The importance of cumulative effects has been recognized since the 1970s, starting with its incorporation in the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)’s first EIA-regulated regulation. The consideration of cumulative effects continued to increase in environmental impact assessment (EIA) practices in North America (Canter & Ross, 2010), and finally, cumulative effects analysis (CEA) became mandatory in Canada in 1995 for all EIAs carried out under the old Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) (Noble, 2010, p. 196).
Cumulative impacts of development projects on the environment are important to consider because of the large volume of development projects that are omnipresent throughout the developed and developing world. Cumulative impacts can be defined as “effects of an additive, interactive, synergistic, or irregular (surprise) nature, caused by individually minor but collectively significant actions that accumulate over space and time” (Noble 2010, p197).
While CEA is typically applied to assess project impacts on a regional spatial scale, such as a watershed (Noble, 2010), it is obvious that, due to the interconnectedness and interdependent nature of our environment, impacts of humans activity can be much more far-reaching. For example, although presented from an emotional perspective, the following video depicts how far-reaching the impacts of our actions can be:
(Midway Atoll, film by Chris Jordan, http://www.midwayjourney.com/)
This is the story of an island called Midway Atoll, located in the Pacific Ocean halfway between Asia and North America. As remote as can possibly be, we can see that there seems to be no place on earth that is free of human influence. If this can happen to this extent, it is fairly obvious that taking cumulative impacts into account, even just at the regional scale, within EIAs is an absolute necessity.
This being said, it is of great concern that the new act, CEAA 2012 (enacted in July of 2012), has changed Canadian EIA practices such that less projects will be subjected to an EIA, and that EIAs will likely be relegated to the provinces in order to “eliminate redundancy” and to increase process efficiency (Ecojustice, May 2012). As a result, the consideration and incorporation of cumulative impacts on decision-making is hindered in several ways:
1. Cumulative effects of a projects will likely not be assessed if an EIA is carried out under a provincial EIA legislation that does not require a CEA, such as is the case for the province of British Columbia (Ecojustice, May 2012);
2. If less projects undergo any type of EIA (which is very likely under CEAA 2012), identification of potential adverse environmental impacts, and identification and implementation of mitigation measures and monitoring will be highly unlikely, which will expectedly result in significant environmental impacts; and
3. It will be much more difficult to assess cumulative impacts of certain projects simply due to a lack of information and documentation for other projects that did not undergo EIAs.
Canter, L. & Ross, B. (2010) State of Practice of Cumulative Effects Assessment and Management: the good, the bad, the ugly. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 28(4): 261-268.
Ecojustice (May 2012). Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (Legal Backgrounder). Retrieved from http://www.ecojustice.ca/files/ceaa-backgrounder-1/at_download/file
Noble, B.F. (2010). Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: Guide to Principles and Practice (2nd edition). Toronto: Oxford University Press.