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close this bookConducting Environmental Impact Assessment in Developing Countries (United Nations University, 1999, 375 p.)
close this folder1. Introduction
close this folder1.3 Changes in the perception of EIA
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1.3.1 EIA at the project level
View the document1.3.2 From project level to regional EIA
View the document1.3.3 Policy level strategic EIA

1.3.3 Policy level strategic EIA

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, the outcome of over three years of travel, hearings, and study. From an urgent call by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Commission was set up in 1983 to find effective strategies, define long-term issues, propose new forms of international cooperation, and raise levels of understanding and commitment. Among the various problems discussed in the report was a problem long clear to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature - loss of species and threats to ecosystems which had become a major economic and environmental hazard. Our Common Future then discussed management of the "commons'' (the ecosystems used by all people) - oceans, the atmosphere, outer space, and Antarctica.

In 1974, there was a prediction that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in refrigeration and as propellants for aerosols, could damage the stratospheric ozone layer. Eleven years later, in 1985, this was confirmed. The ozone shield over the Antarctic was thinning and a "hole'' had developed. Unprecedented international action led, by 1987, to a world action plan. The main components of this plan were global monitoring to estimate the impact of changes in the ozone layer on radiation, skin cancer, ecosystem and regional climate, and collecting data on production and emissions. While the world action plan was developing, an international convention was being hammered out. The Montreal Protocol, providing a framework for action by each country, was agreed in 1987. Officials from most of the CFC producing/using countries agreed to a 50 percent reduction by 1999. But new scientific evidence indicated that the situation was more serious than it had been thought. The Helsinki Declaration of 1989 stated the intention of 80 countries to phase out CFCs completely by the year 2000.

Another major global concern of the 1980s and 1990s was the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and the potential for global warming. Data showed increasing concentrations, not only of CO2 but also of nitrogen oxides (NOx), methane (CH4), and specific CFCs. Both global warming and ozone depletion could contribute to serious environmental degradations.

The global scale of the ozone and climate change problems was a confirmation that environmental deterioration was accelerating, in spite of the international initiatives set in motion, initially by the Stockholm conference of 1972, and then by subsequent international forums.

Clearly, the impetus to the generation of projects and large-scale development plans has always been the policies. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, experience of EIA over projects and regional plans led to the recognition that EIA of policies should be conducted on a strategic level.

A strategic environmental assessment (SEA) makes an inquiry into the likely environmental changes (both positive and negative) resulting from the development produced by existing, new, or revised developmental policies, plans, and programmes. SEA can be applied both at the level of broad policy initiatives, and to more concrete programmes and plans that have physical and spatial reference.

If the policies at a generic level are evolved on an environmentally sound basis, then the associated regional plans and projects are expected to cause least conflict between the regional and local environmental priorities and issues. Examples of SEA are:

• policy of industrializing coastal belts;

• policy of depending on hydropower rather than on thermal power on a national basis;

• policy of reducing the tax structure on the import of clean or environmentally friendly manufacturing technologies;

• policy of allowing the use and manufacture of only selected biodegradable fertilizers;

• phasing out of ozone depleting substances (ODS) from the aerosol industry.

These examples show that the issues discussed in a SEA embrace national as well as international boundaries and can yet, in some cases, overlap EIA of plans on a regional level. At a policy level, therefore, the EIA study can become quite complex, i.e., difficult in scope, and may need a consideration of the sociopolitical as well as macroeconomic factors. Whilst there is much current debate on the subject, there is limited practical experience, particularly at the policy level. Current SEA processes vary considerably. They may be formal or informal, comprehensive or more limited in scope, and closely linked with or unrelated to either policy or planning instruments.

The changing perception of EIA since the introduction of NEPA in the USA in 1969 thus moves from project level to strategic level with an expansion into areas such as the social impact assessment, environmental health assessment, risk assessments, etc. This process of evolution is summarized in Box 1.1.

Box 1.1 The evolution of environmental assessment

Date and phase

Trends and innovations

Prior to 1970, Pre EA

Project review based on engineering and economic study,e.g., cost-benefit analysis; limited consideration of environmental consequences

Methodological development

EA introduced in some developed countries; initially focused on identifying, predicting, and mitigating biophysical effects; opportunity for public involvement in major reviews

Social dimensions included

Multidimensional EA, incorporating SIA and risk analysis; public consultation as integral part of development planning and assessments; increased emphasis on issues of justification and alternatives in project review

Process and procedural redirection

Efforts to integrate project EA with policy planning and follow-up phases; research and development focusing on effects of monitoring, on EA audit and process evaluation, and on mediation and dispute resolution approaches; adoption of EA by international aid and lending agencies and by some developing countries

Sustainability paradigm

Scientific and institutional framework for EA begin to be rethought in response to sustainability ideas and imperatives; search begins for ways to address regional and global environmental changes and cumulative impacts; growing international cooperation on EA research and training


Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) of policies, programmes, and plans introduced in some developed countries; international convention on transboundary EA; UNCED places new demands on EA for expanded concepts, methods, and procedures to promote sustainability (e.g., through sustainable development strategies)

Source: A Directory of Impact Assessment Guidelines, after B. Sadler, Proposed Framework for the International Study of the Effectiveness of EA, 1994.