Blog post by Executive Director David Bancroft
Within several nations, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, and the United States, decisions have recently been made to reduce or eliminate environmental and social impact assessment. Supposedly these actions were taken to help reinvigorate economic activity that has been depressed by COVID-19. This is irresponsible. The world recognizes that COVID-19 has had devastating effects across many populations, and the correct immediate response is to provide additional health care, food, and other aid to those communities.
IAIA believes this is not the time to make hasty decisions to move forward with potentially unwise and unsustainable infrastructure projects which will burden the world’s citizenry for generations to come. This was confirmed in a recent IAIA survey where 49% of the impact assessment (IA) professional respondents believed that COVID-19 would be used as a reason to temporarily relax or permanently dilute impact assessment regulations, standards, or policies.
In many cases, the reduction or elimination of environmental reviews and impact assessments has nothing to do with COVID-19, but rather it is the implementation of long-held political strategies, for example in:
Brazil, director Tomás Albuquerque of the National Mining Agency said, “All this [red tape] is what we are going to suppress, the legislation we will repeal, we will be able to do this with the instrument that we call the regulatory guillotine. Simply cut, unclog and move forward.”
India, where the governmental stimulus was only 1% of the GDP and not 10% as announced by prime minster Narendra Modi, it still exempted from environmental review irrigation projects, all building, construction and area development projects, inland waterways, expansion or widening of national highways, all projects concerning national defense and security or involving “other strategic considerations” as determined by the central government, all linear projects like pipelines in border areas and all the off-shore projects located beyond 12 nautical miles.
United States, where president Donald Trump said, “From the beginning of my Administration, I have focused on reforming and streamlining an outdated regulatory system that has held back our economy with needless paperwork and costly delays. The need for continued progress in this streamlining effort is all the more acute now, due to the ongoing economic crisis.”
And of course, these impact assessments cannot focus solely on the environmental aspects of projects. From IAIA’s recent survey, 54% of IA professionals believe that social impact assessment (SIA) is necessary to better assess inequalities, human rights, and those who are most vulnerable, while 28% percent believe that SIAs are necessary to satisfy UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The social aspects of IA such as public participation and communication with communities and stakeholders are some of the most critical aspects of impact assessment. They are crucial mechanisms that directly address inequalities and human rights. Impact assessment helps advocate for meaningful engagement to inform communities, helping empower them and get them involved in the decision-making process, thus building local support. This process includes the trade-offs and competing factors in decision making, such as improving community awareness about the project and potential activities at the site to gain trust and mitigate conflicting perspectives before they create tension within the local community. It is key to a successful project, and eliminating impact assessment disempowers those who are the most vulnerable. We cannot look solely at results and neglect the process.
As we look to the future, climate change is another major issue facing the world. On a scale of one to ten with ten being “incredibly important,” 28% of our survey respondents considered it “incredibly important” to promote the application of IA processes to enhance climate change mitigation through the anticipated post-COVID-19 infrastructure programs. Seventy-five percent of respondents gave it a rating of 7 or higher, indicating this is an issue of high importance to the IA community.
We hold a vision of a massive increase in wind and solar farms and local infrastructure, a radical restructuring of the world’s transportation system to quickly transition away from fossil fuel driven systems, rapid improvements in building energy efficiency, and new policy instruments to encourage advancements in sustainable land management.
Recent scientific analysis suggests that if carbon reduction targets fall short, nuclear power capacity may have to increase. One proposed strategy includes efforts to support the current fleet of aging and increasingly difficult-to-maintain nuclear reactors and the construction of standardized small modular nuclear reactors that are being promoted as safer and cleaner than existing designs. These issues and scientific responses need to be part of a broad dialogue among environmental and social scientists, big data researchers, investors and developers, environmental attorneys, journalists, and especially the general public. Rigorously measuring and evaluating international lessons and models is very important in identifying more effective design methodologies and mitigation strategies for infrastructure development. How we recover is just as important as the recovery itself.
IAIA believes that governments and environmental authorities throughout the globe should take care to fully implement environmental review and assessment procedures that have been developed over decades. These safeguards to are in place to ensure that the infrastructure projects that are moved forward benefit both the communities and the environments in which they reside. Our multidisciplinary membership has been engaged in advising on programs, projects, plans, and policies in every nation on Earth, and they know the philosophy of “focus on results, not on process” does not produce wise investments.
The 50th anniversary of impact assessment’s being institutionalized as a formal planning process to provide society with participatory input and alternatives in the decision making process is not the time to throw it all away. It does not make any sense, especially if the intention is to replace it with tired old solutions that do not account for social equity, human rights, and climate change issues.
IAIA Executive Director
Note: A full analysis on the results of IAIA’s 56-question “Impact of COVID-19 on IA and its Practitioners” survey will be released in August. A link to some preliminary results is available below.