Effective environmental regulation of public and private sector development initiatives is necessary to promote ecological and social wellbeing. This is best achieved using environmental impact assessment (EIA).
It serves largely to inform interested parties of the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project. In some countries, EIA has reformed public decision making by giving information on project impacts to citizens, NGOs, and agencies interested in a proposed project.
The most common positive outcomes of EIA are suggestions for measures to mitigate the adverse effects. Such suggestions can include dropping environmentally damaging elements from the whole thing.
Even though many EIAs suggest mitigation, few require that the measures be implemented. Lack of follow-up is a common shortcoming of EIA programmes.
EIA is not well integrated into decision making; and occurs at the project level, but not generally at the policy or programme level where decisions are made that foreclose some types of alternatives.
Use of EIA as an ex post facto rationalisation for decisions reflects a failure to integrate EIA into project planning and is termed herein ‘the integration problem’.
This problem persists because usually a project proponent will not undertake an EIA until after a project is well-defined and there is a high likelihood that it will be approved and funded.
Proponents would otherwise deem it as a waste of resources in case the proposal shows signs of poor progress. Again, many project proponents do not give the same weight to environmental objectives as they give to economic performance measures such as the internal rate of return.
However, the influence of EIA could be far greater if it were applied at the level of programmes.
An EIA for programmes would provide an opportunity to mitigate or abandon unsound concepts before a lot of ground is covered.
If an EIA were done, then any future project consistent with the programme could proceed as it would already be accounted for in the assessment. This approach is demonstrated by the Chinese practice of preparing EIAs for industrial development zones. If a factory chooses an industrial development zone that has an EIA for the entire area, the factory’s EIA requirements would be minimal. If the site is outside the zone, it must generally do a complete EIA.
However, a downside to this is that programme decisions often evolve over time, making it difficult to identify what constitutes ‘the programme’. The scope may be difficult to define, both spatially and temporally, and this makes assessing impacts even more uncertain than usual.
To integrate environment and development effectively, it is essential to develop and implement enforceable and effective laws and regulations using mechanisms at the national, State and local levels.
Countries need also to establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may be unlawful or infringe on human and environmental rights.
Properly mandated, empowered and informed communities can contribute to decisions that affect them and play an indispensable part in creating a securely-based sustainable society.