Ecosystems services and impact assessment

2nd March 2013

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Mott MacDonald's Phil Le Gouais reports on an event hosted by the Ireland-UK branch of the International Association of Impact Assessment (IAIA) on ecosystems services

With an increased focus on ecosystems services in policy and guidance (both in national and international practice) the IAIA Ireland-UK branch, in association with Mott MacDonald, recently hosted a half day seminar looking at ecosystems services in environmental impact assessment (EIA).

The objective of the day was to disseminate some of the research coming from the academic world to practitioners and begin a dialogue on the practical implications that ecosystem services will have on EIA processes.

What was discussed

Alister Scott of Birmingham City University provided an insightful view from a town planning perspective, highlighting that many of the principles promoted by the ecosystems services approach are similar in nature to good planning principles. As a result, there is an opportunity to capitalise on existing knowledge to evolve practice rather than reinventing the wheel.

Jonathan Baker, from Collingwood Environmental Planning, gave practical examples of how the approach had been applied to EIA, concluding that EIA provides useful frameworks for considering ecosystems services, if properly integrated, but that while it might improve practice, it is not a panacea for resolving existing issues.

Ron Corstanje of Cranfield University talked through some of the tools used to model the complex flows of ecosystem services from which we benefit. Challenges in terms of data availability, process complexity and scale were highlighted, and some potential technical solutions were discussed.

Hannah White, from Mott MacDonald, and Justin Sali, from Fauna and Flora International, presented their experiences of applying ecosystems services assessment in Iraq. Much of this was from the social perspective focusing on the way local Arabs both benefit from and have an impact on the southern marshes. The challenges in collecting the data necessary to understand the complex interactions of people and the natural environment were particularly notable.


As the chair of the event, I was struck by a number of things. First, that there are two distinct approaches emerging to integrating ecosystem services to EIA practices. The simplest way is as an additional consideration, perhaps as an advanced form of cumulative assessment. The alternative is to embed it as a core principle which informs the EIA process more fundamentally. Consensus among the speakers was for the latter.

The greatest synergies between EIA and the ecosystems services approach lie in the impact identification and baseline assessment stages where we begin to understand the environment affected (biophysically and socially) and how development will affect it. In some of the post-presentation discussion at the event, it appeared that many of the tools we use today will remain relevant for characterising those effects and determining significance.

The services provided by the environment are complex and have led to equally complex models being developed to understand flows associated with those services. While the technical challenges of collecting and managing the right data can be resolved, there will be a significant challenge to face in applying sound science while maintaining transparency for what should be a publicly accessible process.

To date, much of the work undertaken has focused on the application of ecosystems services at the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) level, at which there is perhaps a better understanding of how ecosystems services might apply.

However, very little research or practical experience appears to be available at the project EIA level. With ecosystems services becoming common parlance in policy and with passing reference in the European Commission’s proposed revisions to the EIA Directive, there are some significant questions to answer around how these principles might apply at that level.

At the event, only passing reference was made to attaching financial values to impacts, and that was in the context of the inaccuracies and uncertainties associated with doing so. It’s clear there is a lot more to this approach than putting a price tag on impacts.

In conclusion, the ecosystems services approach presents EIA practitioners with a significant opportunity to innovate and evolve our practice in a way which could produce much more integrated assessments (particularly in terms of social and health issues) and improving the quality of information provided to decision makers.

However, if these opportunities are not embraced there is a risk we will create stand alone chapters in our assessment reports, attaching subjective assessments of financial cost to impacts which few people understand.

The hope is that EIA practitioners will take up the challenge to ensure it’s the former outcome that prevails.

Phil Le Gouais is an environmental scientist at Mott MacDonald.

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