Friday, April 23, 2010

Impact Assessment and the Green Economy

This last weekend they just completed the 2010 annual conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA), a professional organization of impact assessment personnel. This year it was hosted, for the first time, by the United Nations Office in Geneva. The theme of this years conference was "Role of Impact Assessment in Transitioning to the Green Economy".

I do not have access to the presentation given, with the exception of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director's speech, but I would like to make a few points.

While the improvement of impact assessment is an important issue, I think there are some other issues about environmental impact assessments (EIA's) that need to be addressed first.

The first issue that must be addressed is who writes the EIA. The vast majority of EIA's are done under the auspices of the company whose is proposing the project. They hire a consulting company to do the EIA. Having been a consultant before I know what happens on the inside. It goes something like this: (1) the consultant makes a recommendation based on research, modeling, etc.; (2) the company either accepts the recommendation, rejects it, or suggests changes. These are based on how the recommendations will affect their bottom line; (3) the consultant then rewrites the recommendation (or drops it) to agree with what the company says; and then (4) repeat steps 2 and 3 until the company is satisfied. The problem is obvious.

The second issue is what happens after the EIA is produced. In a large number of cases the EIA is simply ignored, the project goes ahead regardless of the impact. In many other cases the recommendations are not followed through. Often there is no review of the EIA. Sometimes the projects are not monitored to see if mitigation measures have been followed.
Compensation and displacement issues are often ignored or given unrealistic values.

Note that this even occurs with international agencies, especially the World Bank and other development banks (such as the Asian Development Bank). Often they institute environmental review after the project is approved. A good example of this is the Three Gorges Dam. Originally approved by the World Bank, they then dropped their funding of the project after considering it to be environmentally unsound. However, by then the project was already under way.

What about the use of assessment in "transitioning to the green economy"? Using impact assessment for transitioning into the green economy is definitely a important step. Only with assessment can we determine the cost of actions upon the environment and then be able to factor them into the decisions. However, the currently used method of calculating that economy must change before those assessments can have any long-range effects. With the emphasis on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and economic growth rate, all the impact assessment is for naught. This is because these measures do not take into account the real cost in terms of environment, health, and social costs.

Finally, we need to know what we mean by the green economy. Since the UN hosted the conference, let us look at the UNEP website on their Green Economy Initiative. But in that site I find no definition of the term, instead you see constant referral to "greening the economy". Those are not the same.


My basic point is that to improve impact assessment what we really need to work on is how the assessment is used and how it fits into the "big picture". Only then can we transition to the green economy.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The complete inaction at Copenhagen was due to a number of factors - roadblocking by a small number of countries, total inadequate method of running the conference by the UN and Denmark, and large influence of international business (and their lackeys). The first two I will discuss in a future article, but right now I want to look at the influence of business.

What I mean is how business, and note I am referring here to Big Business and the people who support their agenda (and not small mom-and-pop shops, etc.), have unduly influenced how their governments determine what their policy is.

This was what I will call corporatocracy - the running of governments by corporation rather than by the people. I came up with that term, but then found that somebody else has already used it. She however used the term in a slightly different context (the concept that a corporation is legally the same as a person).

What I fear is that we no longer have democracy, but corporatocracy. Abraham Lincoln famously said that America was "for the people, by the people, and of the people". I think that is now "for the corporation, by the corporation, and of the corporation". And do not think that I am only talking about America -- we see this system throughout the world. It seems to be especially true in Germany, the UK, Italy, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Canada, Australia, and the Gulf States. And with Copenhagen it is now on the world stage.

What I am implying is that it is big business that is determining who gets elected and determines what the government policies are. They are affecting elections, legislation, executive decisions, rigging environmental impact assessments, writing favorable government reports, and determining national security.

Probably the best example is the economic crisis and its "fixes". Corporate bailouts have been happening world-wide for the last year at initially an astonishing rate. And who pays for all of this? Individuals - not the corporate community. In the US two-thirds of all corporation pay no taxes on their profits. Corporations seem to want the power, but none of the responsibilities.

Election campaigns are all about money, big money. This seems to be universal throughout the world. And where do they get the money. Yep, you guessed it - big business. What really irks me is that when business gives money to these campaigns and then says "Oh, we are not trying to influence public policy". Joke, joke. If that is true than why are they giving the money? - it makes no business-sense to give away money without getting anything in return.

And then there is the lobbying. HUGE amounts of money going into lobbying parliaments. Business groups are constantly putting pressure on national assemblies into not supporting environmental legislation because it affects their bottom lines. There may be environmental NGO's but even in countries where they are strong the amount of spending by business lobbies far outstrips the NGO's. In many other countries they may not exist, or worse, may not even be allowed to exist.

Corporations are also influencing the running of the executive branch of the government. An excellent example of this is an article in PLoS Biology that I was just reading about how the chemical industry in the US sucessfully removed the head of a EPA expert panel which was investigating the hazards of a fire retardant chemical. The EPA removed her, a known expert in the field, without any hearing or investigation.

Another example is a recent case in Thailand. Companies in a industrial estate did not do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) as required by law. A court then ordered the plants shut down. The case was brought by the local population. The response by the companies was to directly appeal to the government to continue the operation of the plants, citing that the ruling would hurt businesses and the economy. Of course, the government gave in setting up a commission to help the businesses involved. So much for government of the people.

This kind of pressure, often done secretly, is routinely done to influence bureaucratic systems. These are especially done in decisions on the environment. I have been amazed at how many projects in the world are done without EIA's even if they are required by the national laws. This even extends to development projects funded by organizations such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

And then its the use (or abuse) of the judicial system that "deep pockets" like to use. It is not uncommon for corporations to use the courts to bully people with lawsuits. At the same time when sued in the courts for illegal dumping, etc. they use their wealth to delay, interfer, and confuse legal proceedings against them. By delaying a case, they can make the plaintiffs (usually normal citzens) spend more of their little cash. And then when they get a ruling against them they get a small fine (remember that even 100 millions dollars is far less then the earnings of a multinational corporation such as Exxon gets in one day).

But the biggest use of power that big business has is the power of rhetoric. They continuely uses the mantra of free trade to oppose any restrictions, including environmental regulations. They have tried many times to influence international agencies to serve their agenda (often while at the same time influencing their own countries government to restrict imports). Much of this I have already discussed in this article.


The following are what I believe to be some solutions needed in order to return the power to the people:

1. Campaign financing. Let us limit the amount of money which candidates can spend on campaigns. Public financing should also be considered.
2. Reform the corporate tax structure.
3. Not allow any direct lobbying by companies of parliament and strictly limit the amount of lobbying which their associations (which are often masked as non-profit organizations) are allowed.
4. Avoid direct contact between corporations and civil servants.
5. Not allow civil servants and military officers from joining corporations whose businesses are related to their government jobs for a number of years (at least 5).
5. Use the European Union approach to fining corporations, where the amount they must pay is linked to their assets.
6. Reform the judicial system to prevent abuse by companies
7. Reform the international system to reduce corporate influence and increase influence of the people, especially poor people. Organizations that especially standout are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
8. Change the way in which UN conferences and other major international meetings are run.