Reflections from the 2017 IAIA Conference

Published 22 May 2017

The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) 2017 Conference was held in Montreal with a theme of Impact Assessment’s Contribution to the Global Efforts in Addressing Climate Change. Presentations and papers from the conference are available here >

EIANZ members Carolyn Cameron, James Baines and Claire Gronow attended the conference and have provided their thoughts and observations below.

Reflections from the 2017 IAIA conference

Carolyn Cameron MEIANZ, ACT Division

IAIA17 started off slowly and grew in energy and enthusiasm over the four days of the conference.

Like every IAIA Conference there are so many threads of conversations and opportunities to participate it is hard to choose where to allocate your time. You will all be pleased to know the Impact Mitigation Hierarchy is alive and well as a key thread of conversation at the conference. Since I was giving a presentation on 'Offsetting to protect Great Barrier Reef values', I spent all of Wednesday in related sessions. There is wide interpretation of offsetting and the Australian government’s EPBC Act Offsetting Policy 2012 provides clarity of expectations missing in many other jurisdictions.  

Interestingly, the conference had several sessions discussing AVOIDANCE, suggesting adopting a more fulsome systems perspective to provide an more in-depth analysis of dependencies and alternatives. In a World Café, we explored how to embed AVOID into the permission system, which led of course to discussions about better planning.

More broadly, canvassing impact assessment challenges, there is growing recognition we need to widen our horizons. Spatially some of our projects have global repercussions and temporally we may be leaving an inter-generational legacy. This creates complexity in identifying stakeholders for consultation. 

The role of funding institutions such as the IFC and World Bank are fundamental in setting international expectations in applying the mitigation hierarchy. There was much discussion about IFC Performance Standards for Assessment and Management of Environmental and Social Risks and Impacts, specifically Performance Standard 6 including:

‘As a matter of priority, the client should seek to avoid impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services. When avoidance of impacts is not possible, measures to minimise impacts and restore biodiversity and ecosystem services should be implemented. Given the complexity in predicting project impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services over the long term, the client should adopt a practice of adaptive management in which the implementation of mitigation and management measures are responsive to changing conditions and the results of monitoring throughout the project’s lifecycle’.

My other focus was on cumulative impact assessment, where our fellow practitioners are also struggling to adequately define significance thresholds cumulatively and to properly anticipate facilitated development realistically.

News from IAIA’17 in Montreal

James Baines MEIANZ, New Zealand Chapter

The IAIA’17 conference adopted the theme Impact Assessment’s contribution to the global efforts in addressing Climate Change. Almost 90 countries and 1130 individuals attended in Montreal. The day before the conference opened, the Newfoundland coast received 50cm of new snow (with more to come), Louisiana unseasonably experienced its first tornado of the season, and the small town of Edgecumbe in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty (population 2000) had to be totally evacuated due to flooding that was reportedly experienced ‘like a tidal wave’.

A central message in the opening address was that factoring in consideration of future climate change should now be axiomatic for impact assessment, particularly where spatial planning, infrastructure developments, or energy and natural resource utilisation are concerned. It is time to mainstream the inclusion of climate change considerations in IA practice. Many of the numerous streams at the conference addressed aspects. For example:

  • Climate Change & IA - good practice and assessment challenges 
  • Renewable energy and climate change
  • Impact assessment, climate change and community wellbeing
  • Uncertainties in climate change futures in EA
  • Climate change impacts on human health
  • Vulnerability and risks for major infrastructure in a context of climate change
  • Involuntary resettlement - responses to extreme weather and adaptation to climate change.

One session that caught my attention focused on the issue of addressing uncertainties in IA associated with climate change, against a backdrop of conflicting climate models, too numerous to count! The session was called 'Standardising uncertainty: Systematic approaches to climate resilience for water security'. The presenters focused on the proposition that we should begin by using a stakeholder participatory exercise to identify what are currently experienced and projected as the most likely emerging climatic risk factors for the area of interest and use this scenario as the basis for IA work, rather than relying on climate modelling alone.

Several other sessions caught my attention - Rethinking engagement to include the vulnerable, and Social License to operate in the hot seat - for the way they were cleverly organised to encourage active participation and discussion. This made it much more memorable and fun at the same time.

And for one final and important observation -  for 2017-18, five out of the nine directors on IAIA’s Board are women - at last our governance structure reflects our community.                     

Next year’s IAIA conference will be in Durban, South Africa in May.

Summaries from IAIA17

Claire Gronow FEIANZ CEnvP, SEQ Division

Public Participation in IA

I was fortunate enough to attend the IAIA17 conference in Montreal. I attended many excellent sessions, including one on 'Governance and public participation in EIA: An international overview.' Two of the papers particularly got me thinking about PP practice in Australia, so I thought I would share brief summaries. 

Firstly, Canadians John Sinclair and Alan Diduck presented a paper on 'Reconceptualizing participation as EA civics'.  It has been common to conceptualise public participation (PP) as information exchange, or in a more sophisticated form, as being about sharing power in decision making, and empowering participants. The civics approach put forward in this paper places the emphasis of PP activities on building common understanding, learning and active engagement of the public in this space. Hence, it is not just about providing information, but preparing people for participation and then bringing people together to discuss and share the information. In this way, people may be better able to contribute to decision processes which affect them. It was also emphasised that PP during the appraisal process should lay the basis for ongoing interaction. 

Another thing that struck me about the civics model was the idea that the regulator should have a more central role in PP during the EA process, rather than the current model which typically involves the proponent interacting with the public, and then interpreting the results of PP in the EIA report. The authors also emphasised the increasing importance of PP as a key to embracing uncertain futures. 

This paper has been published in Environmental Impact Assessment Review 62 (2017) 174–182.

Danish academics Ivar Lyhne, Helle Nielsen, and Sara Aaen gave an update on 'Public participation trends in Denmark'.  The paper made me think about various aspects of practice in Australia, so I’ve included a few self-reflections in the summary below. 

Some of the trends include a decreasing role of EA as an arena for interaction about development proposals, with social media taking over. We’ve certainly noticed this in Australia, and one manifestation of it is the campaign-style submissions. How seriously should regulators and proponents take these sorts of comments? On the one hand, they represent the concerns of large numbers of people about the type of development proposed. On the other hand, these submitters have almost certainly not read the EIA reports, and their information is coming from the campaign website; would they be so concerned if they had access to more balanced information? Should only project-specific issues be addressed in EIA, or should EIA consider the broader, strategic and project justification issues that are often raised in campaign style submissions? Since SEA in Australia is quite under-developed, perhaps EIA is the only space where people can express their general views about development. 

It was also emphasised that the public, and public review of the EA reports, remains a crucial part of EA quality control. This made me think about the review step in EA. It is certainly appropriate that the general public has access to information on a development proposal and its predicted environmental impacts but to what extent does this provide for quality control? Public scrutiny does have a role in keeping proponents honest, but realistically, how many members of the public have either the time, or the knowledge to provide any real measure of technical review? I’ve often wondered if there should be more formal third party review of EA reports, particularly as it seems that government agencies are becoming more and more resource constrained. 

Another trend is a move from public meetings to a more individual focus, interacting with individual citizens. But it was also emphasised that the best technique for PP will be highly context specific. There’s a plethora, almost an overload, of tools for PP, but the emphasis should be on selecting the method that best meets the needs and interests of the people, as well as the available resources and frames. 

Finally, it’s important to note that public concerns are not the same as expert concerns. An increasing tendency for the public to ask 'why is nature more important than humans?' has been observed in Denmark.  This opens up a large debate; who decides what is most important, who assigns values and significance ratings in EIA? Do we rely on experts to tell us or should there be some more democratic process? 

Role of IA in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

One of the sessions I attended was a workshop to discuss how IA practitioners and bodies like IAIA should respond to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).  We all agreed that IA played a very important role in achieving the SDGs, and that this needed to be emphasised. The need for a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve in terms of the SDGs was also identified, but here, discussion became more heated. 

A point of debate was whether we needed to change the way that we practice IA to better support and contribute to attainment of the SDGs. For example, the SDGs could be used as benchmarks against which to measure the impacts of a development proposal (whether a policy, plan, program, or project). The SDGs could also be used to test and verify any claims made by proponents regarding the sustainability of a particular proposal. Some argued that a stronger focus on the SDGs would help to make IA more objectives led, that is, focusing on outcomes desired to be achieved through development proposals rather than the more common approach of focussing on how to minimise the impacts. As the SDGs have been adopted by a number of countries, showing how IA can contribute to the SDGs might help to make IA seem more relevant to governments. 

It was however agreed that the SDGs would need to be contextualised; that is, translated from a global framework to suit each appraisal context. It was suggested that relevant SDGs and associated targets could be identified at the scoping stage for each IA. It was also suggested that the SDGs, being national level commitments, might be more relevant at the strategic environmental assessment level, and particularly in assessing the environmental impacts of policies, while local regulatory frameworks and standards might be more relevant for project level assessment. 

Some attendees pointed out that IA reports are already far too long, and care would need to be taken to ensure that incorporating SDGs did not simply result in even longer, more complex reports.  Proponents in particular were likely to push back on such requirements.  There was also discussion about how to get proponent-level ownership for the SDGs, or any type of sustainability assessment for that matter. 

I note that in Australia and New Zealand it is common for Terms of Reference/Guidelines to require some sort of sustainability assessment. In Australia, this often defaults to an assessment against the objectives of the 1992 National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, or any State/Territory equivalent where this exists. But I also note that this assessment is often carried out in a very cursory manner, and in particular the precautionary principle and matters of intergenerational equity are glossed over. So, while it may not be particularly burdensome to include a similar assessment against the SDGs, it might not be particularly informative or transformative either.

The workshop did not reach an agreement on how exactly the SDGs should be treated in IA, and a commitment was made by the organisers to continue the discussion and report back, so if I receive any updates, I will pass them on.  There was some discussion about the need to produce guidance and case studies. 

The participants at the workshop did go on to discuss what IA practitioners might do in the meantime. We felt it was valuable for practitioners to review the SDGs and think about how the goals and associated targets might be relevant in the various contexts that they undertake IA. Discussions with peers would be useful here. Practitioners could also advocate to raise the profile of the SDGs amongst other practitioners and those involved in planning, design and implementation of development proposals.  So, next time you are trying to think of something to discuss over a drink...