What is an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and when do you need one?

09 September 2022

With rising human populations and declining natural resources, there is a dire urge to focus on sustainability. An Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is a significant tool to promote sustainable development and to deter potential adverse impacts of projects on the environment. Essentially, an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) is a forecasted analytical process of identifying and analyzing environmental consequences of a project, and it is also concerned with mitigation of these environmental impacts. For the reduction of adverse effects on the environment, EIAs ascertain that the decision makers contemplate about the possible effects as soon as possible. The primary manifesto of EIA is to discover all the potential social, environmental and health effects of a proposed project (policy or program), in order to make the decision makers more accountable by informing them of all the possible consequences of their decision. Environmental Impact Assessment is also employed to attain certain economic and environmental benefits, including improved project design, reduced cost and time of project implementation, cost-effective modifications in project design, avoided violations of environmental laws and regulations, and reduced clean-up costs. EIA also contributes as a significant factor in the cost-benefit analysis of the project by finding out how it will impact the area where many of stakeholders live and subsequently their lives. Conventionally, EIA is regarded as an information-gathering activity which helps quantify the risks related to a project and identifying measures to mitigate these risks. EIA is used in various sectors, including mining, gas exploration, cement plants, metallurgical industries, manufacturing, forestry, tourism and many others.

Environmental Impact Assessment is such a broad phenomenon that there are various perspectives on it. From a legal perspective it’s a regulated process with rule specifications. For administrators, it’s a systematic process to quantify the environmental impact of project. For environmental reformists, it might be a tool to promote sustainable development. And for planners, EIA can be a good prospect to diagnose costly and undesirable impacts at an early stage of project planning. Despite the varying approaches, the basic components of EIA involve certain stages. Screening is the first stage in EIA process, it determines whether a project requires environmental clearance using an EIA. Second stage is scoping, which determines the scope or range of an EIA report by identifying key environmental issues to be assessed. The third stage is termed as Impact Assessment and Mitigation, involving an evaluation of environmental impacts of a project and then identification of the mitigation measures to reduce those impacts. Impact Management, which is the next stage, deals with preparing plan to address project risks and mitigation measures. Next comes the EIA report, which is a comprehensive, structured document having non-technical summary of all the research done in previous stages. The succeeding stage is ‘Review and Licensing’, in which decisions are made by designated authorities regarding the acceptance and licensing of the project. Subsequently, monitoring is the last stage which ensures proper and effective implementation of contingency plans to counter the related risks.

Why do you need an EIA? This is one of the questions, in case of EIA, that is usually raised to get a better understanding of this assessment. There are always various constraints involved in a decision making process of a project, which can be broadly categorized into; financial, social, political, legal and environmental. Political and financial constraints are substantially addressed through economic analysis, whereas social and environmental concerns are not taken into consideration. These concerns are connected with societal significance based upon trade-offs between environmental preservation and development. Therefore, there is a necessity for an environmentally sensitive framework to be incorporated in the decision-making processes. Environmental Impact Assessment is a framework that identifies and evaluates the social and environmental impacts of a proposed project ahead of decision-making for the sake of quantifying the environmental impacts, before the commencement of the project. On account of the fact that development is a fast-growing phenomenon, its impact on the environment is also escalating, causing a rapid downturn in environmental conditions. Thus, Environmental Impact Assessment is crucial if you want to look into a rational approach for sustainable development, as it helps decision makers to take long-term measures while planning and designing a project.

Furthermore, you need an EIA when the development projects are comparatively larger and tend to have potentially most significant impact on the environment, for instance airports, motorways, oil refineries, nuclear power industries, etc. Secondly, the need also depends upon the fact that how the characteristics, like size, nature and location, are going to impact the environment and its sustainability. As transparency and public participation are fundamental characteristics of Environmental Impact Assessment, EIA becomes a necessity when you want to give meaningful opportunities to stakeholders and to general public, in order to get them engaged with environment preservation through this assessment. Nevertheless, EIA is desired when you want to concentrate on social aspects like a healthier local environment, improved human health, lesser resource usage, fewer conflicts over natural resource use, maintenance of biodiversity, and increased community knowledge and skills. Another component that makes EIA the absolute necessity is Environmental Statement or Report, which is a document prepared using extensive research by transiting through many stages of EIA. It is needed by decision-makers before they grant an operating license to any project by properly assessing its cumulative environmental impacts based on accurate and relevant information.

Conclusively, there are certain projects which require Environmental Clearance before initiating any kind of project activity and for which Environmental Impact Assessment is inevitable. Because, EIA’s basic objectives are to predict environmental impact of projects, to identify ways to reduce the environmental damage, to prevent adverse environmental impacts, to shape projects to suit local environment and to enhance public participation. Consequently, EIA is needed most when you want to screen out environmentally unsound projects, to identify feasible alternatives and to determine mitigation measures. The EIA process also serves as a significant procedural role in the overall decision-making process by virtue of its impartiality and open engagement of public.

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