SocEnv seeks greater influence
In the seven years since its launch, the Society for the Environment’s profile has grown steadily. Nevertheless, much remains to be addressed before its potential is fully realised. David Carr spoke to the society’s new chief executive, John Carstensen, about the success achieved so far and the challenges that lie ahead
Founded in October 2002, the Society for the Environment (SocEnv) represents environmental professionals. In doing so, it offers a common platform for scientists, engineers, consultants and others under an environmental umbrella.
At its launch its audience was about 30,000 (ENDS Report 333, p 5), based on the number of members in the ten founding organisations. By 2004, with the addition of the Institution of Civil Engineers, it had topped 100,000 (ENDS Report 353, p 6). Since then, the society has expanded further to include the wider spectrum of environmental professionals’ roles. It now has 23 member organisations on board, with an aggregate membership exceeding 400,000.
But its relative youth means SocEnv has yet to fulfil its potential, particularly in its ability to exert significant influence in the wider environmental debate by articulating the combined voice of environmental professionals.
It is something that SocEnv’s new chief executive, John Carstensen, is seeking to address. In doing this, he brings much to the role – not least his 25 years of experience working on environmental issues, climate change and sustainable development.
He joined SocEnv in August 2009 from INTRAC, the international research and training organisation for NGOs, where he was chief operating officer. Mr Carstensen had also worked at the UN Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi and its regional office in Geneva. His experience includes involvement in waste, biodiversity, resource management and pollution control programmes in developing countries, as well as ten years with the Danish EPA and Ministry of the Environment.
He acknowledges the scale of the task that lies ahead. "I’m happy with where we are at, but the wider mission remains and there are plenty of challenges still to be addressed and solved," he says.
Chief among these is raising the profile of the society and environmental professionals in general. Much of the focus towards achieving this is on expanding the numbers of professionals gaining the chartered environmentalist (CEnv) qualification, which is regulated by the society. But it is no easy task and increasing the numbers remains a longer-term project, requiring determined effort on the part of SocEnv and its member organisations.
CEnv did get off to a reasonable start. Within a year of the society gaining its royal charter in 2004, the number of chartered environmentalists had reached 2,000 (ENDS Report 366, p 10). Nevertheless, an ENDS survey from December 2005 revealed concerns that the qualification was suffering from a lack of awareness (ENDS Report 371, p 8). Two thirds of those polled said they perceived a lack of awareness of CEnv among clients and contacts, while 70% said awareness within their own organisation was low.
Four years on, and Mr Carstensen accepts that the problem remains. "It’s still fair to say that awareness is low, both among environmental professionals and more widely," he says.
With about 60 added each month, the number of chartered environmentalists has now topped 5,500. But, the total remains low as a proportion of the potential and Mr Carstensen says more needs to be done. "I think it’s admirable what’s been achieved so far, but it’s clearly not sufficient," he says. "Moreover, the level of the environmental challenge means we need more chartered environmentalists to ensure that the complexity of issues is addressed."
Further growth would raise the influence of SocEnv and professional environmentalists. And while there is no stated target for the number of chartered environmentalists, continued growth remains an important goal. "In five years, I hope there’ll be a significantly larger number of chartered environmentalists; 5,500 is not yet enough to move the environmental agenda," says Mr Carstensen.
Nevertheless, there are signs that CEnv is becoming the qualification of choice among environmental professionals. Gaining it requires an individual to have at least 12 units of knowledge or experience: a year of relevant experience equates to one unit and a year of relevant education equals two units. Applicants must also provide evidence they can perform to the required standard, which is assessed through a professional review process.
For individuals, becoming a chartered environmentalist confers advantages. Not least, it marks them out as possessing a high degree of expertise in their field and a commitment to environmental best practice. It also shows commitment to professional standards and enhances employability. More broadly, chartered status places professional environmentalists on a par with other professionals such as chartered engineers and chartered scientists, earning them greater respect in the process.
CEnv’s widening geographical coverage has also had a positive effect. Chartered environmentalists are now present in some 60 countries worldwide, though 90% of them remain UK-based. This has allowed a refocusing of the environmental debate, according to Mr Carstensen. "Environmental professionals can see that global issues have a local impact; they tend to have something of a bi-focal vision," he says.
But much more needs to be done so that the number of chartered environmentalists reaches a critical mass, their roles are more widely appreciated and their collective voice is heard. Greater promotion of CEnv is central in this respect. More involvement in the policy debate surrounding skills and competencies is another channel that SocEnv is pursuing. "In time, I hope and expect that we will be respected in the policy debate," adds Mr Carstensen.
While further raising the numbers and spread of chartered environmental professionals is one thing, addressing the wider lack of appreciation of their role is altogether more difficult. In tackling it, the society has called for greater political recognition. In an open letter in November, it called for the UK’s political parties to "recognise the importance and urgency of responsible sustainable environmental management" and the role that environmental professionals play in delivering it.
Rosemary Butler, director of membership and professional development at the SocEnv-affiliated Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) concurs. "Chartered environmentalists don’t yet quite have the heightened profile, but this will be needed in order that environmental problems are tackled effectively," she says.
Mr Carstensen also sees retaining the value and quality of CEnv as a key aim of the society. "The value of CEnv is linked to the multidisciplinary nature of the field," he says. "It is a qualification of high quality and we want to make sure it stays that way." But while the quality and value of CEnv is apparent to those gaining it, further work is needed to convince employers of its worth.
The qualification itself is awarded by SocEnv’s 23 member bodies, each of which is an established professional organisation in its own right. While growth in the number of affiliated member organisations has been welcomed, it has also brought some complications.
Mr Carstensen cites the level of diversity between them as a challenge to be addressed. "It means they’ll approach problems from a different point of view," he says. "But it’s also a strength, as it encourages discussion and debate so a problem [the diversity] becomes something of an asset."
Sarah Beacock, professional affairs director at the SocEnv affiliated Energy Institute, agrees. "It’s always a challenge with all those bodies round the table," she says, "particularly when there are differences of opinion, but the 23 work together well despite their differences."
Of the 23, the Energy Institute is one of SocEnv’s newer member bodies and one of six to have joined in 2008. With 14,000 members, it is also one of the largest. Ms Beacock explained the rationale for the institute deciding to sign up. "We saw the society becoming a strong body that spoke with a strong voice," she says.
The increasingly important role played by the energy sector in addressing environmental problems was another key factor. And with many of the roles undertaken by the institute’s members making a large environmental impact, there is a natural fit with them gaining chartered environmentalist status, whether they operate in the oil and gas, renewable energy or nuclear sectors.
The take-up to date of CEnv as a proportion of the Energy Institute’s membership has been modest, but Ms Beacock is confident that will change over time. "CEnv also fits with our ongoing aim of highlighting professionalism and we expect to see more of our members taking it up," she says, "particularly among those who do not fall neatly into the chartered scientist or chartered engineer camps."
CIWEM, with about 10,650 members, is another of the larger associations affiliated to SocEnv. The institution also awards chartered scientist and chartered engineer qualifications, but Rosemary Butler says CEnv is becoming the preferred qualification among its members. "Although CEnv is still a bit of a ‘new kid on the block’, its reputation is growing," she says. "It’s what people are seeking, because of its focus on the sustainability agenda."
There is also a growing awareness among CIWEM’s members of the value of such an ‘umbrella’ qualification. "Scientists can become chartered scientists, engineers can become chartered engineers, but as a chartered environmentalist, you have this overarching recognition," adds Ms Butler. And the message is getting through: CIWEM announced in November it had a thousand chartered environmentalists within its membership. "This speaks volumes for the growing recognition of CEnv within the sector," she says.
Nevertheless, she acknowledges that more needs to be done. In particular, in further raising awareness of CEnv among CIWEM’s members. "Many members are only vaguely aware of CEnv’s existence, so we’re looking to raise awareness through a programme of comprehensive advertising and marketing, appearances at exhibitions and communicating with employers," she explains.
CIWEM is actively addressing the lack of awareness of CEnv. "If we see those applying for chartered scientist or chartered engineer status are also suitable for CEnv, then we’ll suggest that as an option," says Ms Butler.
In an historical context, she says something of CEnv’s ilk was needed as environmental problems and the role of professionals in solving them became more heightened. But while CEnv communicates the message of professionals working towards solutions, she says a critical mass is required to give it the required influence. "If that is achieved, then government departments would take more notice of SocEnv," concludes Ms Butler.