Monday, July 15, 2013

Environmental Impact Assessment and sustainability

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) can be used to increase environmental sustainability by marking out all larger developments and those likely to have bigger impacts. Size of development, however one measures that, may well not be the same as the size of the environmental impact though. Where the authorities set the boundary between where a development has impacts that are accounted for and impacts that are not accounted for can often have no basis in reason. For example the planning process in Bristol took little or no account of where the fuel for a proposed biofuel power station came from and really only considered very local impacts (see here and the palm oil plantation that replaced a forest in the image).

Developers have by law to make key information publicly available. Best practice says this should be done at an early stage, with good quantity and quality information and plenty of opportunities for consequent broad-based public participation. This is often not what happens in practice, with developers and councils much more in the know, at both earlier and later stages, than the general public.  For instance raising with planners the relevance of the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, usually known as the Aarhus Convention, in relation to the biofuel power station proposed for Bristol in the end did little more than cause some slightly confused discussion at the planning meeting (see here).
EIA predicts possible impacts rather than waiting for them to happen, acting as a preventive mechanism, identifying and requiring the avoidance, reduction of or compensation for high impacts. This can be a stimulus to good design. This is a very good thing, though if you don’t re-examine and reassess periodically you may remain unaware of physical, biological and socio-economic changes. Narrow definition of impacts might also mean that designers are not fully informed and thus designs may be deficient.

The environmental impact statement from the EIA process is there to be scrutinised and accounted for in the planning process. Public participation is facilitated at several stages and ideally results in cooperative working and ‘ownership’ of developments - a good contribution to social sustainability. Opportunities for public participation often come too late though and lack of early availability of information impedes participation.

The EIA process ideally involves a wide range of disciplines, organisations and individuals – and thus skills available for more effective and informed decision making. The range of involvement can at times be narrow however and inter-disciplinary working still has some way to go.
It will be very interesting to see the extent to which new and updated EIA regulations account for the need to: set boundaries on an informed, reasonable basis; make a good quality and quantity of relevant information available to the general public at an early stage; ensure plenty of opportunities for well informed and supported public participation; define impacts in a more broad-based, inclusive way; ensure that the practice of iteration is a very firm expectation; enable a wide range of people, organisations and disciplines to be involved in EIA; enhance interdisciplinary working.  

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