Poor assessments put Natura 2000 sites at risk

9th March 2017

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Celia Austin

Failure to assess properly the impacts of developments is exacerbating the degradation of Europe's natural heritage, a report from an NGO has found.

According to Justice and Environment, appropriate assessment (AA) of how a development would affect a Natura 2000 site sometimes falls short of the standards demanded by the European Court of Justice, which has clarified in case law specific aspects of the process under the Habitats Directive.

‘When projects are permitted without proper assessment or by brushing aside scientific data, it often constitutes a breach of EU nature protection law,’ said Slim Vahtrus, chair of Justice and Environment. ‘While developers and authorities may consider assessments too burdensome, they must remember that it is Europe’s natural habitats that bear the real burden.’

Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive states that a project or plan should be halted if proof is lacking that it will not have significant effect on a protected area. However, the NGO found approaches vary in different member states. In some countries, an AA of the impact of development on a Natura 2000 site is carried out as part of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) or strategic environmental assessment (SEA); in others, a standalone AA is carried out; in others still, the need for an AA triggers a full EIA or SEA procedure, so no standalone appropriate assessment is performed, even though protection of Natura 2000 sites is the sole reason for assessing potential impacts.

The report, Making Natura 2000 Impact Assessments Truly Appropriate: NGO proposal for an Action Plan, notes that, although sharing similar features, there are also important differences between AA, EIA and SEA procedures, most notably in the scope of the assessments, public participation requirements, and the assessment and decision-making criteria.

Justice and Environment recommends three possible approaches to ensure an AA is always conducted. First, if an EIA or SEA has to be carried out, perform the AA as part of the same procedure to reduce the administrative burden and ensure that the results are given due attention. Second, if the AA is carried out as part of the EIA or SEA procedure, careful attention must be given to the different assessment criteria and the role in the decision-making process of AA on the one hand and of EIA or SEA on the other hand.

Third, if an assessment of impacts on a Natura 2000 site is needed, an AA should be used instead of a full EIA. This final recommendation is because the AA is a more targeted and more efficient for such cases, said the NGO.

Article 6 does not contain specific provisions requiring the competent authorities to set up a public participation procedure in relation to the AA. Nonetheless, the report advises that best practice is to involve the public and environmental NGOs, in line with the public participation principles enshrined in the Aarhus Convention.


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