Is EIA a fool’s paradise for conservationists?

Is it naive to believe that environmental impact assessment (EIA) serves as a tool to conserve biodiversity? Given EIA’s primary purpose, which is to reduce the negative impacts of proposed developments on the natural environment, this idea is not far-fetched. However, in practice, biodiversity has yet to be successfully and effectively incorporated into the EIA process. A few authors have identified the major problems associated with how biodiversity issues are being addressed in EIA [4] [8] [12]. A poor understanding of the concept of biodiversity, a lack of appropriate methodologies, and a deficiency in assessments at the ecosystem level are listed as key reasons for why biodiversity is still neglected in many environmental impact statements. Another important cause of the failure to account for biodiversity in EIA is the strong emphasis being placed on protected species [4] [6].

Threatened species lists, despite being extremely valuable tools, should not be used alone to forecast the biological effects of a proposed activity. “Why are such lists – like the famous International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List – a problem for EIA?” you might ask. First, threatened species lists are typically influenced by survey efforts, changes in biological knowledge, and the focus preferences of experts [6] [7]. Therefore, endangered species lists do not always reveal the real patterns and processes in biodiversity; rather, they tend to be biased towards research interests and funding [3]. For example, large, visible, and charismatic species are usually at the heart of threatened species lists, while insects, fungi, and invertebrates are generally overlooked [3]. Moreover, species that play a crucial role in supporting the structure of ecological communities – such as keystone species, dominant species, or indicator species – are often not legally protected. These flaws in the listing process, coupled with the misuse of threatened species lists, have the potential to intensify the threats to biodiversity instead of encouraging conservation. Put into the context of EIA, sole reliance on endangered species legislation in biodiversity assessments can lead to the following paradox: large and disruptive projects affecting only nonlisted species are more likely to be given the green light than those with small impacts on a single listed species [6].

Fig. 1: Process to list a species at risk at the federal level, in Canada [11]

Another problem with the use of threatened species lists to predict the ecological impacts of developments is that they are extremely influenced by politics. In Canada, for example, although the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is responsible of determining, based on rigorous and empirical criteria, whether a species should be listed or not, the Federal Cabinet has the power to override the decision (Fig. 1) [2] [3] [10]. Due to this political interference, several species that have been assessed as at risk by COSEWIC have been left off the Species at Risk Act (Fig. 2). Without legal protection, a threatened species is not entitled to benefit from a Recovery Strategy, and is thus susceptible to extinction [2]. In addition, recovery strategies are often incomplete: the ‘critical habitat’ of a species, which is defined as “the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species” [9], is frequently not identified [2]. This crucial missing information could result in significant biodiversity loss if proponents are given the go-ahead on projects located in unidentified high-risk ecosystems or habitats.

Fig. 2: “Left off the List”, a report from the David Suzuki Foundation [5]

Despite living in an age of increased awareness and understanding of biodiversity, its role continues to be a recurrently neglected aspect in most EIA systems around the world. To solve this issue, many solutions have been put forward, but we have yet to apply them to the framework of EIA. Hereunder are a few recommendations to improve the proper integration of biodiversity into the process of EIA:

  • Improve legislative strategies: for example, develop biodiversity-specific legislation to give formal recognition to biodiversity [3] [12]
  • Improve CEAA’s “Guide on Biodiversity and EIA” [1]: for example, create biodiversity-specific screening criteria and detailed checklists for scoping on biodiversity, as suggested by Slootweg & Kolhoff (2003) [8]
  • Move the focus away from threatened species lists: for example, use multiple and quantitative methods in biodiversity assessments (including GIS-based ecological models as suggested by Gontier et al., 2006) [4]
  • Clarify the concept of biodiversity to avoid misinterpretations among the different groups involved in the EIA process [12]
  • Invest in a centralized, reliable, exhaustive, and accessible repository of information on wildlife species in Canada to help improve data quality and availability [12]
  • Because biodiversity depends on ecosystem integrity, conduct a strategic environmental assessment across Canada to identify no-go zones, sensitive habitats, and areas where development is encouraged [3] [4]

Sources

[1] CEAA’s “Guide on Biodiversity and EIA”:

http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=7392AC38-1

[2] David Suzuki Foundation. (n.d.). Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Retrieved Jan. 15, 2014, from David Suzuki Foundation: http://davidsuzuki.org/issues/wildlife-habitat/science/endangered-species-legislation/canadas-species-at-risk-act/

[3] Farrier, D., Whelan, R., & Mooney, C. (2007). Threatened species listing as a trigger for conservation action. Environmental Science & Policy, 10(3), 219-229.

[4] Gontier, M., Balfors, B., & Mörtberg, U. (2006). Biodiversity in environmental assessment—current practice and tools for prediction. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 26(3), 268-286.

[5] Plotkin, R., & Wallace, S. (2007). Left off the List: A profile of marine and northern species denied listing under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. David Suzuki Foundation.

[6] Possingham, H.P., Andelman, S.J., Burgman, M.A., Medellin, R.A., Master, L.L., & Keith, D.A. (2002). Limits to the use of threatened species lists. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17(11), 503-507.

[7] Rodrigues, A. S., Pilgrim, J. D., Lamoreux, J. F., Hoffmann, M., & Brooks, T. M. (2006). The value of the IUCN Red List for conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21(2), 71-76.

[8] Slootweg, R., & Kolhoff, A. (2003). A generic approach to integrate biodiversity considerations in screening and scoping for EIA. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 23(6), 657-681.

[9] Species at Risk Act, SC 2002, c 2.

[10] Species at Risk Act, SC 2002, c 27.

[11] Status Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development: (2008). Chapter 12—Previous Audits of Responses to Environmental Petitions—Listing of Species at Risk:

http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_cesd_200803_12_e_30138.html

[12] Wegner, A., Moore, S. A., & Bailey, J. (2005). Consideration of biodiversity in environmental impact assessment in Western Australia: practitioner perceptions. Environmental impact assessment review, 25(2), 143-162.

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