EIA – transforming the world to sustainability?

18th January 2016

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  • Mitigation ,
  • Renewable ,
  • Management/saving


Adam Higgin

Kitty Hankins, senior environmental consultant at RSK, considers how EIA can become a better tool for sustainability.

The benefits of EIA as a tool for improving environmental performance through project design is widely recognised. However, the focus of EIA has historically been quite local, leaving the bigger questions to the realms of strategic environmental assessment. A key aspect of EIA is the inclusion of mitigation measures to avoid or reduce the potential negative effects of a development. However, as a 2004 paper by Jenny Pope, David Annandale and Angus Morrison Saunders argues, avoiding and reducing impacts: “can at best limit ‘unsustainability’ and does not necessarily facilitate a shift towards sustainability”.

The 2014 EIA Directive seeks to ensure that resource efficiency, sustainability, biodiversity protection and climate change are included in the impact assessment and decision-making processes, and may mark a shift towards greater consideration of wider sustainability in EIA. But what might this look like?

EIA could have a role in promoting resource efficiency in development in several ways. As part of the assessment of alternatives, EIA could consider the use of alternative building materials that are more sustainable than current typically-used materials. Early consideration of resource efficiency at the EIA stage could also benefit developers, as the earlier material requirements are identified, the sooner procurement decisions can be made.

This allows more time for sourcing cost-effective, sustainable materials. EIA could also consider the use of construction materials which are more easily recovered for reuse or recycling at the end of a development’s lifespan, reducing the decommissioning impacts of a project. A June 2015 article in the environmentalist described the concept of “designing infrastructure for deconstruction”, so that components and materials can be easily disassembled, reused or recycled in the future.

In order for EIA to meaningfully consider the impacts of a project on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it would need to consider the whole lifecycle of the project including issues like the materials used in the construction phase, the emissions from hauling materials to the development site and the construction phase emissions of the project, as well as the emissions from the actual operation of the proposed development.

This approach would also help prioritise mitigation measures when different proposals clash. For example, an ecologist assessing the impact of a highways development might propose rerouting it to avoid a woodland. If considering only the direct construction phase impacts of the project, avoiding deforestation of the woodland would ensure the trees can continue to store carbon and would prevent impacts to local biodiversity.

However, if the impact from the construction materials were also considered, the reroute might increase the length of the highway, meaning more aggregate is required to be extracted and hauled to the site, resulting in more carbon emissions and having a greater overall impact on the environment than would be saved by the reroute avoiding the woodland. Considering the overall impacts from every stage of the project might lead to an alternative mitigation scenario where the woodland is lost but more trees are replanted as compensation and less aggregate and associated haulage are required to complete the project.

It would also be beneficial to consider the whole life cycle of the project where the development in question is a renewable energy project. Wind farm sceptics often claim that it takes more energy to make and install a wind turbine than the turbine will produce over its life span. A study published in the International Journal of Sustainable Manufacturing (2014) showed this was not the case. A lifecycle assessment was carried out for 2MW wind turbines proposed as part of a large wind farm in the US.

The researchers concluded that in terms of energy payback, a wind turbine with a working life of 20 years will offer a net benefit within five to eight months of being commissioned. If this information were to be presented in the project EIA, it would demonstrate the project has a net positive impact in terms of carbon emissions, which would help ensure planning authorities make informed decisions and could help boost support for more sustainable projects.

I believe the potential is there, but the future of UK EIA and its value as a tool for sustainability will be largely shaped by how the 2014 EIA Directive is transposed into UK legislation.


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