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.

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