Environmental Impact Assessments (short EIA, sometimes also EA) is the assessment of a project’s environmental impact.
It is conducted ex-ante, so before the project is concluded.
This sounds similar to a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) – which is defined as:
A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an analysis of the impact one object has on the world around it.
So what exactly is an Environmental Impact Assessment? And how does it differentiate from an LCA?
Environmental Impact Assessment: Political Instrument
Environmental Impact assessments are commonly used in political decision making. They are embedded in national legislation in many countries.
The goal of an Environmental Impact Assessment is to assess the potential impact of policies, programs and projects, usually of public nature. This could be the construction of a new airport or highway, as well as other, more de-centralized projects.
In fact, the Environmental Impact Assessment is supposed to be conducted before a political decision is even made – it’s supposed to inform the legislators if the project is indeed worth executing, given the environmental impact it creates and/or costs.
Naturally, this makes an EIA subject to many rules and regulations. And compromises, as we will investigate later.
Environmental Impact Assessment in the EU
The Environmental Impact Assessment was first introduced through EU Directive (85/337/EEC) and amended in 1997. There have been several other amendments and extensions, for example with the Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEA) Directive (2001/42/EC).
In the Netherlands, Environmental Impact Assessments are required for many environmental permits. The Dutch government offers many tools and guidelines for this, for example the MER Scan.
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Environmental Impact Assessment: Process and Key Areas
Environmental Impact Assessments in the European Union follow the following process.
Is an Environmental Impact Assessment required? Screening is done through a formal screening procedure. If a project is too small, an EIA might not be necessary.
Which impacts are likely to be important? This is similar to the Goal & Scope definition in many other environmental analyses.
3. Examination of Alternatives
What are alternatives for the project? Can, for example, materials be sourced differently? Also a ‘no action’ option is often considered. This is a scenario as if the project would not continue.
4. Impact Analysis
What are the effects of the proposed project? This is where the actual environmental impact gets evaluated. However, the impact analysis is very different from that of an LCA. In short, an LCA has a much broader scope than the Environmental Impact Assessment. An EIA is limited to only this specific project in this area at this time span.
5. Mitigation and Impact Management
Which measures could be taken to reduce the impact?
6. Evaluation of Significance
Do the benefits of the project outweigh the negative environmental impacts?
7. Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)
This is the report that sums up the assessment. Important: It must contain a non-technical summary that is targeted towards political decision makers.
8. Review of EIS
Assessment of quality by an independent party.
9. Decision Making and Follow-up
Political decision making of the project.
You can learn more about the process of an Environmental Impact Assessment in this resource.
Life Cycle Assessment vs. Environmental Impact Assessment
While Life Cycle Assessments are very detailed in-depth analyses that take into account up- and down-stream activities throughout the entire life cycle of a product, Environmental Impact Assessments are very “rough” analyses.
EIA’s only take into account emissions and effects that occur at the location of the process itself. In many cases, this can neglect a large amount of the actual environmental impact. This is one big point of criticism brought up against Environmental Impact Assessments.
On the other hand, EIA can take socio-economic interests into account, for example smell or noise. This is mostly excluded from LCA.
Environmental Impact Assessment: Criticism
Environmental Impact Assessment are one of the oldest frameworks for political decision making in regards to environmental impact.
The legislation on a European level has been amended many times, yet Environmental Impact Assessments only analyze a very limited scope in space and time.
Indirect effects of projects are mostly ignored in an Environmental Impact Assessment, even though they might be higher. In many publications, this has been criticized as leading to intrinsic modeling errors.
Quo vadis, Environmental Impact Assessment?
Environmental Impact Assessments are ripe for an update.
In times where Life Cycle Assessment is a widely-accepted standard for commercial products and projects, and where the full scope of environmental impact needs to be transparent, political decision making should not be guided by a process that falls short of actually providing a coherent picture of the environmental impact of a project.