Critically evaluate the role and effectiveness of Environmental Impact Assessment in ensuring environmentally sound and sustainable development in the UK The World Conservation Strategy (WCS) demonstrated in 1980 that development can only be sustained by the integration of development and conservation policies to conserve the resources on which that development depends on (Gilpin, 2000).In 1987, The Brundtland Commission, in its report to the Governing Council of UNEP (Our Common Future), defined sustainable development as: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED, 1987).
In recent times, this definition only forms the basic framework for the concept of sustainable development (Buytaert et al. , 2011). The malleability of the concept of sustainable development is a major reason why it has been embraced internationally (O’Riordan, 1993), but paradoxically, that same reason is its greatest challenge.The malleable nature of the concept gives rise to significant conceptual difficulties in operationalizing the concept and evaluating the contribution of decision-aiding tools to sustainable development (Cashmore, 2004).
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is simply defined as “a systematic process to identify, predict and evaluate the environmental effects of proposed actions and projects” (Sadler and McCabe, 2002:103). It was originally intended to be an “action-forcing” device to bring about environmental reform in throughout the US federal bureaucracy (Caldwell, 1982 cited in Petts, 1999:251).It has now become a decision- aiding tool and has evolved greatly over the years (Sadler and McCabe, 2002). In recent times, environmental Impact Assessment has become internationally recognized as a very important tool to help achieve sustainable development (Lawrence, 2003; Weaver, 2003; Andre et al.
, 2004). EIA practice is however hindered by certain limitations and structural weaknesses(Dalal-Clayton and Sadler,1999) .Also, according to Craik (2008: 78), ‘despite the early and continuing identification of the importance of EIA for promoting sustainable development, the precise nature of this linkage has suffered from the conceptual ambiguity of the concept of sustainable development itself. ’ Therefore, though the purposive nature of EIA is quite clear as a tool for sustainable development, the exact role and effectiveness of EIA in achieving sustainable development is a subject of un-ending debate.
EIA is one of a number of policy tools that are used for the evaluation of new proposals (Sadler and McCabe, 2002).It is a relatively new method of assessment when compared to the economic appraisal methods. The older economic appraisal methods, such as cost-benefit analysis, did not give any consideration to the environmental and social impacts of major projects. According to Sadler and McCabe (2002), this deficiency in addition to factors like increasing environmentally negative effects of ever-larger development projects and increasing public concern for the environment let to the birth of EIA in the United States of America through the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, 1969).
Environmental impact statement was intended to be an action-forcing mechanism, to reform the manner in which government decisions were made in the USA (Caldwell, 1982 cited in Petts, 1999:251). Today, it is formally recognized as one of the principles for achieving sustainable development (principle 17) in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (UNCED,1992). In the initial stages of EIA, only the biophysical impacts of proposals were considered (Weaver, 1999) but over the years, the breadth and methodologies of EIA have evolved greatly.EIA processes are now used to analyse a range of impact types within a single framework.
These include social, health, and economic impacts (Sadler and McCabe, 2002). Currently, it is estimated that more than hundred countries have adopted EIA into their legislation (Sadler and Weaver, 1999 cited in Weaver, 2003:2; Craik, 2008). Among countries however, these adaptations differ by process and practice, due to different socio-economic needs and competing theoretical approaches to EIA (Craik, 2008).In some countries, social impacts are given minimal or no consideration at all (Sadler and McCabe, 2002) .
Some countries incorporate EIA practice in the form of regulations, others have EIA guidelines, and yet others have systems that are more ad hoc (Weaver, 2002). Even countries with well-developed systems may also lack enforcement in practice (Glasson & Salvador 2000). This shows that though EIA is widespread, it is not uniform universally. These country-level differences have various impacts on its effectiveness in achieving sustainable development within the different countries.
Lawrence (2003:7) provides a detailed definition which shows the immense breadth and complexity of EIA in modern times, as the systematic process of: 1. Determining and managing (identifying, describing, measuring, predicting, interpreting, integrating, communicating, involving, and controlling) the 2. Potential (or real) impacts (direct and indirect, individual and cumulative, likelihood of occurrence) of 3. Proposed (or existing) human actions (projects, plans, programs, legislation, activities) and their alternatives on the 1.
Environment (physical, chemical, biological, ecological, human health, cultural, social, economic, built, and interrelations) It is important to note the broad view of ‘environment’ adopted in EIA practice today.The most immediate benefit of EIA, is to give decision-makers an indication of the potential environmental consequences of any proposed action. This is to ensure that development only proceeds in an environmentally responsible or sustainable manner. EIA provides the mechanisms for project proposals to be modified where necessary, and to mitigate potential negative impacts.
Although EIA may lead to the cancellation of some proposals, its primary focus is on the mitigation of any potentially harmful environmental impacts (Jay et al. , 2007). Environmental Impacts are becoming more complex, larger in scale and further reaching in terms of potential consequences (Sadler and McCabe, 2002); hence, mitigating the negative environmental consequences of our activities is crucial if development is to become sustainable. According to Weaver (2003), detailed stages in the EIA process vary internationally; however, there are some standardized steps which are adhered to across board (see figure below):Generalized EIA process Source: UNEP, 2002 The EIA process results in the production of an Environmental Statement (ES) which serves an informative document useful for planning and promoting sustainable development by integrating environmental, social and economic considerations into a wide array of proposed actions.
Many things take place in the decision making process, and there can be a high level of confusion and complexity. Sometimes decision-makers simply do not really know what to do or how to do something (Koernoev 1998 cited in Devuyst et al, 2001:147).EIA offers (though, as a tool among many) to help achieve more open, informed, coordinated, unbiased, and systematic planning and decision-making. The practice of EIA has been extended to include the assessment of programmes, plans and policies.
This application of EIA to higher level proposals has become known as Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEA) (Dalal-Clayton and Sadler,1999). SEA can provide a platform to incorporate sustainable environmental considerations and alternatives directly into a policy or plan before a programme or project is designed.This integration of EIA into planning and policymaking has been called by some as the “ultimate means by which sustainable development can be achieved” (Partidario, 1996:34 cited in Shepherd and Leonard, 1996:321). This view is supported by Devuyst et al.
(2001) when the co-existence of a strong policy at the local level is necessary for the achievement of sustainable development. According to Petts (1999), the procedures and methods of EIA are largely intact in SEA; the two are therefore not entirely distinct.SEA has a wide perspective and a low level of detail and results in the production of a broad vision and overall framework while EIA has a narrow perspective and a high level of detail and results in the production of project-specific data (Dalal-Clayton and Sadler,1999). These can therefore be used complimentarily.
SEA therefore can be used to streamline and strengthen the EIA process but it cannot replace it. EIA was introduced into the UK via the European Union Directive (85/337/EEC) on Environmental Impact Assessments.It was implemented in 1985 and has since been amended three times, in 1997, in 2003 and in 2009 (European Commission, 2011). The Directive was designed in a manner that gave the Member States ample discretion to incorporate the EIA practice into their individual legislations.
The only condition was that, the basic principles and procedural requirements had to be satisfied (Lee, 1995). Within the United Kingdom, EIA is applied mainly to some major projects or developments which require planning approval from local authorities under the Town and Country Planning Act (Carroll and Turpin, 2002).Initially, the UK Government was not in favour of the EIA Directive because it believed it had an effective local planning system already in place (Glasson et al. , 2005).
Despite the reluctance to adopt EIA into its legislation, UK adapted the EIA directive in 1988 to fit within its existing Planning system (Weston, 1997; 2002) but the attitude was that of minimum compliance (Weston, 2002). However, there has been a significant and progressive improvement in EIA practice and the procedure is much stronger than it was at the beginning (Weston, 2002; European Commission, 2009).Currently, the European directive on EIA has been implemented in the UK by means of various regulations, of which the provisions of the Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations 1988, as amended, for England and Wales apply to far more projects than those of all the other regulations put together (Jones and Wood, 1997). It is reasonable to say that, in evaluating the effectiveness of EIA in ensuring environmentally sound and sustainable development in UK, one must consider the following factors: 1.
The quality of Environmental statements (ESs) produced (Lee et al. , 1991; Oosterhuis, 2007) . Whether the ES or EIA process actually lead to any modification in project proposals before implementation and 3. To what extent EIA affects the final outcome or decision making process of the Local Planning Authority With regard to the quality of ESs, according to Lee et al.
(1999), a review package developed by Colley in 1989 was used to evaluate the quality of a number of samples of UK environmental statements between 1988 and the mid1990s by Lee and Brown (1992).Lee and Brown (1992) discovered that two thirds of the ESs they sampled were unsatisfactory in terms of quality in 1988-1989 (i. e. n ‘D’, ‘E’ or ‘F’ quality categories).
According to Lee et al. (1999), this result was backed by Wood and Jones (1991), who obtained very similar results, using different samples of ESs. However, using later sample of ESs completed between1990-1991, Lee and Brown (1992) found that the proportions that were unsatisfactory had reduced to about two fifths. The European Commission (1996) also conducted a study, which compared the quality of samples of ESs in 1990-1991 and 1994-1996 in various European Union countries.
The Commission discovered a further decline in the proportion of unsatisfactory quality ESs in the United Kingdom.The results suggest that, by the mid1990s, the significant ES quality problem appeared to have been considerably reduced though some unsatisfactory ESs were still being produced. Given the significant and progressive improvement in EIA system in UK (Glasson, 1999; Weston, 2002; European Commission, 2009), there is good reason to believe that the quality of ESs in UK will keep improving. This view is supported by Lee et al.
(1991), Glasson (1999) and Oosterhuis (2007). Though there are still concerns of ES quality, the trend of increasing quality suggests that the ESs are generally matching up better to what is required of a good ES.The benefit of higher quality ESs in UK is that, it leads to more informed decision making which may lead to more sustainable outcomes (Fuller and Blinks, 1995). Concerning whether EIAs have any effect in causing any project modification, studies conducted by Wood and Jones (1991, 1992) using a sample of 20 project applications and Kobus and Lee (1993) using 32 applications, showed that, nearly two-thirds of projects were modified as a result of the EIA process though some of these changes were minor.
A later study by Lee et al. 1994) also showed that, in the opinion of the LPA officers involved, around 50 per cent of projects were modified to some degree on the basis of the ES and the consultations associated with it.The results from these studies and others including Frost (1994), Nelson (1994), Glasson et al. (1996) show that EIA indeed has some effect on project design which would otherwise not have occurred.
In support these findings, the EC (1996) found out that a majority of cases reviewed, EIA contributed to higher standards of mitigation than would otherwise have occurred to spare environmentally sensitive areas.This is not always the case though as sometimes no changes are made or only “material” changes are made on the document (Nelson, 1994; Glasson et al. , 1995). In all cases though, planning officers believed the ES was an aid to the decision-making process (Hughes and Wood, 1996).
These findings show that, indeed EIA practice in UK, does have an effect in shaping a project. Jones and Wood (1997) conducted a study using 40 EIA cases throughout the UK to find out how EIA affected planning decisions.The cases covered time periods from 1988-1994. Also, the cases selected for the study were gathered from all parts of the UK and were therefore considered to be sufficiently representative of the UK.
With regard to the influence of ESs on decision-making, the study indicated that two-thirds of planning officers found the ES to be useful in making their recommendations as to whether a project should receive planning permission. They gave considerable weight to the ES in writing up their recommendations in over one-third of the cases.Planning officers, together with developers and members of major public interest groups and local action groups, believed that planning committees gave considerable weight to the contents of the ES when reaching their decisions in about one-third of the cases. With regard to the influence of EIA on final decision outcomes, Jones and Wood (1997) found that, over one-third of planning officers indicated that environmental issues were the major factor influencing the decision by the committee.
In three of the cases, the inadequacy of information on environmental impacts in the ES was cited as one of the reasons for refusal.But then again, other views from planning some officers indicated that some decision outcomes would have still remained the same without the EIA (Jones and Wood, 1997). EIA practice in UK is not without some major criticisms. According to (Glasson, J.
et al. , 2005), these include the poor treatment of combined and cumulative impacts of a proposal where it is one of several in an area; a lack of attention to global impacts on air quality and climate and lack of consideration for alternative sites, processes or technologies.From the cited studies, it is evident that the quality of ESs are much better, EIA leads to modifications in proposals and that it contributes to the decision making process. EIA therefore has contributed to more sustainable development in UK since its implementation.
These studies and others however suggest that this is not always the case hence; the full potential benefits of EIA are not being realized (Jones and Wood, 1997). There is still much room for improvement if its contribution to sustainable development is to be maximized.
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