The changing face of impact assessment

20th January 2016

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Marc Murray

Ruth Henderson, senior environmental consultant at Royal HaskoningDHV outlines how technology can aid EIA

New technologies are influencing all aspects of our societies, and they play a pivotal role in shaping the future of impact assessment. The affordability and availability of big data is shifting the way we collect, review and share information. The rapid rise of social media is already changing how we communicate with one another. So what do all of these changes mean for the future of impact assessment and the resulting reports?

New directions

The key changes in EU EIA Directive 14/52/EU include integrating EIA and other environmental directives (especially on habitats and birds) into a single assessment process. Competent authorities will need to provide an enhanced explanation of their screening decisions.

In addition, there are changes to the technical scope of EIA. Specific consideration will need to be given to impacts of a project on, and the resilience of its design to, climate change. Information on risks from potential major accidents or disaster scenarios also need to be included. There is now also a need to integrate health impact assessment into the process.

It remains unclear as to what level of detail on these topics competent authorities will be expecting. This is where the thought-leadership of experts and specialists comes in. Transposition of the directive in the UK must be before May 2017, so guidance on how to tackle the changes will soon start to appear. Furthermore, what does all of this mean for environmental statements (ESs)?

Bigger isn’t always better

Any hope that ESs will decrease in size appear to be dashed. In the near future, ESs will be bigger, lengthier and contain more detail. This is not a great prospect for any stakeholders who increasingly complain about their cumbersome size. Research by IEMA confirmed that 80% of practitioners recognise that the current length of reports already reduces the value of the environmental information they contain to consenting authorities.

As the UK legislation is about to be changed, there is an opportunity to address the ways we think about presenting environmental information. The focus must be on effective environmental reporting. Rather than adding in lengthy chapters and further technical appendices to cover amendments, we need to be proactive and smarter in how we prepare and share ESs.

An effective ES will need to meet the regulatory requirements, however, until transposition and the emergence of guidance, there are no statutory provisions as to its form. As a minimum, it may consist of one or more documents, but it must constitute a “single and accessible compilation of the relevant environmental information and the summary in non-technical language”, according to government guidance.

Removing the paper trail

Information management is transforming the landscape of impact assessment. We now have 3D-modelling, data viewers, customised tools, mobile data capture and apps for collating ecological data.

There is a lot of innovation in technology for collecting primary data to establish baselines. Hardware and software for multi-rotor aerial vehicles (drones) to help us obtain visuals of space that is difficult or unsafe to access keeps growing. Operating below the zone where light aircraft cannot fly provides a new versatility that traditional pole camera systems cannot match. Drones allow for data collection across vast areas in rapid time at a relatively low cost. They can be used for habitat surveys, cultural heritage analysis as well as constraint mapping and visualisations.

Improved access to wifi technology, growth in wearable technology that can take measurements during site visits, the introduction of building information modelling (BIM) and the likelihood of further evolutions of internet technology are all leading to the potential for truly contemporary EIAs.

The concept of digital impact assessment is even more pressing as the majority of decision makers will never even read a full ES; neither will most indulge in the machinations of specialist models or large datasets. Clear and understandable messages need to be communicated and visualised without jargon.

The truly online, digital and interactive ES cannot be far away and the exciting thing is, we have the capability to do this now. Naturally, stakeholders have individual requirements of the same EIA investigations and current practice is to expand the content of the ES to satisfy the expectations of the multi-disciplinary audience that document must cater for. However, practitioners and competent experts must be bolder in driving forward best practice and attempt to push the boundaries with regulators, experts, stakeholders and the public if we are to raise the understanding of the complex interactions in the EIA process. Most of those involved are asking for something more digestible so we should work together to make this happen.

You are what you share

EIA regulations have always given an outline of the consultation process, however, it is up to the proponent to interpret and adapt this so that it is tailored and effective to each project.

Ignoring social media would be a big mistake in an era where so much data is shared. It is also at the heart of crowdsourcing information and opinions. So much information is exchanged on smartphones. The questions we ask include: how can big data strategies and online social participation improve sustainability? How do we face emerging social responsibility awareness of planning effects on the health and sustainability of our future?

Yet, the use of social media, such as Twitter or Facebook is considered by many as a ‘nice to have’ or additional distraction rather than being an integrated feature of EIA to engage with stakeholders and especially communities. Exchange of ideas, data, feedback and images through social media has never been more immediate or cheap. We have seen a number of projects where signage on site encourages passers-by to take a photo of the construction activity and share the image via a Twitter handle. This can be of use to those interested in landscape and visual impacts over time.

In using any social media content, the usual caveats apply. You must consider the overall goals: are you trying to raise more awareness? Which stakeholders are you trying to connect with? What are their requirements? Are you just trying to boost traffic or embrace the two way conversation?

This space is constantly evolving, so you must have a robust, but adaptable, strategy to cope with this pace of change.

Innovation in action

Creative thinking and innovation can advance sustainability and this push to include more contemporary technicology in EIA is welcomed. The potential for enhancing EIA to the benefit of all involved is huge.

The new EIA Directive will be a catalyst for a changing impact assessment but will it be the turning point for smarter processes and reports? How will we start to persuade multiple stakeholders to buy into the other drivers such as big data, digital technology and moving from a product-centric to ‘community-centric’ approach?

What is clear is that the future of EIA is exciting.


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