Assessing environmental impacts
Aug 15 2013
Garb suggests that EIA came into being as a formally required, legislatively mandated, decision-making tool in 1970s in the US with the inception of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). This was a groundbreaking and revolutionary moment in the legislative history of the environmental movement that can be felt today around the world and at all levels of the development process.
EIA tries to address difficult policy questions related to our environment. Some of these questions could include the following: do the projected time savings from a new highway justify routing it through a nature preserve where it will disrupt the habitat of several rare and endangered species? What are the cumulative traffic and pertaining pollution impacts from a new shopping mall, and do the people in the immediate vicinity have to tolerate these negative effects for the economic benefit of the city as a whole? What kind of preventive measures are needed before the new airport runway becomes acceptable to the surrounding neighbourhoods?
At present, according to Garb, the EIA occurs through six major stages: screening, scoping, impact, assessment, review, implementation, and monitoring/auditing. The initial screening process determines whether or not a project requires an EIA. Once a project is determined to be subject to EIA procedures, it undergoes a scoping process to set its parameters and identify the key issues. Scoping presents a chance early in the assessment process to focus the study and establish its key goals and the level of detail, geographic boundaries, and temporal scale that will be considered.
A formal impact assessment is carried out and an environmental impact statement (EIS) is prepared. The goals of this stage are to identify, measure, and evaluate all the potential impacts and to suggest mitigation or avoidance measures. According to Garb, there is a wide range of technical and analytical tools available for impact assessment; the data collected should be both qualitative and quantitative and should, ideally, incorporate impacts on both the bio-physical environment as well as the cultural and socio-economic sphere. Traditional cost-benefit analysis and other related evaluative techniques may also be incorporated in the EIS in order to determine the significance of the impacts predicted. It is critical that alternatives to the development proposal, including no development, be considered at this time and that assessment take place for each scenario.
After the completion of the assessment and evaluation process, recommendations are made for how to proceed and how to minimise or mitigate the negative effects that will result, either through modification of the original design or through subsequent management. These recommendations are included in the EIS document in addition to a list of impacts that are unavoidable or cannot be mitigated. Once completed, EIS is made public and reviewed and a decision is made on whether to allow a project to go through as proposed, rejecting it altogether, or allowing it with stipulations.
The final stages of the EIA process, auditing and monitoring, take place largely after the project is completed, but are nonetheless crucial in assuring the integrity of the process. According to Garb, the post assessment audit seeks to answer the question of how closely the predicted impacts resemble those that actually occurred. In addition, auditors may review the effectiveness of the recommended mitigation and management strategies. Auditors should evaluate the EIA process, its thoroughness and cost-effectiveness, and the accuracy of its results.
That said, it is important to note that there is much variety in both EIA legislation and its effectiveness. Laws and procedures are adapted by each country to fit within its own decision-making framework. According to Garb, some nations have followed the US model and created their own EIA legislation; whereas, others, like Sweden, Denmark, and the UK have chosen to integrate EIA into existing planning procedures without new legislation.
One of the most obvious examples of cross-national variation in EIA legislation is the extent to which EIA is used to integrate the public into the decision-making process. In the US, EIA procedures have evolved to incorporate and require more and more participation over the years as a result of several court decisions. In Europe, on the other hand, even the most recent amendments to the EIA directive require only the disclosure of information to the public, not the active engagement that is present in the other contexts.
The lowest levels of public participation can be found in the developing world, where there tends to be little political will to include the public; this, together with low levels of education and limited experience of the public in the political arena tends to lead to top-down EIA procedures that pay little attention to the opinions of the local residents.
So what’s the bottom line? With all of its imperfections, there is little question that EIA has firmly established itself as the dominant means for incorporating environmental considerations into development decision making world over. At the same time, the EIA process remains in a constant state of evolution and flux, as it has since its inception, driven by an ever-growing body of experience and critique. If this process is performed in an unbiased way and involves public participation, it is likely to serve as a ‘key’ analysis for protecting our environment.
(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, India)