In the following post, we offer our conclusions on how to more effectively integrate cumulative effects into EA. We view this as one of a number of critical issues for the reform of the federal EA process that is now underway. The full article by John Sinclair, Meinhard Doelle and Peter N. Duinker is available at: http://ssrn.com/author=715387
Over the last twenty-five years, considerable attention has been given to cumulative effects assessment (CEA) by practitioners, academics, and legislators. Yet, despite all this effort, CEA understanding remains weak, practice wanting and progress slow. CEA appears for some to be merely an irritant to the completion of a project-specific environmental assessment (EA). In this view, cumulative effects are ‘assessed’ as a purely legal obligation without practical merit, and the results recorded in a separate chapter – usually short – of the environmental impact statement (EIS). Invariably, the conclusion is that, if any cumulative effects at all are expected, they will be insignificant and therefore ignorable. In this post, we summarize the findings of our recent collaboration to explore solutions to the challenge of effectively integrating CEA into EA.
Our conception of CEA arises from the sustainability imperative, particularly ecological sustainability. This means that the focus of CEA should be on the condition of those elements of the biophysical environment that matter to us – in EA, these are called valued ecosystem components (VECs). The starting place, then, is that ecosystems and their components must be kept in good condition if proposed human activities that interact with such ecosystems and their components are to be sustainable. We plan, assess, evaluate, study, examine, and otherwise pay attention to VECs and their condition as we contemplate whether to undertake specific human activities.
Our resulting conception of cumulative effects is that they arise when two or more stimuli (or agents of change, or stressors, or causes) act together to influence the condition of a VEC. For example, a fish population in a river might be simultaneously affected by waterflow regulation, industrial water pollution, and fishing. Natural processes must be considered too; for example, a big hurricane could cause major flooding of the river in question. This view of cumulative effect is consistent with the definition recently published by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME): “cumulative effect is a change in the environment caused by multiple interactions among human activities and natural processes that accumulate across space and time”. Based on these conceptions of cumulative effect, it seems reasonable to enter an EA process assuming that all effects of the human activities being assessed are cumulative.
To improve our collective ability to address cumulative effects satisfactorily, we argue that the impact-assessment community needs both sound CEA processes and adoption of a CEA mindset. The scholarly literature and the guidance materials on CEA abound with descriptions of CEA processes. While these can certainly be tweaked and improved, our stance is that the community of impact-assessment practitioners has not yet adopted a CEA mindset. Adopting a CEA mindset means that CEA should be at the heart of absolutely every assessment of VEC condition as influenced by human activity to ensure that we understand the relative contributions of various stressors and can decide when cumulative effects may foreclose future activities due to impacts on VECs (or require mitigation to make room for additional activities).
Our purpose is to describe and conceptualize a CEA mindset through describing and applying three critical lenses that focus the mindset. In doing so, we outline an approach to supporting VEC sustainability that recognizes CEA not as a matter of elite practice or preference if we had the time and money, but rather as the only way to begin to understand how to adjust human activities for a sustainable future.
In modelling the CEA mindset, we define project-level EA as assessment of a single and specific proposed human endeavor of a physical nature (see, for example, the definition of a project under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and Doelle 2008). This makes project EA distinct from regional EA (REA) through its focus on a specific undertaking and distinct from SEA through its focus on a physical human activity. All EAs carried out under Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) and most EAs carried out under provincial legislation in Canada would meet our definition of project EA.
Drawing on the broad and often conflicting strategic EA (SEA) literature, we define SEA as an umbrella for any EAs that go beyond traditional single-project EAs, but that focus on a collection of individual projects. For this paper, an SEA goes beyond individual projects, but it does not necessarily consider all human activities within a given region. An SEA can involve a specific industry sector or a number of industry sectors. If it is limited to one industry sector, it is closer to a project EA. As it approaches a full consideration of all human activities within the study area, it begins to resemble an REA.
The term REA has also been used in many contexts, creating confusion in the literature and among practitioners alike. For us, an REA is as an EA whose primary or sole defining feature is its regional scope and its focus on understanding the interactions between human activities and the natural world. This means that in just about all aspects other than its spatial limitations, an REA should be comprehensive and integrated. This also means that processes such as regional integrated planning and integrated management processes are forms of REA.
Our approach also recognizes that several other environmental planning and resource management activities are relevant to the CEA mindset and should be considered in the context of project EA, SEA, and REA activities. Examples include recovery plans for species at risk that identify actions that must be taken in an attempt to ensure a species’ survival and resource management plans that guide the uses of natural resources such as those developed for forest management or watersheds.
What we suggest is a way of thinking about CEA – a mindset conceptualized through three critical lenses – technical, law and policy, and participatory – that bring focus to the mindset. The serious shortcoming of CEA practice rests not just in the lack of attention to the technical lens – as often established in the literature and review of EIS documents – but in also not recognizing that meaningful CEA requires much more than just good science. The CEA mindset cannot just be legislated – legislation will just help to guide and encourage thinking toward the mindset by attending to what has been agreed to be important – but the mindset itself is an ethos of CEA that all engaged in CEA processes must embrace. Focusing and deliberating on each of the elements we have identified for each lens is essential to sound CEA practice. Our analysis of the development decision processes and resource management activities around the Bay of Fundy is illustrative of the current weaknesses and the imminent possibilities.
We have also suggested a pathway for thinking about how the different types of planning and decision-making might be coordinated and implemented in a way that provides greater assurance that a full suite of cumulative effects will be considered, thereby nurturing more-sustainable outcomes. Other recent considerations of CEA practice at least recommend shifting cumulative considerations from the project EA tier to the REA, which is in line with our suggested coordination. The CEA mindset establishes that ongoing planning and assessment processes need to focus on CEA at each level and more thoughtfully integrate the technical results of the work done in each process.
Our suggestions are merely a start at resolving issues of VEC sustainability and we have left open some vexing questions that require more discussion and research. For example, we have not considered how specifically to address foreclosure of future options if the capacity of a VEC to absorb change or further impact has been taken up by approved and to-be-approved activities. Another example relates to how errors in the prediction of the effects of the activities being assessed influence what may be foreclosed in the future. Another set of issues relates to the roles of project proponents, the public, and governments in ensuring an appropriate CEA mindset in each of the processes we have discussed.
These outstanding questions provide the fodder of future research while the work of implementing the CEA mindset can begin in earnest. In the Canadian context, we suggest that the mindset approach to CEA be considered by provincial decision-makers, industry, non-government organizations, and the interested public as they gather to review the provincial project EA processes, which many are currently doing, and engage more generally in resource decision-making. There seems to be little debate on the importance of considering cumulative effects; rather, the concerns noted at the outset of the paper are related to how to do CEA effectively, efficiently and fairly.
The best approach is to apply a CEA mindset and harness and coordinate the resources committed to and resulting from multiple decision processes toward considering cumulative effects. If CEA is a mindset carried into every process of assessment or planning for activities in ecosystems, we may have a chance to arrest some of the ecological degradation we see happening all around despite the abundant good intentions and hopes of current assessment and planning processes. Collectively, we must find ways to effectively consider and mitigate the cumulative effects of human activities if we are to make genuine progress on achieving a more sustainable society.
Professor, Schulich School of Law
To download some of my other publications on EA, see http://ssrn.com/author=715387.