Progress in technological and economic aspects of the human lives has too often been accompanied by environmental degradation. Population growth, higher needs, rapid urbanization and other such human elements are gradually taking a toll on environmental health.
But thankfully, all is not lost as humans have not completely ignored the gravity of the imbalance they have been creating. Measures are in place to prevent and overturn the current rate of environmental degradation, but randomly taking part in tree plantation drives, lake cleaning initiatives and similar pro-environment activities are not going to solve the long term problems that human interference with nature poses upon the planet.
To understand the extent of damage and future risk of environmental degradation, it is important to systematically study the processes, effects and results of human activities. This is where Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) comes into play. In simpler terms, it is defined as an activity designed to identify, evaluate, interpret and communicate the impact on biological, geological and physical environment, on well-being of legislative proposals, projects, policies, operational procedures and most finally, on man himself.
Basically, before every project that the government or private body sanctions, an EIA of the project can reveal how the output of the project or the project itself can affect the environmental health. EIA is a very useful tool to predict and evaluate possible risks on the environment and eliminate it beforehand. This helps in conservation and preservation of the ecological balance and limits human interference with nature.
History of Environmental Impact Assessment
Concerns elevated around the 1960’s regarding the impact of environmental pollution and degradation. Environmental Impact Assessment took shape as a part of this newly revitalised environment protection and conservation movement. With the enactment of National Environment Protection Act, 1969, the United States of America became the first nation to have an official foundation for EIA.
Almost a year later, The US Environment Protection Agency was established to carry out EIA using technical knowledge and expertise. Other countries were soon to follow and design their own customised EIA techniques, suiting the country’s geography, economy and society.
India’s initiative in environment conservation and protection came almost a decade after the US NEPA, 1970. Until the 1980s, most of the industrial constructions were being carried out with little to no regards to the environmental health. But it was not until 1994 that the first EIA notification was introduced in the country. Ever since, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has been handling all the works related to EIA in India.
Aspects of Environmental Impact Assessment
EIA has three main objectives to achieve. Firstly, as in its definition, it aims to identify, predict and evaluate the economic, environmental and social impact of development activities. Secondly, analyse and provide data of the risk factor and environmental consequences for decision making to the government and corporations. Finally, it strives to improve awareness regarding the environmental health and provide mitigation and alternatives to conventional activities for sustainable development.
The guiding principles of EIA to achieve these objectives are to be practical, cost effective, accountable, credible, flexible and most importantly- transparent. Additionally, an EIA should involve active and complete participation of the government and the parties involved in the project as well as certainty regarding the environmental impact statement amongst them.
Naturally, it is clear that an EIA should consist of detailed information through extensive research and data collection about the environment of the geographical region under the jurisdiction of a nation. A complete environmental protection statement consist the ecological, social, anthropogenic and economic aspects of the region along with mitigation factors.
Therefore, it should consist the nature and magnitude of environmental effects of the project being undertaken, probability of natural disaster, effect on the biotic (plants and animals) and abiotic (soil, water, air, etc.) factors, data on relevant human concerns (noise pollution, population displacement, contamination of natural resources, etc.), data on the project’s nature, proposition and alternate processes, economic and demographic factors and recyclability and reduction of waste generated.
Processes of Environmental Impact Assessment
EIA’s are of two types; one which involves the data of all the seasons across the year and is hence known as a comprehensive EIA report. The other involves information regarding only one season, therefore consisting of limited data but with lesser compiling time and is hence known as Rapid EIA report. A project developer needs to choose between these two options to form an EIA report. He is assisted by an environment consultant in this job.
The first step in the process of making an EIA report is screening. It is also considered as the simplest of the processes. Under this, it is decided whether the project requires an EIA or not. On the basis of this, projects are divided into category A- which requires the Union government to look into the project, and category B- which involves the state government’s authorisation to begin.
This helps in estimating the budget of the EIA and makes sure small projects do not get entangles in complex sanctioning processes at the same time ensures no project escapes the environmental assessment process.
Once a project clears its screening, it is subject to preliminary assessment. This stage involves research and analysis of the available data regarding the project. The key impacts on the local environment are identified and extent of these impacts is established. The preliminary report is then presented to the respective authority which decides whether the project requires undergoing a rapid EIA or a comprehensive EIA.
After selecting the type of EIA for the project, the next step involves scoping. This involves extensive interactions between the study team and the involved parties like the investors, developers, local people, scientific institutions, etc. During these interactions, the study team would discuss and address all the issues pertaining to the project raised by these parties. Primary impact points will be determined and comprehensive Terms of Reference would be established for the EIA.
Scoping is followed by the beginning of the main EIA processes. The bulk of environmental impact statements are based on these processes. Firstly, baseline studies are undertaken to determine the original status of the environment in which the project is being established.
Next, a thorough environment impact evaluation is conducted on the basis of scoping and baseline studies. Risk is calculated and various alternatives and mitigation measures in the follow up. Finally, the data is compiled and edited to produce the final EIA report.
Next in line is the decision-making step. In this step, the manager or a committee with reference to the EIA report makes the final decision upon the project. There are three paths that the project can follow based on the decision taken for it. Based on the EIA report, the authority can decide to either accept the project with one of its alternatives; or return the report for further studies; or completely reject the project.
Furthermore, if the project is approved, an additional step is added which includes the monitoring of implementation and impacts to ensure the project is in accordance with the laid down guidelines and does not violate the environment protection laws of the nation.
Environmental Impact Assessment around the World
As stated earlier, the USA was the first nation to introduce environmental protection as a legal act through the NEPA, 1970. EIA has been an integral part of the US Environment Laws and is looked after by the Council of Environmental Quality. Canada on the other hand, realized the need of EIA much later from a legal battle between the Ministry of Transportation and a river conservation society.
EIA in Australia can be linked to the US NEPA, 1970 as the Australian government rolled out EIA requirements for projects at state level first. New South Wales was the pioneering state whose State Pollution Control Commission issued EIA guidelines in 1974. At commonwealth level, this was followed by passing of the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 (Cth).
Their neighbour New Zealand had begun their EIA in the form of ‘Assessment of Environmental Effects’ (AEE) in 1974 under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Procedures. AEE was granted legal status in 1991 under Resource Management Act, thus making EIA a compulsory procedure for all developmental projects.
EIAs in Europe are managed by the EU. There are a variety of laws that the environmental policy of the European Union. In 1985, the EU Directive on EIA was launched and later amended in 1997. After the EU signed the Aarhus Convention, the EIA directive was amended once again in 2003. Currently, the issues targeted by the EIA Directive fall under an enlarged umbrella of plans and programmes termed- Strategic Environmental Assessment.
In India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has laid down the framework of EIA. The regulating and enforcing rights have been put under the Central Pollution Control Board. EIAs are conducted over a short period of time; hence have limitations over seasonal variations. India also lacks one of the driving principles of EIA- credibility of the primary data collected. Hence EIA has been lacking in function.
Environmental studies require multi-disciplinary speciality, but India’s approach to EIA is based on a single path approach which neglects various aspects of environmental health. Presently, to counter these setbacks, Environmental Information Centre (EIC) has come into existence to make data available for all EIA studies and to its stakeholders in a cost effective and timely manner.
Unlike India, China has EIA laws which make it compulsory for a project to complete EIA before construction. However the penalty of breaking this law is USD 25,000 which is just a mere fraction of the total estimate of the project.
However even after having such lax enforcement, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has put to halt 30 mega projects due to non-clearance of EIA. This in the face of the current status of the laws is quite a noteworthy performance by the Chinese Administration.
In the wake of the serious environmental threats that human activity and climate change has posed upon the world, environmental impact assessments help us have a better understanding of the situation regarding environmental health so that we can work upon it to improve it in time. EIA aims to identify, analyse and provide alternatives or mitigation to endure the developmental projects that a nation undertakes does not further harm the environment.
Of course, this adds to a lot of paperwork and frequently delays the construction of the project, it is at the same time, equally as important as it helps us conserve our environment and improves. Therefore, as responsible, eco-friendly adults, it is our duty to keep resources available for our future generations and maintain earth’s survivability status.