An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is an assessment of the possible positive or negative impact that a proposed project may have on the environment, together consisting of the environmental, social and economic aspects.
The purpose of the assessment is to ensure that decision makers consider the ensuing environmental impacts when deciding whether to proceed with a project. The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) defines an environmental impact assessment as "the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made." EIAs are unique in that they do not require adherence to a predetermined environmental outcome, but rather they require decision makers to account for environmental values in their decisions and to justify those decisions in light of detailed environmental studies and public comments on the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.
EIAs began to be used in the 1960s as part of a rational decision making process. It involved a technical evaluation that would lead to objective decision making. EIA was made legislation in the US in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 1969. It has since evolved as it has been used increasingly in many countries around the world. As per Jay et al.(2006), EIA as it is practiced today, is being used as a decision aiding tool rather than decision making tool. There is growing dissent on the use of EIA as its influence on development decisions is limited and there is a view it is falling short of its full potential.There is a need for stronger foundation of EIA practice through training for practitioners, guidance on EIA practice and continuing research.
EIAs have often been criticized for having too narrow spatial and temporal scope. At present no procedure has been specified for determining a system boundary for the assessment. The system boundary refers to ‘the spatial and temporal boundary of the proposal’s effects’. This boundary is determined by the applicant and the lead assessor, but in practice, almost all EIAs address the direct, on-site effects alone.
However, as well as direct effects, developments cause a multitude of indirect effects through consumption of goods and services, production of building materials and machinery, additional land use for activities of various manufacturing and industrial services, mining of resources etc. The indirect effects of developments are often an order of magnitude higher than the direct effects assessed by EIA. Large proposals such as airports or ship yards cause wide ranging national as well as international environmental effects, which should be taken into consideration during the decision-making process.
Broadening the scope of EIA can also benefit threatened species conservation. Instead of concentrating on the direct effects of a proposed project on its local environment some EIAs used a landscape approach which focused on much broader relationships between the entire population of a species in question. As a result, an alternative that would cause least amount of negative effects to the population of that species as a whole, rather than the local subpopulation, can be identified and recommended by EIA.
There are various methods available to carry out EIAs, some are industry specific and some general methods:
- Industrial products - Product environmental life cycle analysis (LCA) is used for identifying and measuring the impact on the environment of industrial products. These EIAs consider technological activities used for various stages of the product: extraction of raw material for the product and for ancillary materials and equipment, through the production and use of the product, right up to the disposal of the product, the ancillary equipment and material.
- Genetically modified plants - There are specific methods available to perform EIAs of genetically modified plants. Some of the methods are GMP-RAM, INOVA etc.
- Fuzzy Arithmetic - EIA methods need specific parameters and variables to be measured to estimate values of impact indicators. However many of the environment impact properties cannot be measured on a scale e.g. landscape quality, lifestyle quality, social acceptance etc. and moreover these indicators are very subjective. Thus to assess the impacts we may need to take the help of information from similar EIAs, expert criteria, sensitivity of affected population etc. To treat this information, which is generally inaccurate, systematically, fuzzy arithmetic and approximate reasoning methods can be utilised. This is called as a fuzzy logic approach.
At the end of the project, an EIA should be followed by an audit. An EIA audit evaluates the performance of an EIA by comparing actual impacts to those that were predicted. The main objective of these audits is to make future EIAs more valid and effective. The two main considerations are:
- scientific - to check the accuracy of predictions and explain errors.
- management- to assess the success of mitigation in reducing impacts.
Some people believe that audits be performed as a rigorous scientific testing of the null hypotheses. While some believe in a simpler approach where you compare what actually occurred against the predictions in the EIA document.
After an EIA, the precautionary and polluter pays principles may be applied to prevent, limit, or require strict liability or insurance coverage to a project, based on its likely harms. Environmental impact assessments are sometimes controversial.
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