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Posted: Nov 19, 2012
Environmental impact assessment: the state of the art
(Nanowerk News) The environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been with us for the last 40 years. The term refers to the idea of assessing proposed actions – from policies to projects – for their likely implications for all aspects of the environment – from social to biophysical – before decisions are made to commit those actions, as well as developing appropriate responses to any issues raised.
In a recent issue of Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, Richard K. Morgan of the University of Otago, New Zealand, reviews the progress of the EIA, with particular emphasis on the last 15–20 years ("Environmental impact assessment: the state of the art"). He also assesses whether EIA is ready for future challenges.
In his overview of the history of EIA, Morgan examines its spread around the world, recent trends in its uptake and the continuing emergence of variants, including the health impact assessment and climate-change impact assessment. He also explores current issues in EIA under three main headings: theory, practice issues and effectiveness. He draws particular attention to how discussions on EIA theory, especially over the last 15 years, have affected different areas of practice and evaluation.
Morgan concludes that EIA is now well established around the world, with widespread use in statutory development control, environmental and international law, and lending-institution standards. He points to the fact that 191 of the 193 member nations of the United Nations have either national legislation or have signed some form of international legal instrument that refers to the use of EIA. Its use in different levels of decision making is growing, too, as is the range of decisions it is employed to make.
EIA is also now well supported by a variety of professionals, agencies and institutions. Theoretical debates relating to EIA are also growing, opening pathways to alternative viewpoints and processes. New concepts such as environmental justice and inclusivity actively contribute to the development of theory and practice.
Morgan points out a significant challenge to EIA in some countries: the poor quality of impact assessment information. Improving EIA here will often mean overcoming ‘entrenched professional and bureaucratic perspectives’, to reduce the significant gap between the best-practice thinking represented in the literature and the reality on the ground – the consequences of which ‘tend to be blamed on the EIA process’, rather than on the practitioners.
Morgan feels that in the current era of encouraging growth through building infrastructure, EIA may be at risk. Moves to speed up decision making can weaken provisions for environmental assessment; there are real fears that growth may come at the expense of other considerations. Overall, however, ‘after 40 years, it seems reasonable to say that EIA is now universally recognised as a key instrument for environmental management, firmly embedded in domestic and international environment law.’
His message to the impact-assessment community is clear: they now have ‘the opportunity to build on these foundations, and in particular to shift EIA thinking away from the licensing stage and closer to the critical decisions within organisations.’ Doing so would make EIA ‘integral to project development and design processes, not left to the final legal step before project implementation’. It would also allow impact assessors, proponents and stakeholders of projects – for whom this article is essential reading – to work closely together to create ‘projects that are consistent with the environment and social aspirations of local communities’: surely a goal worthy of any EIA for the next 40 years and beyond.