Experts examine three new pieces of software to see if they can improve the efficiency of environmental assessments
Using IT software to help the process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) is not a new development. As many EIA practitioners are aware, there are a number of different software tools available for nearly every environmental discipline in the sphere of environmental assessment.
Whether it is the use of 3D photomontages, the production of the “zones of visual influence” as determined by terrain models, or modelling programmes that predict impacts on noise, air quality, groundwater or floodplains, the use of software packages has revolutionised the environmental assessment sector.
Software can improve the presentation of environmental statements with tools available to ensure the accuracy of impact prediction and assessment, as well as generate visual representations of developments that help non-technical stakeholders to understand potential impacts.
Recently, a number of new tools have come onto the market, targeted at supporting environment practitioners, both at the generalist level and at various stages of the assessment and the project development process.
Here, three are analysed – the local ecological footprint tool (LEFT), the EIA calculator and the sustainability optioneering review tool (SORT) – to determine how well they can assist the EIA, strategic environmental assessment (SEA) and sustainability appraisal processes.
Location, location, location
The Biodiversity Institute at Oxford University has developed LEFT in partnership with StatOil, the Norwegian oil and gas company. In addition to helping protect biodiversity outside of protected areas, LEFT can also assist businesses to decide where in a landscape to site their facilities so as not to impact adversely on local biodiversity.
Although there are already a number of mapping methods available for determining important areas for conservation in protected areas, few exist to assess the ecological value of landscapes beyond those areas. An ecological tool which does this could be relevant to any development that results in a parcel of land being transformed from “natural” to “developed”.
Specifically, what is needed is a method to help practitioners determine which landscapes, beyond protected areas, are important for the ecological processes they support and the threatened and vulnerable species they may contain.
LEFT is an automated method for mapping ecologically important landscapes beyond protected areas. It uses existing globally available web-based databases and models to provide an ecological score against five key ecological features – biodiversity, fragmentation, threat, connectivity and resilience – for every parcel of land in a given region.
The end product is a map indicating ecological value across the landscape. This tool is designed for practitioners involved in planning the location of any industrial and/or business facility outside of protected areas. It provides a pre-planning tool, for use before undertaking a more costly field-based environmental impact assessment, and quickly highlights areas of high ecological value to avoid in the location of facilities.
The EIA calculator is a piece of software developed by consultancy firm Five Oceans Environmental Services. It aims to determine the significance level of individual environmental impacts and works in a similar way to an impact matrix. The approach has been adapted from the “New approach to appraisal”, the decision framework developed in 1998 by the then Department for Transport, Environment and the Regions.
The user interface comprises a series of mini matrices where the size/severity of the impact is compared against four different aspects of magnitude – importance, sensitivity, timeframe and reversibility. The software produces an impact significance rating based on a calculated score of 0–16.
The accompanying guidance document states that the purpose of the calculator is to provide EIA practitioners with a consistent methodology for determining significance.
While this might be the intention, the approach does not appear to be directly compatible with some approaches set out in other impact assessment guidelines, such as those published by the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, which determine whether an impact is significant at a geographical scale – local, regional, national, for instance.
If this approach is widely adopted by practitioners, the EIA calculator could be enhanced to make it applicable on a geographical scale.
The calculator is a useful tool when supplemented by other guidelines and when used by experienced practitioners.
It helps to provide a level of consistency and transparency in the decision-making process. It may also assist practitioners and consenting authorities in cross-checking significance conclusions in the peer-review process.
Knowing your options
SORT is currently being developed by Temple Group and can be applied to a variety of large-scale linear developments, in particular infrastructure projects, although it is flexible enough to be used for any major development, such as housing. It allows rapid and automated identification of key sustainability and environmental features and constraints in a defined geographical area through the use of geographic information systems (GISs).
SORT streamlines data capture and aids the more rapid comparison of complex layers of GIS data than can currently be achieved by traditional methods. The range and complexity of information typically associated with appraisals and assessments is ever growing, and SORT seeks to automate as many steps as possible, thereby maximising the consistency and accuracy of reported data.
SORT is intended for use at various stages of project development and the assessment process, specifically the development and assessment of options phase (optioneering). It can be used for a number of assessment and appraisal outputs, such as WebTAG, SEA, Habitat Regulations assessments and EIA, as well as providing a holistic approach to dealing with wider sustainability indicators.
The benefits of using SORT vary according to a project’s context, such as its scale, the number of options being appraised, the environmental/community sensitivity, the risks associated with the project and the timing of its use in the project cycle.
The tool can save time and cost in undertaking the required sustainability analysis at the optioneering and assessment stages as well as help to improve the acceptability and reduce the overall risks of the scheme.
Use with care
The main benefits of software tools in environmental assessment are clear in terms of cost savings and the visual presentation of complex data to aid communication and understanding among stakeholders. However, there can be pitfalls and these tools need to be used with an element of caution. The use of any GIS-based system, for example, is reliant on the quality of the data available.
The identification of potential impacts and the determination of significance of associated environmental effects is the cornerstone that drives the environmental impact assessment process.
The consistent application of significance criteria would add some value to the understanding of impact assessment, but the practitioner and supporting software tools need to be flexible enough to adapt criteria to the individual scenarios being assessed.
Therefore, a “one-size-fits-all” set of criteria may not be appropriate for all developments or sites. However, a tool that is adaptable and can be tailored to site-specific environmental aspects identified during scoping would be of greater benefit to practitioners.
A number of specialist tools are currently available and more are being developed. This is to be encouraged, but with so many potential complex issues and impacts to consider, environmental practitioner input will always be needed to ensure robust and defensible outputs. By its very nature, EIA, like other environmental assessments, is often not an exact science.
The environmental impact assessment process is largely reliant on elements of subjective interpretation and prediction, such as the determination of significance for any identified potential impact on any given receptor.
It is with this in mind that any tool which seeks to replace the professional judgment of EIA practitioners in analysing data needs to be handled with care.