Environmental impact assessments aren’t protecting the environment

Too many EIAs are failing to stop environmental calamities. Here’s what we need to do.

A tsunami of development projects is sweeping across the planet. It’s in the form of new roads, dams, mines, housing estates, and other infrastructure projects.

The governments enabling these projects tell us not to worry: although the details vary from country to country, nearly all sizable projects must undergo an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to ensure no lasting harm.

But the sad fact is, those assessments are increasingly not worth the paper they’re printed on.

The EIA is the frontline of environmental protection in most countries. It’s a legal requirement placed on a developer to measure the impact on nature of their proposed development.

If that impact includes anything the government has pledged to protect, such as a threatened species, then the development may be halted or redesigned to avoid the impact.

Or that’s the idea, anyway. The only problem is that the EIAs are rarely stopping bad projects.

All around the world we see a growing catalog of cases where EIAs are giving green lights to developments that should never see the light of day — projects that are destroying irreplaceable habitat or threatening the last representatives of endangered species. For example:

One EIA gave the thumbs-up on a housing project being carved out of Panama’s tropical forest because it reported only 12 common bird species present in the area.

But a bird expert did his own survey of the same area and and identified 121 bird species — including several rare and threatened species.

Another EIA for a 900-kilometre (500-mile) highway slicing through the heart of Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest concluded that the project would cause no net increase in deforestation.

Yet independent analyses suggest that by 2050 this project will provoke additional forest losses of up to 39 million hectares (96 million acres) — an area larger than Japan.

The approval of a hydropower project in North Sumatra was based on an EIA that was so utterly rife with inaccuracies and misrepresentations that 24 other scientists from around the world and I wrote directly to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, decrying its blatant distortions.

Today, this project is bulldosing ahead, cutting across the scarce remaining habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan — the rarest great ape species in the world.

Designed for Failure

Why aren’t EIAs doing their job? Here are four big reasons:

Inadequate Investment. Rigorous assessment takes time, effort and resources. For example, detecting threatened species— one of the main things EIAs are supposed to do — is technically challenging and expensive. Limiting EIAs to “quick and dirty” assessments saves money and also helps avoid detecting rare species that might block the development.

Insufficient Scope. The impacts of any development are rarely confined to its planned footprint. Large mining projects in the Amazon, for example, have caused sharply increased deforestation up to 70  kilometres (43 miles) outside of mine sites. This is because the mines require new forest roads and those, in turn, promote illegal land encroachment and forest loss.

Similarly, few EIAs in Malaysia consider the chronic increases in poaching, habitat fragmentation and other human pressures that occur when a new road slices into a forest. And in the Amazon, roads create broad “deforestation halos” — with 95 per cent of all deforestation occurring within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of a legal or illegal road.

In yet another example, EIAs for large dams in Brazilian Amazonia have consistently underestimated the size of the area that will drown under reservoirs — by 65 per cent, on average.

Vested Interests. Why don’t EIA assessors simply try harder, do the job properly, and extend their assessment to incorporate all impacts related to the development? In short, vested interests.

Most governments require the developer to fund the EIA. And the last thing the developer wants is an EIA that stops it dead in its tracks. Assessors (mostly private consultants) who conduct stringent EIAs may be blacklisted by other developers in the future.

On occasion, one even sees EIA consultants defending and promoting the project in public — which is like the judge in a murder trial testifying for the defense. 

On occasion, one even sees EIA consultants defending and promoting the project in public — which is like the judge in a murder trial testifying for the defense. In northern Queensland, for example, experts were stunned last year to see an EIA consultant publicly defending a major resort development, known as KUR-World, that he was being paid to be objectively assessing.

Poor Governance. How do developers get away with such poor outcomes? The answer is inadequate governance.

Governments responsible for ensuring the integrity of the EIA process are failing to ensure it actually happens at the level required. Governments have vested interests, too.

Development is usually equated with economic growth and jobs, and politicians can turn these benefits into votes. Add to that bribery and corruption, which is rife in many developing countries, and it’s easy to see how developers often gain an unhealthy hold over political and governance processes, including the EIA.

Don’t trust EIAs. A few EIAs are strong and some are mediocre. But far too many are just boilerplate documents that fall apart on close inspection.

Prepare for the tsunami

In the coming years our planet will see incredible development pressure, including 25 million kilometres of new paved roads and over 3,700 major hydropower projects.

Assessing such impacts in a way that prevents or greatly limits their environmental impacts is technically doable; the science is available.

A greater challenge, however, is demanding appropriate transparency, accountability, and compliance around our assessment efforts. Without those ingredients, we are hopelessly unprepared for the development tsunami.

Here are eight things we can do to help:

  1. Demand EIAs be made freely available online, and that anyone be allowed to comment on them. Governments often allow only local residents to comment on EIAs, but many projects have regional or global effects. Limiting comments also excludes top international experts, such as hydro dam or mining specialists, from providing critical advice.
  2. Expect bribery in big projects. Many projects that should never be approved get the thumbs up because key decision-makers have been secretly paid off by the project proponent or land developers.
  3. Insist the public be allowed to comment on projects early in the approvals process, before a project gains momentum. Many developers try to ram projects rapidly through the approvals process – and by the time the public is allowed to raise concerns, the project is virtually a fait accompli.
  4. Call out EIAs that recommend approving projects with only minor “tweaks” that make the project seem palatable but are actually superficial and minimally effective. Fish ladders around big dams, and underpasses beneath highways, are examples of expensive measures that have only small benefits for sensitive wildlife.
  5. Say “no” far more often. Many proposed projects are simply a bad idea — with spates of serious environmental, economic, social and financial risks — and should be canceled altogether. Saying ‘yes’ to bad investments was how the Global Financial Crisis happened.
  6. Few things are more powerful than citizens who are livid and determined to stop a bad project.Watch the government closely. Just because an EIA recommends certain mitigation measures doesn’t mean the developer will be compelled to do them. Government agencies that oversee development are overwhelmed and sometimes compromised by big money behind projects. Governments do better when they are scrutinised.
  7. Support groups trying to fight ill-advised projects. Environmental and public-interest groups are often overwhelmed and in dire need of financial help and volunteers.
  8. Get involved and get organised. Few things are more powerful than citizens who are livid and determined to stop a bad project. Make up placards and get grandma and the kids involved in a public protest. Nobody will defend your own backyard better than you will.

Bottom line: Don’t trust EIAs. A few EIAs are strong and some are mediocre. But far too many are just boilerplate documents that fall apart on close inspection. Expect EIAs to be full of holes, take a close look and be ready to campaign hard to ensure they truly protect our environment.

William Laurance is a Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, and holds an Australian Laureate Fellowship, one of Australia’s highest scientific awards. David Salt is an Australian science writer with over 30 years of experience covering the spectrum of science, technology and the environment. This article is republished from Ensia.

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