EIA systems can be described by reference to three components:
- the legal and institutional framework of regulation, guidance and procedure, which establishes the requirements for the conduct of EIA;
- the steps and activities of the EIA process, as applied to specific types of proposals; and
- the practice and performance of EIA, as evidenced by the quality of EIA reports prepared, the decisions taken and the environmental benefits delivered.
Legal and institutional framework
The provision for EIA may be made through legislation, administrative order or policy directive. Many countries have now enacted some type of EIA legislation, which generally can be classified into either a comprehensive or enabling statute. Clear and specific legal provision is internationally accepted as the most appropriate basis for EIA. In many cases, regulations (mandatory rules) and procedural guidance (advisory interpretation) elaborate how EIA legislation is to be implemented. Further information of these arrangements can be found in Section 2 – Law, policy and institutional arrangements. In this Section, note is made only of the main features of the EIA legal and institutional frameworks. These also comprise points of reference for developing or strengthening an EIA system:
The proponent normally carries out the EIA in accordance with directions given by the competent authority (usually the agency which makes the final decision on the proposal but in certain cases an independent commission or panel). An environment agency (or in some cases a specialised EIA body) oversees the process and reviews the study with inputs from other government departments. Usually, EIA studies are carried out by an interdisciplinary team, which is appointed specifically to the task and has an appropriate range of scientific, economic and social expertise.
Scope of application
Some EIA systems are relatively narrow in coverage; e.g. limited to projects of a specified type and size. Others have a broader remit, for example encompassing all proposals that have potentially significant adverse environmental impacts. In addition, the environment is defined broadly; for example to include social, health and cumulative effects. The inclusion of these broader aspects of EIA are now accepted as the international standard of good practice and their coverage should be mandatory.
Consideration of alternatives
Consideration of alternatives is mandatory in some EIA systems but discretionary in others. Varied provision is made for including a range of alternatives to a proposal, and there are different requirements for the evaluation and comparison of alternatives as part of the EIA process. At a minimum, explicit provision should be made for the consideration of the main or ‘reasonable’ alternatives to a proposal (including no action). This component is a critical determinant of effective EIA.
This is a cornerstone of EIA and most systems include provision for public involvement. However, there are marked differences in specific requirements; e.g. regarding access to information, procedures for notification and involvement of the public, the stage of the EIA process at which these are applied and third party rights of appeal. At a minimum, public involvement should take account of the concerns of those directly affected by a proposal.
Quality control and assurance
Within EIA systems, the components described above provide a set of legal and institutional controls on the quality and effectiveness of the process. In addition, the main stages of the EIA process itself constitute a further set of procedural checks and balances. The respective functions of each stage are described below; however, they should be applied iteratively as part of a ‘whole process’ approach to provide EIA quality assurance.
The particular components, stages and activities of an EIA process will depend upon the requirements of the country or donor. However, most EIA processes have a common structure (see flow chart below and watch the video) and the application of the main stages is a basic standard of good practice. Typically, the EIA process begins with screening to ensure time and resources are directed at the proposals that matter environmentally. It should end with some form of follow up on the implementation of the decisions and actions taken as a result of an EIA report.
(click on the EIA Process Flowchart at the right)
EIA practice and outcomes
Marked variations occur in the quality of EIA practice and outcomes among countries, reflecting the legal provisions, institutional arrangements and procedures that are in force in different jurisdictions. In addition, the quality of EIA practice varies on a case-by-case basis within the same system, depending upon events, the complexity of the proposal, the experience of those involved and the time and money allocated. Strengths and weaknesses of EIA practice are well documented in the literature, generally and with reference to the experience of certain countries and types of projects.
Widely recognised deficiencies of EIA practice include:
- Technical shortcomings, expressed by the poor quality of many EIA reports. The accuracy of impact predictions, the utility of mitigation and management measures, and the relevance of reports for decision-making often fall short of internationally accepted standards.
- Procedural limitations, including inconsistencies in process administration and guidance. Time delays and costs of applying EA remain a serious concern for project proponents. Affected communities are more concerned with the lack of quality control of EIA studies or enforcement of mitigation measures.
- Structural issues, stemming from the application of EIA as a separate process, unrelated to the project cycle or the larger context of decisionmaking.
- In order to be effective, EIA requires a coherent policy-planning framework and systematic follow up procedures. Often neither area is well established.
A number of studies have drawn attention to the particular constraints on EIA practice in developing countries as compared to developed ones. However, most developing countries have some experience in EIA and some have a considerable track record, predating the introduction of the EIA Directive in Europe. There are particular limitations on domestic EIA practice in poorer countries, where typically institutional arrangements are weak, and human, technical and financial resources are lacking. In these circumstances, the development banks and international aid agencies play a major role, both long-term through capacity building for the environment and immediately through their own EIA requirements.
What constitute good outcomes for EIA practice? Where international standards apply or can be approximated, the following targets should be within the reach of EIA practice:
- screens out environmentally unsound projects;
- modifies the design of feasible proposals to reduce their environmental impact;
- identifies the best practicable environmental option;
- predicts the significant adverse effects of proposals with reasonable accuracy;
- identifies mitigation measures that work successfully to avoid, reduce and offset major impacts;
- influences decision making and approvals and the implementation of terms and conditions; and
- results in environmental gains and benefits relative to other options.