Moving Impact Assessment Beyond the Tick Box

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Mervyn Mason

Mervyn Mason Member Name

Principal Environmental Scientist

As populations increase and put more pressure on available resources, all sectors must adequately assess and manage the potential environmental and social impacts of their developments. At the core of this challenge – for project developers, impact assessment practitioners, reviewers, and regulators – is adequately and appropriately determining the significance of anticipated impacts.

In a development context, an ‘impact’ is a positive or negative change to a process or thing that people value. Whether a change to a process or a thing constitutes a ‘significant’ impact is shaped by human values and context – because what’s significant to one person in terms of how they perceive and interact with their environment and its resources may not be significant to another. Similarly, what’s significant in one part of the world may have less significance elsewhere; and what may seem insignificant now could turn out to be significant in the future.

With this in mind, how can transparent, repeatable, and defensible judgements be made about significance? What happens when local values, requirements or legislation compete with leading or best practice?  Should a development proceed?

Ticking the box

There is no shortage of guidance on how to determine the significance of an impact. Enshrined in the annals of impact assessment and in many legislative frameworks are theoretical approaches that focus on the impact’s magnitude, extent, duration, frequency, reversibility, and probability. These approaches have been in use since the 1970s, and are still applied in contemporary impact assessments, but they can be formulaic and may oversimplify complex socio-ecological systems.

In many jurisdictions, laws and regulations impose some definition of what might constitute a significant impact.  However, they often require merely that a development should consider its potential impacts and how these may be managed to limit potential harm.  No detail is necessarily provided as to how the impacts should be assessed. Consequently, there is a danger that the impact assessment process, and the determination of significance, can become a ‘box-ticking’ exercise, simply to gain approval for a project to proceed. Such approaches may be sound in simple projects, with a low likelihood of significant impacts. However, in this age of hyper-scrutiny, outdated or perfunctory approaches are unlikely to meet the growing expectations of financiers and the public, especially for the assessment of complex projects, or for cumulative impacts.

For example, recent governmental reviews of Australia’s primary legislative instrument to protect the environment – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 – and projects assessed under it, found that almost 80 per cent of reviewed approvals were non-compliant due to insufficient information and assessment. Based on the information provided in the impact assessment, inappropriate conditions were assigned as part of approvals, and the approvals did not demonstrate that the associated conditions were aligned with the predicted impact. Simply put, the significance of impacts was not adequately assessed and/or presented, and appropriate conditions assigned.

Is this a symptom of the rush to achieve approvals quickly to meet economic drivers? Sometimes projects are pushed through regardless of environmental and social consequences because they are seen to offer benefits to the greater economy. Indeed, the desire of many governments to bolster their economies following the COVID-19-induced downturn may increase the likelihood of circumventing certain approval processes to fast-track development and bolster the economy, a process which could lead to the underestimating of impact significance.  Especially for complex projects in complex environments.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates just how quickly our world, our values, and our focus can change. Such changes are often more rapid than legislative changes. This can lead to legislative inertia and may result in leading impact assessment practice to being something nice-to-achieve, rather than a need-to-achieve. Consequently, the approvals process, as assisted by the impact assessment, may not be keeping up with the changing times. Frequently, impacts are not deemed significant because they have been assessed against outdated measures; and lessons learnt about the assessment of significance are not always brought forward into the impact assessment process.

Moving beyond the box

Even though legislation frequently lags evidence-based research, the scrutineers of projects typically expect leading practice approaches to impact assessment. Investors and non-governmental organisations are holding project developers, owners, and operators to account over their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance – including matters such as climate change, human rights, and corporate governance. Stakeholders are demanding more detail, and information is becoming increasingly easy to obtain, is rapidly spread and consumed.

When expectations are high and scrutiny intense, a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to achieving project approval and a ‘tick-box’ approach to impact significance are unlikely to satisfy. News, whether fake or not, can lead to costly delays or even derail a project.

There is, however, far more than reputation or costs at stake. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, developing or developed economies, we rely directly on complex socio-ecological systems for the essentials of life: food, water, and clean air. Developments can affect the availability of these essentials. There is no room to get the assessment of significance wrong or to leave the management of inadequately addressed impacts to a development’s operational phase.

Early and extensive stakeholder engagement is fundamental so that stakeholders’ concerns and aspirations can shape the determination of significance and the terms of reference. It’s also important that the scoping assessment is diligent, that the terms of reference are meaningful, and that complex systems aren’t generalised or oversimplified, and cumulative impacts are adequately considered.  Ultimately, the significance of environmental and social impacts is rarely an objective numbers game – it’s a detailed and compelling story about what matters to a community, to a place, and to our ever-changing world.  It is not about the individual, but about the collective good.

Adopting a systems approach to impact assessment is paramount. It is crucial to recognise and understand the interrelatedness and complexity of the impact assessment process because a minor impact in one facet may lead to a significant impact in another, or an impact that does not appear significant now may become significant in the future.

Assessing the significance of the impacts of a project is a journey through complex, evolving terrain. The path is more likely to lead to the desired destination if it is guided by an understanding of leading practice, an adaptable and open-minded approach to potential solutions, and an appreciation of the uncertainties, as informed by all the stakeholders.

Engaging experienced and respected impact assessment professionals to assist is a cost well worth bearing when compared with potential reputational and financial risks, onerous conditions, the need to rework the impact assessment, costly project delays, or even damage to the developer’s social licence.

Investing from the earliest stages in a robust, transparent impact assessment that is informed by stakeholders and aligned with current science is an important step in mitigating risk – and a timely leap out of the tick box.

About the Author

Mervyn Mason

Mervyn Mason Member Name

Principal Environmental Scientist

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