A Case for Cumulative Effects Assessments in Protecting Caribou Populations

Despite being an unassailable cultural icon in Canada and enjoying a broad geographic spread, the North American caribou (Rangifer tarandus) faces many challenges to its long-term survival. Indeed, as of November, 2014, the majority of caribou subspecies have been listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern under the Species at Risk Act[1] and continue to exhibit declining population trends outside of natural fluctuations[2]. As can be seen in the following illustration, every subspecies aside from barren-ground caribou and certain ecotypes of woodland caribou have been given special status, yet all herds suffer from a receding historical range[2]:

Distribution and Status of Caribou Subspecies in Canada

One major factor contributing to this decline is the large-scale disturbance to high-quality caribou habitats from development projects[3][4]. Although the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process is intended to minimize or avoid a project’s potential environmental impacts prior to implementation, it has not proven to be exceedingly effective in predicting or mitigating impacts on caribou populations due to its narrow, project-based approach[5]. Instead, more comprehensive practices such as cumulative effects assessments (CEAs) must be employed so the interactions between proposed activities and specialized, migratory species like caribou can be adequately understood.

Typically, a zone of influence around a project is demarcated in order to assess the spatiotemporal extent of its disturbances on caribou populations[4]. This approach, however, implicitly assumes that disturbances are isolated to a single project and neglects the interaction of effects from multiple projects and stressors in the region which combine to inflate the initial zone of influence and magnify its impacts. Properly assessing a project’s true zone of influence is essential for accurate impact predictions as caribou will often exhibit an avoidance response when encountering a zone of influence, whereby they alter their behaviour, distribution, or selection of suitable habitats[4]. Some observed avoidance responses have been so severe that caribou populations like the woodland caribou in northern Alberta have avoided high-quality habitats 1 km near oil and gas wells, equivalent to a 22-48% loss in available habitat[4]. Pictured below is an example of a suitable boreal habitat that could be abandoned by caribou if cumulative disturbances in the region are too great[6].

Caribou Entering Boreal Forest Habitat

Negative impacts on caribou populations are not always so linear either. A study by Beauchesne et al. (2014) showed that woodland caribou responded to an increase in cumulative anthropogenic disturbances by expanding their home ranges, a behaviour shift which resulted in greater energy expenditures and risk of exposure to predators[3]. These kinds of indirect effects generally occur outside the scope of an individual project yet they still interact to endanger caribou population persistence. Similarly, Frid and Dill (2002) provide a simple model that depicts how effects like disturbances and predation encounters displace caribou from preferred habitats and create a cascading response that indirectly affects population size[7].

Model of Indirect Effects on Caribou Population Size

Given the complexity of population dynamics then, the simpler project-based approach to impact prediction and evaluation should be relegated to smaller projects that do not infringe upon caribou habitats. CEA is currently the most viable tool to address the myriad of spatiotemporal factors at the landscape level, and, while often criticized for being ineffective[4], it has great potential for improvement. One suggestion to render CEAs more effective is to establish cumulative effect thresholds that are incorporated into the approval process for industrial activity occurring within caribou ranges[5]. As of yet though, no such thresholds exist within any jurisdiction in Canada[5].

References

[1]Environment Canada. (2014). Species at Risk Act (S.C. 2002, c.29). Ottawa, ON: Minister of Justice.

[2]Gunn, A., Russell, D., and J. Eamer. (2011). Northern caribou population trends in Canada. Canadian Biodiversity: Ecosystem Status and Trends 2010, Technical Thematic Report No. 10. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers.

[3]Beauchesne, D., Jaeger, J.A.G., and M. St-Laurent. (2014). Thresholds in the capacity of boreal caribou to cope with cumulative disturbances: Evidence from space use patterns. Biological Conservation, 172, 190-199. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2014.03.002

[4]Johnson, C.J., and M. St-Laurent. (2011). Unifying Framework for Understanding Impacts of Human Developments on Wildlife. In D.E. Naugle (Ed.), Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America (pp. 27-54). Washington, DC: Island Press.

[5]Anderson, R.B., Dyer, S.J., Francis, S.R., and E.M. Anderson. (2002). Development of a Threshold Approach for Assessing Industrial Impacts on Woodland Caribou in the Yukon. Whitehorse, YT: Applied Ecosystem Management Ltd.

[6]Youds, M. (December 26, 2013). Mountain Caribou Face Uncertain Future [Article]. Retrieved from http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Mountain+caribou+face+uncertain+future/9325826/story.html

[7]Frid, A., and L. Dill. (2002). Human-caused Disturbance Stimuli as a Form of Predation Risk. Conservation Ecology, 6(1): 11.

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The Role of the Media in Environmental Impact Assessment: An African Perspective

Author: Brian Aboh

The process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) has been in existence for four decades and its effect is felt worldwide.  EIA results have been accompanied with a lot of shortcomings attributed to institutional, legal and technical problems. Though, much is being done to address these issues, the EIA process still needs improvement. One major way to advance the process is through increased use of the media [1].  Media coverage on the practice of EIA is limited; Journalists mainly cover meetings or publicize information provided by the authorities, civil societies, pressure groups and project proponents.  The media should actually be involved in the EIA process as a stakeholder by reporting on the project during discussion and implementation stages, which in turn will be beneficial to the media company, its staff and the public [2].

The reluctance of editors and reporters to cover articles on the environment or EIA process is a result of their limited background on environmental issues especially in Africa.  Another reason is that most media companies in Africa are hesitant to cover environmental issues for fear of losing money and/or being persecuted by governments [2]. This shortcoming has led to the training of environmental journalists with the assistance of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), but this program’s impact is still limited.  Adequate funding, reorientation and repackaging of environmentally sensitive and innovative project reporting to make it more interesting and marketable would be another way forward [2].

An Interview with Prof. Wangari Mathaai

 African governments should be actively involved in promoting the use of media in EIA initiatives. For example, in Bulgaria the Government established an excellent environmental reporting capacity with the country’s media sector through regular press conferences and massive public awareness campaigns [5]. In the 1990s, the Chinese media was very instrumental as environmental watchdogs in supervising offenders and communicating with the public which was made possible through Chinese government encouragement [6]. Lei Yang (2008) has suggested that reporters should be in communication with academia, scientists, NGOs and other stakeholders for comprehensive media reporting of environmental issues.

Another good example is the media coverage that drew the attention of the world to the injustice and oppression by the then military dictator (Gen. Sani Abacha) in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. In 1995, eco-activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists (the “Ogoni eight”) were executed due to their stand against oil extraction and it’s environmental impacts which got considerable media coverage worldwide [3]. The media can also serve as useful tool to educate illiterate groups in a community about EIA practices. These can be achieved by the simplified reporting  of projects impacts through public debates and inquiries, television and radio programmes, visual aids and billboards, and sensitizing the community via theatrical shows [4].

The future of African countries in transparent EIA practices is dependent on the communication of findings and recommendations of EIA reports through the media to combat environmental degradations, social and economic frustrations, and violent conflict. These include the media’s simplification of cumbersome technical and complex presentation of EIAs, the consideration of cultural and language barriers, and the accessibility of EIA reports through the media.

Reference

[1]Kakonge, J.O (2006).Environmental Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa: Environmental Impact Assessment at the Crossroads. Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Working Paper No. 9. http://environment.research.yale.edu/documents/downloads/v-z/wp_9_africa_eia.pdf. [Accessed 17 March 2014].

[2]Kakonge, J.O (2012).  Media and the Environmental Impact Assessment Process in Africa: A Synopsis. Global Policy Journal. http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/21/05/2012/media-and-environmental-impact-assessment-process-africa-synopsis. [Accessed 17 March 2014].

[3]Nwagbara, U. (2010). “The Nigerian Press, the Public Sphere and Sustainable Development: Engaging the Post-amnesty Deal in the Niger Delta”, Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa, vol. 12, No. 3. http://www.jsdafrica.com/Jsda/V12No3_Summer2010_A/PDF/The%20nigerian%20Press,%2.[ Accessed 17 March 2014].

[4]Rowan-Robinson, J., Ross, A., Walton, W., & Rothnie, J. (1996). Public access to environmental information: A means to what end? Journal of Environmental Law, vol.8, No 1, pp. 19-42. http://jel.oxfordjournals.org/content/8/1/19. [Accessed 17 March 2014].

[5]UNEP (2009.). Guideline 44: Public Environmental Awareness and Education, Manual on Compliance with and Enforcement of Multilateral Environmental Agreements. http://www.unep.org/dec/onlinemanual/Enforcement/InstitutionalFrameworks.. [Accessed 17 March 2014].

[6]Yang, L. (2008). The Role and Ability of the Media to Promote Environmental Awareness; Perspectives from China. Presentation at the 4th Asia-Europe Editor’s Roundtable, 22-23 October, Beijing. http://english.cri.cn/2946/2008/10/24/53s417625.htm.  [Accessed 17 March 2014].

Incorporating Climate Change in EIA

by: Adam Pinchefsky

Climate Change has been recognized as a serious global issue for decades, but to date our actions have been inadequate to deal with the problem. Governments around the world dodge the issue, agreeing that actions must be taken to prevent serious climate change but are not doing much to stop it because climate change is not high on the list of voter priorities. One main challenge in dealing with climate change is that its causes are greatly embedded in almost every facet of our daily lives.

climate-change-science-v-politics-cartoon

Source: Don McLenaghen, 2012 [5]

Sources of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the culprit for climate change, are endless. Burning fossil fuels is woven into almost every factor of society such that halting their use is, at least for now, not a viable option. Such an action could precipitate a collapse in the farming industry, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, which could lead to widespread food shortages and possibly to famine. Industry and manufacturing could collapse, most mechanized transportation would cease, and most energy demands would not be met as existing renewable energy sources account for a fraction of our energy supply. The effects of climate change can already be seen with rising sea levels caused by increased melting of ice caps and glaciers and thermal expansion of water (caused by increasing temperatures). If governments and corporations continue to focus primarily on economic issues rather than on environmental protection, steps will need to be taken to force them into action. This is where I believe the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process can be an effective tool.

Claire Carter, 2013

Source: Claire Carter, 2013 [6]

An effective way of mitigating the effects of climate change is to incorporate climate change impacts and adaptation into pre-existing project structures [1]. EIAs could be very effective in this regard as they are already well established in most developed countries and are a legal requirement for many projects. EIAs already include direct and indirect effects of climate in its guidelines [4]. While regular EIAs would be effective at addressing the site specific impacts that projects will have on climate change, strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) can impact project development over entire regions [2, 3]. EIAs occur before projects are approved and can be used to determine the impacts the projects will have on climate change (amount of GHG emissions) and propose ways to mitigate those impacts prior to project approval. Canada and Australia have already incorporated climate change into the EIA process, however it is more focused on the impacts that climate change will have on the project than the other way around[1].

With GHG emissions rapidly increasing across the globe, action must be taken now to curb this increase. EIAs are an effective existing tool that can be used to lower emissions at the project planning stage, and can help such projects become more environmentally sustainable. Countries should include measures for incorporating climate change mitigation into existing EIA guidelines.

References:

[1] Agrawala, Shardul et al., 2012. Incorporating climate change impacts and adaptation in environmental impact assessments: Opportunities and challenges.  Climate and Development, 4:26-39.

[2] Carter, Claire. Environmental Secretary accused of ‘immoral’ stance on climate change. The Telegraph (October 1, 2013). <Last accessed March 17, 2014: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/10346050/Environment-Secretary-accused-of-immoral-stance-on-climate-change.html

[3] Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment, 2014. EIA & Climate Change. <Last accessed March 17, 2014: https://www.iema.net/eia-climate-change&gt;.

[4] Justice and Environment, 2012. Climate change aspects in environmental impact assessment procedures. <Last accessed March 17, 2014: http://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=14&ved=0CDcQFjADOAo&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.justiceandenvironment.org%2F_files%2Ffile%2F2012%2FCC%2520in%2520EIA%281%29.pdf&ei=j7YoU73ZFaOTyQHK_oHADw&usg=AFQjCNFmVGjErd-q49DX6LZ4Pbtw0c2e-w&sig2=rAfgqB_SsUsNudtpAhjBmQ&gt;.

[5] McLenaghen, Don, 2012. The double standard of climate scandal. <Last accessed March 17, 2014: http://radiofreethinker.com/tag/climate-change/&gt;.

[6] Smith. The role for EIA in Climate Change. National Environmental Assessment Service. Environment Agency. <Last accessed March 17, 2014: https://www.iaia.org/publicdocuments/affiliates-and-branches/ireland-uk/IAIA%20Ire-UK%20Branch_Smith.pdf>.

Do you know where your money is going? Environmental Policy in the Canadian ‘Big Five’ Banks

Written by: Derek Davies

Most people are familiar with how the average banking system works. Banks are financial institutions that work by giving the bank your money, which they re-invest by loaning out a portion of the money to people or businesses that need it, connecting surplus with deficits. The banks make their money off the interest rates that are paid and charged by the bank to the user.

In Canada there are five main banks, known collectively as the ‘Big Five’ banks, they consist of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Toronto Dominion Bank (TD), the Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank), the Bank of Montreal (BMO), and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC). Over 96% of Canadians have a bank account[1] , and unless you invest your own money within the financial system, you likely have no say or idea as to where your money is going. For example, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has a strategy known as, ‘Rank ‘Em and Spank ‘Em’. This strategy is aimed at revealing international banks that finance Oil Sand expansion through loans from the year 2007. RBC ranked 1st, with lending, followed by TD (4th), CIBC (5th), Scotiabank (8th), and BMO (9th)[2] . The mounting pressure from the Rainforest Action Network, is forcing the ‘Big Five’ to change their environmental policy in order to raise environmental standards within the financial industry. For example, in 2010, with the pressure from RAN, RBC has adopted an environmental and social standard to not finance clients that have not received consent from indigenous communities[3] .Logo-Equator-Principles

The ‘Big Five’ follow the Equator Principles, which are internationally recognized principles used when a financed project totals a certain cost. The client must undertake an environmental and social review. Over 50 banks around the world are signatories to the Equator Principles, representing 85% of the global project finance market[4] . The Equator Principles comprise of ten principles that serveas a common framework to reach responsible development. These principles include environment and social assessment, environmental and social standards, stakeholder engagement, and monitoring. For a full list and summary of the ten principles, click here.  Projects are categorized within three different classes, ranking from: significant adverse environmental and social impacts (A), to potential limited adverse environmental and social risk (B), to projects with minimal or no environmental and social risk (C). However, only categories A and B undertake the environmental and social assessment. In addition to this, the equator principles only apply within the ‘Big Five’ if they lend out in access of $10 million.

So, where do you fall in? Below is a listing of how each of the ‘Big Five’ defines their lending and financing environmental standards.

1.    Royal Bank of Canada (RBC)

rbc-royal-bank-logo-1

 

Environmental Policy: Equator Principles (Environmental Assessment for projects exceeding $10 million loans) & International Finance Corporation Standards & Environmental and Social Risk Management.

Responsible Lending: Finance clients intending to reduce GHG emissions, improve water quality, and facilitate adaption to climate change. Not engage financial activity with unsustainable forestry and only with clients with adequate certification. Only finance projects with indigenous approval. Not engage finance with any clients violating environmental laws[5] .

2.    Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD)

TDLogo-300x259

Environmental Policy: The Equator Principles, high-level screening of projects, social and environmental assessment procedure, and risk management decision tree.

Responsible Lending: Does not lend to activities within World Heritage Sites, activities that would degrade Conservation Areas, or finance illegal logging operations or finance manufacturing of weapons, nuclear, or of chemicals[4] .

3. Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank)

 scotiabank

Environmental Policy: The Equator Principles, Environmental Risk Management, investment in renewable energy, Carbon Credit Trading.

Responsible Lending: Scotiabank has undertaken the highest amount of Environmental and Social Assessments under the Equator Principles among the top five banks (15)[6] .

4. Bank of Montreal (BMO)

BMO_Rondel-2c

Environmental Policy: The Equator Principles and Environmental Risk Management

Responsible Lending: Evaluates risk on climate change, not engage in any unsustainable resource extraction such as rainforest logging[7] .

5. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC)

cibc

Environmental Policy: The Equator Principles, Environmental Credit Risk, Environmental Risk Management, and Pre-Approved Environmental Consultants for undertakings

Responsible Lending: Manage high-environmental risk and Carbon Management Program[8] 

One argument many people have is that these banks should adopt the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act procedure when financing projects but, if you think about how banks cross all boundaries, it makes sense to use an internationally recognized environmental principle system in which is the baseline for all comparisons.  The ‘Big Five’ banks in Canada are well ranked within the financial industry worldwide, consistently ranking amongst the worlds best for their environmental practices. The Equator Principles are very similar to the environmental assessment process – with the goal of environmentally responsible decision making, and in some cases, based on each respective bank, they go above the requirements by implement greater restrictions. This ensures that the private sector is covered under environment assessment in some form and if clients do not comply with these standards, they must look elsewhere for funding.

References

[1] Canadian Bankers Association. (2014, January 4). Banks and Consumers. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from Canadian Bankers Association: http://www.cba.ca/en/media-room/50-backgrounders-on-banking-issues/127-banks-and-consumers

[2] Rainforest Action Network. (2011, September 28). Banks Ranked and Spanked on the Tar Sands. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from Rainforest Action Network: http://ran.org/banks-ranked-and-spanked-tar-sands-0

[3] Rainforest Action Network. (2010, December 22). Royal Bank of Canada Steps Away from Tar Sands With Support for First Nation Rights. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from Rainforest Action Network: http://ran.org/royal-bank-canada-steps-away-tar-sands-support-first-nation-rights-0

[4] TD Bank Financial Group. (2009). Responsible Financing and Lending. Retrieved January 21, 2014, from TD Bank Financial Group: http://www.td.com/corporate-responsibility/crr-2009/environment/responsible-financing/index.jsp

[5] Royal Bank of Canada. (2012). RBC Environmental Blueprint: 2012 Report Card. Report Card, RBC.

[6] Scotiabank. (2013). Project Finance and the Equator Principles. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from Scotiabank: http://www.scotiabank.com/ca/en/0,,441,00.html

[7] Bank of Montreal. (2013). Responsible Lending. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from Bank of Montreal: https://www.bmo.com/home/about/banking/corporate-responsibility/customers/responsible-lending#project_financing

[8] CIBC. (2013). Lending and Investing. Retrieved January 20, 2014, from CIBC: https://www.cibc.com/ca/inside-cibc/environment/lending-investment.html

Should the Insurance Industry Take a More Active Role in EIA?

According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business the only industry that has firmly embraced the reality of climate change is the reinsurance and insurance industry.  Extreme weather events are happening more frequently due to climate change, and surprisingly the insurance industry is convinced that the change is being caused by human activity [3].  Reinsurers and insurers rely on being able to judge that the risks to the projects that they insure can be accurately modelled over the entire lifespan of the project: their financial well-being depends on it.  With the increased occurrence of extreme weather events over the past 40 years, losses incurred have climbed steadily with the weather-related claims paid out doubling every decade since the 1980s [3].  These ever increasing payouts have motivated the world’s biggest reinsurers and insurers to accept climate change as a reality and become experts at modelling the expected changes over the coming decades.  They have incorporated the results of those models into their calculations about the risks associated with the projects that they insure.Rescue-workers-walk-past-homes-destroyed-by-Superstorm-Sandy-Oct.-31-2012-in-Seaside-Heights-New-Jersey.-Mario-TamaGetty-Images-650x433

(Mario Tama, Getty Images 2012)

The Environmental Impact Assessment process is supposed to identify and predict the impacts of a proposed development over its entire lifespan – from planning through construction and operation to decommissioning [2].  Further, the EIA process is to propose mitigation measures for those impacts along with a plan to monitor them over the project lifespan and beyond.  These mitigation measures along with decommissioning and rehabilitation after the completion of the project involve the highest level of uncertainty in the EIA process [2].  For the insurance industry these activities present the biggest financial risk, especially decommissioning and rehabilitation.  The risk increases with time as the extent of the impacts of the project increase leading to the possibility that more people may be affected over a greater area leading to greater compensation costs for the insurer.  Of special concern are decommissioning costs as there is a higher probability that the project proponent may not fulfill their obligations for site rehabilitation leading to those costs being passed on to the insurer [4].  Environmental insurance policies up until now have generally been for specific impacts of a project such as the damage caused by the release of dangerous materials into the air or water, or onto the land.  The world’s largest insurers, such as Munich Re and Lloyd’s, have come to the conclusion that they must incorporate climatic change into their calculations of the risks involved when insuring various large long-term projects [3].  The Insurance industry is concerned with the accuracy of the projected long term effects, cost of mitigation, cost of decommissioning, cost of damages that may be incurred, but uncertainty in the environmental assessment process makes this difficult.  While it is understood that there are uncertainties in the prediction of the future, the communication of those uncertainties to decision makers needs to be improved [1].  Research by the insurance industry has quantified some of those uncertainties [3] and it needs to be shared with the EA community.

Since the insurance industry is able to quantify some of the uncertainties of the EA process, should they take a more active role in EIA?  If so, at what level should they participate?  Should they function within the regulatory process, or as independent evaluators?  Within the regulatory EA system, proponents could benefit from insurance industry expertise when preparing project submissions and regulatory agencies could benefit from better analysis of the risks of the projects they are evaluating.  Perhaps insurance industry evaluation of a project should be a required component of the regulatory process.  I believe including insurers in the EA process would improve the quality of EA.  The EA process would benefit from the ability of the insurance industry to provide insight into the uncertainties in the EA process, especially with respect to impact prediction and mitigation.  Furthermore, the impacts of climate change would be included in all projects regardless of the acceptance of the magnitude of those changes by both proponents and regulators.  It is time for the insurance industry to work with all parties in the EA process to improve that process and help provide a better future.

CBC_Toronto2013

(CBC, 2013)

References:

[1] Gunn, J. & Noble, B. (2014). Uncertainty disclosure and consideration in environmental assessment: An agenda for research and practice. Unpublished, presented on Jan. 7, 2014 at Concordia University.

[2] Noble, Bram. (2008). Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice, Second Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press

[3] Reguly, E. (2013, 12). The smartest guys on the planet. Report on Business, 30(5), 66-76.

[4] Susavidge, M. A. (2002, 03 01). Environmental insurance insuring the deal. Retrieved from http://www.canadianunderwriter.ca/news/environmental-insurance-insuring-the-deal/1000113570/?&er=NA

The push for renewable energy: a role for impact assessment?

Depending on which day you’re looking at the news, or which sources you’re following, or even which sections you choose to delve into, it can be unclear where we stand in terms of renewable and clean energy. New coalfields are being developed in Australia, Ecuador’s rain forests continue to be transformed into oil fields, and fracking is becoming commonplace news. At the same time, investments in renewable energy seem to be growing and governments continue to proclaim their commitment to green technologies and sustainable energy policies. So the question remains: why are we not further along in our push for ‘green growth?’

United States President Barack Obama discussing his commitments to changing the US’s energy policy at a June 2013 speech at Georgetown.

Christina Figuere’s, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), stated in early January that investment in clean technology needs to grow to $1 trillion a year within the next 10 to 15 years, signifying a tripling over current investments ($300 billion/yr). In mid-January, in line with this imperative, Ceres Investor Network organized a meeting of the world’s chief financial interests to discuss the needed increase in renewable investments [1]. This is a prime example of how more and more we are putting our environmental future at the mercy of business; placing faith in their ability to see that our current trajectory is unsustainable and not viable economically. It is increasingly common to frame decisions regarding unsustainable energy in terms of investor motivations rather than social and environmental imperatives [2].

All this leads me to question what role government can have in promoting renewable energy. As much as our world has opened up and globalization has entrenched the role of the private sector and economic interests, the role of the state should not be discounted. For one, it is governments that meet at international organizations to enter into agreements about policies for energy and climate. In 2011 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report stating that almost 80% of the world’s energy could be supplied through renewable sources (bioenergy, solar, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, and wind energy) by 2050, pushing us towards stabilizing the climate, pending “consistent climate and energy policy support” [3]. The main hiccup towards moving in this regard is not an issue of resource availability but rather the proper economic and political policies supporting their development.

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030. (Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030.
(Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

Increased emphasis on natural gas and oil in the form of fracking, oil sands, and heavy-crude are proof to many that we are moving into what Hampshire College Professor Michael T. Klare [4] names “The Third Carbon Age: The Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.” Klare bases a number of his findings on a November 2012 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that states that our energy demands led to government subsidies for fossil fuels totalling $523 billion in 2011 [5]. Coal alone has met the need of almost half of the rising energy demands in the past 10 years. Similarly to the IPPC report, the IEA report states that actually realizing energy efficiency is not related to unprecedented technological discoveries, but rather on “taking actions to remove the barriers obstructing the implementation of energy efficiency measures that are economically viable” [5]. The key is to change the incentives in decision-making processes. As a student of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), I believe that impact assessment can play a pivotal role in the process towards shaping energy policy decisions. The incorporation of energy efficiency priorities and overall sustainability into impact assessment is absolutely integral to our ability to move towards sustainable energy.

World’s total energy use projected through 2013 – more and more energy will be accounted for by renewable energy sources.
(Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

The pressure to include sustainability thought processes within EIA has been the subject of much research. Pope, et al. [6] discuss the importance of performing an ‘assessment for sustainability,’ in order to actually determine whether a plan is sustainable. Its purpose is simple: to unambiguously answer the closed-question of whether or not a policy or plan is sustainable. The guidelines for a sustainability assessment should be created in a top-down manner: determining what it means to be sustainable, and then identifying principles that represent this objective. The authors find that when sustainability assessment is incorporated within EIA, it tends to be through bringing in the thinking of economics, environment and society, and then attempting to reduce negative effects to all three. This results in an inherent competition and the acceptance that that trade-offs are necessary. However, since this is at a project level, the overall goal of sustainability at the level of society is never addressed. At this point a project has already been decided on and you are dealing with tweaking the details of a potentially inherently unsustainable project.

Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) are used to assess the impacts of plans and policies in order to guide decision-making processes. If countries are serious about making changes to their environmental policies and promoting the development of sustainable energy, an SEA is an important tool that could be used to give an all-encompassing picture of the status of energy resources nationally. This information would in turn be used to inform project choice and implementation, as well as the EIA process of projects. As Hugé et al state [7], “the appeal of impact assessments lies in their systematic, stepwise approach and in their contribution to generate ‘order out of chaos,’” (p. 6247). I particularly like this notion of EIA, and think that it encompasses the principle that we must lay everything out on the table in order to make clear guidelines on environmental policy. While it is true that investment from the private sector is immensely important in the move towards sustainable development, SEA is an important tool to help countries put in place policies that will act as a catalyst for this change.

———————-

References

[1] Goldenberg, S. 2013, Jan 14. “Why We Need to Triple Clean Energy Investment.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/01/un-climate-chief-christiana-figueres-triple-clean-energy-investment

[2] McDonnell, T. 2013, Apr. 22. “Charts: The Smart Money Is on Renewable Energy.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels

[3] IPCC. 2011. PRESS RELEASE: Potential of Renewable Energy Outlined in Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from: http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/press/content/srren-press-release-updated-version.pdf

[4] Klare, M. T. 2013, Aug. 8. “The Third Carbon Age.” The Nation. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.thenation.com/article/175659/third-carbon-age#.

[5] IEA. 2012. World Energy Outlook 2012: Executive Summary. Retrieved from: http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/English.pdf

[6] Pope, J., Annandale, D., Morrison-Saunders, A. 2004. Conceptualising sustainability Assessment. EIA Review. 24: 595-616.

[7] Hugé, J., Waas, T., Eggermont, G., Verbruggen, A. 2011. Impact assessment for a sustainable energy future—Reflections and practical experiences. Energy Policy. 39: 6243-6253.

Australia’s New Coalition Government Threatens EIA Standards

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia assumed office September 18, 2013 (Source: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbott-names-his-new-ministry-20130916-2tujb.html)

Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia assumed office September 18, 2013
(Source: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/tony-abbott-names-his-new-ministry-20130916-2tujb.html)

The new Liberal prime minister of Australia as of last month, Tony Abbott, is not exactly what one might call a steward to the environment.  Glancing through the Liberty Party of Australia’s website, amid the over 50 policies the coalition has developed, we see no “Policy for the Environment,” but rather many documents displaying the Party’s commitment to jobs, development, and trade at the cost of all else. Abbott would like to do away with essentially all of the current environmental programs in place and enact his Direct Action Plan, which would remove the Carbon Tax and devolve the power of environmental decision-making to the state level in order to do away with “unnecessary ‘Green Tape [1].’” These plans are worrisome for the country of Australia, especially from an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) perspective.

Currently, EIAs are dealt with at both the state and Commonwealth level. States have their own EIA regulations and projects that fall into one of eight categories are dealt with by the Commonwealth under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) of 1999. This applies to projects that impact endangered species, water resources, and World Heritage sites, among other things. These two processes run simultaneously, with bilateral agreements in place to streamline processes. In these cases the Commonwealth accredits state assessments if they are in accordance with Commonwealth standards [2, 3].

The Coalition’s new policy would allow state governments to opt into a deal of “one-stop-shop for environmental approvals,”[1] essentially ‘accrediting’ all state processes and making them the only approval necessary for projects to go through.  It is noted in the plan that this is “as the Business Council of Australia has recommended [1].” If the direct reference to business and development interests isn’t enough of a red flag, delving into the EIA practices at the state level, and recent squabbles over them, we see how problematic this policy is for Australia’s EIA standards.

In 2011, largely in a response to the proposal of 9 new mega-mines and 18 new coal ports along the coast of Queensland (Qld) abutting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) (Figure 1), the state government amended EIA guidelines to “reduce ‘green tape’ burden [4].” Public funding of the Qld Environmental Defenders’ Office (a department that aided citizens in environmental cases) was slashed and approval processes that distinguished different kinds of activities, such as mining and petroleum exploration, were removed along with EIA requirements for a number of ‘environmentally relevant activities’ [4, 5].

Figure 1. Greenpeace map of proposed coal ports along the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Source:http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/Global/australia/images/2012/Climate/GBR_infographic_large.jpg)

Figure 1. Greenpeace map of proposed coal ports along the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
(Source:http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/Global/australia/images/2012/Climate/GBR_infographic_large.jpg)

When the first coal project (the Alpha Coal Mine) was approved, UNESCO demanded a complete halt to development around the GBR pending an assessment of its over-all health [6]. Environmental indicators appeared down along the GBR and Gladstone Fishing Research Fund had found algal blooms and acidity variations in the water, as well as increased prevalence of disease in marine species [7]. The EIA performed by Queensland was broadly criticized for being deficient and “shambolic,” [8] in the words of Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, merely pushing for the process to be approved in order for development to continue. The Federal government threatened to suspend bilateral agreements on EIA approvals and place the Commonwealth solely in charge of projects within their jurisdiction [8]. This resulted in a standoff between Burke (since replaced by Abbott) and Qld Premier Campbell Newman over EIA standards and processes [9]. Below is Australia’s Network Ten reporting on the public battle that ensued between Newman and Burke.

If the power of EIA is delegated purely to the state level, when state level processes are not up to international or national environmental standards, then there is a real danger of significant demise to the environment, and more specifically immediate threat to the Great Barrier Reef.  Abbott and Newman are proponents of coalmine projects, seeing the economic profit that they bring, and believe the coal companies are capable of providing adequate protection to the environment.  While it is not untrue that industry is capable of following environmental protection standards, their view begs the question of what industry’s incentives would be, or even where they would get their base knowledge of the environment from, if EIAs are brushed aside merely as an impediment to development. EIAs are fundamentally about proper consideration of the environment in planning and decision-making, with the overarching goal of working towards environmental sustainability [10]. The identification of potential impacts and subsequent mitigation of negative effects is inherently impossible of the EIA process is stunted in this manner.

These recent developments in Australia are disheartening for the consolidation of high EIA standards worldwide. It can be compared to Canada’s recent setbacks in EIA just last year, and a warning of how development over energy resources can significantly change the character of a nation. Australia and the world must really take note of these developments, and question whether they are in line with the environmental protection we should be providing to the world.

Author: Maya Kelty

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[1] Liberal Party of Australia. The Coalition’s Policy for Resources and Energy. September 2013.

[2] “EPBC Act.” What Is Protected under the EPBC Act? Australian Government: Department of Energy, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[3] “EPBC Act.” About Bilateral Agreements and How They Work. Australian Government: Department of Energy, 30 July 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[4] “Client Update: Queensland Reforms Reduce ‘green Tape’ Burden.” Allens, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[5] AAP. “Government Takes Razor to Environmental Defender’s Office.” Brisbane Times, 5 July 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[6] Milman, Oliver. “Australian ‘mega Mine’ Plan Threatens Global Emissions Target.” The Guardian, 18 Sept. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[7] Neubauer, Ian L. “Massive Port Projects Threaten Integrity of Australias Famed Great Barrier Reef Comments.” Time World, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[8] Cullen, Simon. “Burke Slams ‘shambolic’ Reef Mine Approval.” ABC News Australia, 6 June 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[9] Alberici, Emma. “Qld Wanted to Lower Environmental Standards.” Lateline Australia. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

[10] Noble, Bram., 2008. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice, Second Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press.