Output from the EIANZ 2022 Impact Assessment Symposium: Getting on the front foot in a changing world

Published 5 May 2023


Over two days in Adelaide in September 2022 ninety professionals met to explore impact assessment.  The variety of presentations, the thoughtful questions and the volume of conversation during breaks showed just how welcome and successful the event was.  The symposium reinforced the benefits of engaging at first hand with colleagues across jurisdictions, sectors and perspectives.  Key messages from the Symposium were:

Valuing what we have - Sustainability principles, public participation, transparency, consideration of alternatives, better informed decision-making all remain central to Impact Assessment.  We need to remain grounded in these fundamental principles when embracing modern challenges, innovations and improvements of our discipline.   

Common norms - Across an assortment of professional and jurisdictional contexts and statutory regimes the principles of impact assessment are broadly recognised and implemented.  We have a common language and understanding that is essential to sound impact assessment practice.

What is the question - there is an underpinning question in Impact Assessment which is whether a project as proposed meets the threshold for environmental acceptability.  Impact Assessment raises questions about engagement, environmental management, choices between alternatives, project and study scopes and many intricate questions about how environmental effects respond to management or mitigation.  However, clarity about the underpinning question reduces the wastefulness of cross-purpose arguments.

Definitive Standards - The 2021 EPBC Act review highlighted the need for clear environmental standards.  A key challenge is to address those environmental assets which don’t lend themselves to simple quantitative measurement.  In particular, biodiversity conservation and protection of cultural values are different to aspects like air or water quality.  But qualitative standards, even if open to qualitative interpretation, are better than no standards at all.

Predicting the future - Impact Assessment requires predictions, from observed data, of what the consequences of an action will be.  But stakeholders are prone to question forecasts that don’t match their own interpretations.  Impact assessors need to be brave and apply good practice in terms of sustainability and the precautionary principle so that decision-makers are well informed. 

Alternatives and innovations – Impact Assessment must continue to innovate, while ensuring that the fundamental principles remain sound and robust.  Significant change is occurring fast and we are seeing new or modified approaches to: public participation, consideration of alternatives, integration with approvals, gathering of information from challenging settings such as deep sea, frameworks for social impact assessment and consideration of uncertainty and cumulative impacts.  Also new industry types continue to emerge, bringing their own challenges, such as offshore wind energy generation. 

The role of technology - Computing power and almost universal internet access means that technology is playing a central roles in Impact Assessments and how stakeholders engage.  We welcome these advances– eg drones gather vision from previously unseen perspectives, artificial intelligence efficiently processes masses of data and the digital impact statement. 

But we must stay focused on the fundamental principles of Impact Assessment, and not let the glamour of new glossy presentations distract us from ensuring the information and the ways in which it is analysed meet good practice standards. 

Planning for emergencies - Traditionally impact assessment has focussed on planned events or developments.  But there are also foreseeable emergencies and impact assessment has a role to play in evaluating contingencies, e.g. for bushfires, earthquakes or other natural disasters.  In particular, emergency response can generate hazardous waste, requiring management.  Disasters are inevitable if not precisely predictable, Impact Assessment should be central to developing contingency response plans.

Cumulative impacts and other chestnuts – Impact Assessment continues to seek better ways of addressing the “wicked problems” that have been with us for decades: consideration of alternatives, cumulative impacts, and qualitative compared to quantitative assessments.  The resilience of our profession and the commitment to continuous improvement provides energy and inspiration for the future.