by a registered consultant or auditor may include a general performance assessment of the EMS or specific components of environmental activity. An overarching audit should include an assessment of the environmental impact of production, use, and disposal. A report after an environmental audit will provide guidelines for continual improvement of performance.

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