Using quantitative designs to operationalize sustainability principles in SEA

Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) has developed from within the field of environmental impact assessment (EIA) as a means of integrating environmental concerns, such as sustainability, into higher-order decision-making processes [1; 2]. SEA thereby provides an early, comprehensive analysis of the environmental impact of projects by evaluating policies, plans, and programs (PPPs) [1; 2]. One of the defining principles of SEA is it’s flexibility; SEA can be applied to various kinds of PPPs. However, some experts argue that methodological flexibility in SEA can pose practical and decision-making challenges [3; 4; 5]. Ensuring flexibility in SEA can cause SEA guidelines to be generic and represent SEA as an ad hoc approach [6; 7; 5].

The methodology of SEA has frequently been restricted to qualitative approaches. The subjectivity of qualitative approaches can contribute to the lack of clarity surrounding SEA. A study conducted by White & Noble (2012) used a quantitative design to evaluate the electricity sector in Saskatchewan, Canada [5]. A panel of 44 experts was assembled from government (17), private sector (15), and environmental non-governmental organizations (12) in order to assign values of importance to eight assessment criteria and five alternative scenarios. The assessment criteria were assigned weights and the alternative scenarios were also assigned weights based on the assessment criteria using Saatay’s (1982) analytical hierarchy process. The results given by the experts were also subject to sensistivity testing  to remove any outlying results [8]. The median values in the following tables indicate that the expert panel determined that the most important assessment criteria was C8- ‘Public health and safety’ and the most important alternative scenario was A3- ‘Renewables focused alternative’. The following weights were determined for the assessment criteria:



The following weights were determined for the alternative scenarios for the electricity sector in Saskatchewan, Canada:



Although expert-based designs do not altogether eliminate the subjective nature of SEA, it does ensure that the SEA guidelines that result are formulated by the most qualified personnel. Having numerous experts evaluate the alternative scenarios will ensure the validity of opinions; the more experts that participate, the more reliable the SEA guidelines will be. The knowledge of the local experts allows methodological designs such as these to be context-specific. As unforeseen external factors influence context, the opinions of the experts will likely shift in order to best suite the new PPP landscape. This quantitative design is able to maintain contextual flexibility while also retaining structural integrity so that the same quantitative design can be replicated for any other PPP situation. This design also addresses issues of clarity that are associated with qualitative methodologies. The following video shows several EIA experts offering their opinion on how SEA can influence decision-making.

Despite advances in SEA methodology, it remains the responsibility of policy-makers to make use of SEA guidelines in order to ensure that these directives are being accomplished. Although the use of quantitative designs can improve SEA methodology, the political will must exist in order to implement SEA policy guidelines and institute sustainability principles within legislation.



[1] Sadler, B. (1996). International study of the effectiveness of environmental assessment, final report, environmental assessment in a changing world: Evaluating practice to improve performance. Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and International Association for Impact Assessment. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Supply and Services Canada.

[2] Noble, B. F. (2010). Introduction to environmental impact assessment: A guide to principles and practice. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

[3] Liou, M. L., Yeh, S. C., Yu, Y. H. (2006). Reconstruction and systemization of the methodologies for strategic environmental assessment in Taiwan. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 26(2), 170–184.

[4] Noble B. F., Gunn J., Martin J. (2012). Methods and guidance for strategic environmental assessment: A state of practice review. Impact Assessment Project Appraisal, 30(3), 139–147.

[5] White, L. & Noble, B. F. (2012). Strategic environmental assessment in the electricity sector: An application to electricity supply planning, Saskatchewan, Canada. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 30(4), 284-295.

[6] Retief, R. (2007). A performance evaluation of strategic environmental assessment (SEA) processes within the South African context. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 27(1), 84–100.

[7] Auditor General. 2004. Assessing the environmental impact of policies, plans, and programs. Report of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development. Ottawa, ON: Office of the Auditor General.

[8] Saaty, T. L. (1982). The Analytical Hierarchy Process. In: Decision making for leaders: The analytical hierarchy process for decisions in a complex world (pp. 14–26). Belmont, CA: Lifetime Learning.


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