EIA is part of a larger process of decision-making to approve a major proposal. This process is shown in the figure below. It results in a political decision, which is based on information from a number of different sources and involves making a large number of trade-offs. A balance must be struck between the benefits and costs; their environmental, economic and social elements must be weighed, and uncertainties and arguments over the significance of risks and impacts must be addressed.
The factors that will be important in the final approval of a proposal include:
- findings of significant impact contained in the EIA report;
- inputs from economic and social appraisals; and
- other external pressures or political inputs to decision-making.
Taking account of the EIA report
The information provided by EIA is based on technical analysis and public involvement. It is a synthesis of â€˜factsâ€™ and â€˜valuesâ€™. How these components are reconciled and documented in the EIA report can have an important bearing on the potential contribution it makes to decision-making. The usefulness of the EIA report for decision-making also depends upon the use of good practice at previous stages in the EIA process.
In many jurisdictions the information of the EIA report and from other sources, like public submissions, is presented to decision-makers in a summary form. Decision-makers then have the use of:
- the EIA Report (often called an Environment Impact Statement); and
- the summary report (called an Assessment Report or similar).
This summary report is likely to be compiled by the government representative responsible for the EIA procedures in the jurisdiction (such as the responsible government minister). It will provide an overall recommendation about the projectâ€™s environmental impacts and about mitigation and ongoing management measures.
Decision-makers then have the advice about the environmental impacts that comes from the review of the EIA (the Assessment Report) and other sources of information available to the EIA minister, and the specific information contained in the EIA report.
At a minimum, decision makers are expected to take account of the information from the EIA process in final approval and condition setting. With few exceptions, an EIA process does not lead to the rejection of a proposal even when there are findings of potentially significant impacts (although retaining this option is important for process credibility). However, the results of the EIA process usually have a considerable bearing on establishing terms and conditions for project implementation.
When making decisions, those responsible seldom have time to read the EIA report, other than an executive summary (see Section 8 â€“ EIA Reporting). Typically, they rely upon the advice of their officials, whose views are likely to be shaped by their policy mandates and responsibilities. The general receptivity of decision-makers to the findings of an EIA report will reflect their confidence in the EIA process and its perceived acceptance by other parties. In this regard, public trust in the EIA process, which is built up over time, may carry particular weight.
Relating EIA to other inputs
As the above figure shows, EIA is undertaken together with economic appraisal, engineering feasibility and other studies. Because of these other inputs, the decision that is made may not be the environmentally optimal choice. The environmental consequences of the proposal must be balanced against economic, social and other considerations. These trade-offs form the crux of decision-making, and, typically, environmental considerations carry less weight than economic factors in the approval of development proposals. In this regard, an important question, on which opinion varies, is whether EIA should be a strictly neutral or an advocacy process that argues the case for the environment. The predominant view is that the role of the EIA practitioner is to:
- provide a clear, objective statement of the environmental impacts and their mitigation;
- bring the feasible alternatives and the environmentally preferred option to the attention of decision-makers; and, more arguably
- give contestable advice on the environmental acceptability of the proposal (for example, whether it can be justified in the circumstances).
External inputs to the final decision on a proposal often occur through a wider representation of views and interests. These pressures vary from country to country and project to project. Many large-scale proposals are controversial and encompass a broad range of issues on which opinion can be sharply divided. They can become symbols of needed development or of environmental destruction or social injustice.
The so-called â€˜big damsâ€™ debate exemplifies this aspect of decision-making. The largest and most controversial schemes, represented by the Three Gorges (China) and Sardar Sarovar (India) schemes, have provoked international debate over the advisability of building them and the adequacy of the EIA process that was applied. A summary of the issues associated with the Sardar Sarovar Scheme are available in the EIA Wiki and can be reviewed to see if there are for points of comparison with projects undertaken locally. Further information can be found in the report of the World Commission on Dams.
A summary of Information considered important for decision-makers is given in the table below. It lists the key aspects of EIA reports which decision-makers need to take into account when making final approvals and setting conditions for project implementation. This listing is generic and should be reviewed to establish the aspects that are important locally.
|Decision-making stage||Important information||Adapted from OECD/DAC (1994)|
|Background||Project background and the most important environmental issues involved|
||Basic development issue or problem being addressed (e.g. flooding, water shortage, etc)|
|The relationship to environmental policies and plans|
|Alternatives||Alternatives to the proposal (including the best practicable environmental option (BPEO) or equivalent designation)|
|Public involvement||Key public views|
|Concerns of affected communities|
|Areas of agreement and disagreement|
|Impact analysis||Costs and benefits|
|Distribution of gains and losses|
|Mitigation and monitoring||Adequacy of proposal measures|
|Conclusion and recommendations||main economic benefits, significant environmental effects and proposed mitigation measures|
|The extent to which the proposal conforms to the principles of sustainable development|
|Design and operational changes to improve the environmental acceptability of the project|