Blog post by Executive Director David Bancroft
As we move further into the 21st century, there is a growing recognition that the transition to a global low-carbon economy by 2050 will require massive and rapid infrastructure development far beyond what the world experienced in previous eras. To guide this transition, we need sound science policy, rigorous measurement, and evaluation of new methodologies and models to estimate a project’s atmospheric carbon contribution. Otherwise, the international community will face an unprecedented period of environmentally and socially disruptive conditions that could deeply undermine planetary health and welfare and the ecological systems upon which all life depends.
It is not surprising that 73% of impact assessment practitioners recently surveyed by IAIA believe that the impact assessment process should be changed from assisting decision-makers from “doing no harm” to “doing more good.” When asked how to do more good:
This comes as policy makers within several nations, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, India and the United States, recently decided to try to accelerate economic activity that has been depressed by COVID-19 by reducing or eliminating environmental and social impact assessment. I think you will agree that this is absolutely the wrong direction for governments to pursue. Rather than retrenching, all nations of the world should be expanding and improving their impact assessment processes, since lax environmental regulation and misunderstandings about the connection among wildlife, environment, social structure, and human health contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the easiest ways to “do more good” is to evaluate proposed projects that governments have pre-selected due to their potential to provide for social equity and environmental protection. While the first actions in a world devastated by COVID-19 rightly should be to provide impoverished populations with health care, food, and other assistance, there will come a time to rebuild economies. IAIA and its members support economic stimulus efforts which prioritize sustainable and socially equitable projects, programs, polices and plans. Some countries that may be viewed as models include:
As we hopefully move beyond COVID-19 at some point, it is important to realize this is not the world’s first pandemic, and it will certainly not be the last. Infectious disease experts believe that 70 percent of new diseases that afflict the human population will be zoonotic, or coming from animal species. As the human population grows worldwide and moves into more remote areas, wildlife-human interactions will only increase, and the possibility of wildlife diseases’ evolving to human hosts will also rise. It has been widely speculated that COVID-19 moved from bats to pangolins or snakes sold at a wet market in China. With frequent human travel between countryside and city, transmitting these diseases from person to person in densely populated urban areas makes highly contagious diseases such as COVID-19 a real threat to humanity.
As people and as IA practitioners, we must become increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of our world. Over 90% of IAIA’s survey respondents felt that impact assessment should pay greater attention to the links among health, climate change, and the economy. To improve their skills in carrying out this responsibility, they are looking to IAIA to provide practitioner guidelines, online training, publications, and in-person training.
Issues regarding land use, development, and transportation are not the only avenue for zoonotic diseases to adapt to human populations. Our food supply is another weak link. Developed nations, in the Western world especially, have become dependent on a high-protein, meat-heavy diet. One of the primary ways to address the demand for meat is through concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that may house thousands of animals in confined spaces. Not only is the treatment and the disposal of the manure from CAFOs a water quality and aquatic habitat issue, but zoonotic disease outbreaks are highly likely. Various strains of swine flu and avian flu have jumped to human populations in the past few decades.
A better recognition of One Heath – the connection among human health, animal health, and environmental health – would make for wiser decision making worldwide. When it comes to ensuring impact assessment addresses anthropogenic activities related to wildlife interaction and zoonotic disease transmission, 92% of survey respondents felt IAIA should be involved in some way. However, most felt that more information, training, and insights into the issue would be needed. This includes bringing together biodiversity and health experts, providing specific examples on the subject, offering resources and reference materials, and providing specialized training.
Impact assessment professionals also felt that incorporating the concept of resilience was important to protect people, communities, countries, their livelihoods, health, cultural heritage, socio-economic assets, and ecosystems. However, it is my belief that there needs to be a better understanding and more open discussions on resilience in the impact assessment community. The diversity of the approaches used, the lack of commonly-agreed operational principles, and their limited integration into already existing decision-support tools currently constrain consideration of resilience as a dynamic attribute of complex systems in mainstream development planning and decision-making processes. We asked in our survey what factors determining resilience could impact assessment promote, and we received some insightful feedback:
As the survey respondents indicated, impact assessment should not just be about optimizing the project being planned, but it should also be about helping to build a more just and sustainable world for future generations. Economic inequality is growing in the majority of the world economies, and development projects should not continue to contribute to this trend. Policy makers and decision makers should rely more on impact assessment professionals to bring a vision of sustainability and inclusiveness to these efforts.
Impact assessment practitioners are composed of specialists with diverse expertise who can bring forward insightful knowledge on technical issues, while at the same time can integrate the proper social constructs to ensure inclusiveness ranging from gender to Indigenous Peoples to differently-abled. I believe there are five pillars to increasing sustainability and saving civilization that should be guideposts for impact assessment in the future:
On the 50th anniversary of the institutionalization of impact assessment as a formal planning process in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic provides us with a crossroads in history to re-imagine and improve its tenets. As impact assessment professionals, we have an obligation to help create a world that is greener, more sustainable, and more socially equitable for our children and our children’s children.
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.