Climate change adaptation and mitigation in EIA

20th January 2012

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  • Construction ,
  • Property ,
  • Local government



Bryony Cunningham from SKM Enviros describes how environmental impact assessments can do more to consider the long-term impacts of climate change

National governments, development agencies and the private sector have invested considerable effort in recent years to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Despite this, many large-scale, long-lived infrastructure developments continue to be designed with limited consideration of the potential effects of climate change on asset performance. Ideally climate change risks, and adaptation needs, should be incorporated into project development as early as possible, including in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines mitigation as: “An anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.” While adaptation is defined as: “An adjustment in natural or human systems to a new or changing environment in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.”

Routine approaches to undertaking EIA have been established using the assumption that the baseline climate is static. However, average and extreme changes in climate are likely to alter relationships between a project and its local environment and communities throughout its life time.

This is more acute for projects with a designed lifetime of more than 30 years, this is the length of time that climate meteorologists take as a minimum, less than this period and it is considered that changes could result from normal weather patterns.

The implications of climate change on EIA are fourfold:

  1. It may alter the effects of a project on the environment and society.
  2. It can modify the environmental and social conditions on a project.
  3. The project, its surrounding environment and society may all undertake individual adaptation actions, leading to unforeseen cumulative impacts.
  4. Projects not designed to cope with climatic, environmental and social changes could reduce the effectiveness of monitoring and mitigation measures in EIAs.

For EIA practitioners there are inherent risks in undertaking EIA without consideration of climate change. Both legal and insurance professions consider climate change “a reasonably foreseeable event”. As such, an EIA that does not consider climate risks could be seen as negligent.

While climate change mitigation is comparatively well-developed, adaptation urgently needs to be incorporated into project design. Recognising this, SKM Enviros has developed some basic guidelines to help incorporate climate adaptation, where needed, within EIA.

Step 1: Scoping and analysis of alternatives

  • Assess the inherent vulnerability of the project to climate change through assessment of the likely timescale of construction, operation and decommissioning (taking into account the 30 year limit).
  • Consider whether the characteristics of the project and its area of influence lie within an area of risk, for example how close is it to coastline.
  • Determine whether the project has climate-related sensitivities or critical climate-related performance thresholds and any climate-related hazards that need to be considered.
  • Determine what climate-related information, impact assessments and expertise are needed.
  • Question whether project alternatives have been identified to avoid significant climate change.

Step 2: Analysis of legal requirements

Robust EIAs need to demonstrate project compliance with legal requirements. The 2011 EIA Regulations require forecasting methods associated with assessments to be described.

Step 3: Baseline conditions

  • Collect data and analyse projections on observed long-term climate and climate-related trends, and their projected impacts.
  • Identify performance indicators, targets or acceptance criteria related to the baselines, which can be used to monitor the impacts of a changing climate.

Step 4: Impact assessment

  • Analyse how climate change will affect (positively or negatively) the interactions between the project, the environment and communities over its lifetime including: the magnitude, likelihood, duration and reversibility of climate-related impacts alongside the risks of the project to the environment and communities
  • Consider if climate change could create cumulative impacts for other projects and stakeholders.
  • Determine whether mitigation measures are required to manage impacts of the project in the light of climate change (mitigation measures referred to here relate to management measures that reduce the impact of the project on the environment or society and not to actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).

Step 5: Avoidance, minimisation, mitigation and compensation measures and assessment of residual impacts

  • Ensure that mitigation measures recommended are designed appropriately, so that they are resilient to climate change.
  • Identify opportunities to build adaptive capacity of environments and communities.

Integrating climate-change risks into the project development cycle early allows the most cost-effective means of ensuring a development’s resilience to climate change. It is also important that climate change practitioners are involved in the EIA process as a matter of routine.

This article was written as a contribution to the EIA Quality Mark’s commitment to improving EIA practice.

Dr Bryony Cunningham is a principal consultant at SKM Enviros


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