Mon, Jun 17, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Environmental impact assessments riddled with conflicts of interest

By Maxwell Gomera

Walhi, Indonesia’s largest environmental organization, recently took the government to court for issuing construction permits to a Chinese company based on what they allege was a “deeply flawed” environmental impact assessment.

Wahli has said that the US$1.5 billion Batang Toru dam project will have severe ecological consequences, including the likely extinction of the world’s rarest great ape, the Tapanuli orangutan.

Batang Toru is just one of many planned infrastructure projects worldwide that are officially deemed environmentally sound, despite posing serious environmental risks.

For example, construction is nearly complete on a railway line through Kenya’s famous Nairobi National Park, despite public outrage over an “incomplete and incompetent” environmental impact assessment.

Similarly, in Guinea, the government has approved plans for another Chinese company to build a dam inside the Moyen-Bafing national park, a chimpanzee sanctuary.

The environmental impact assessment that was carried out significantly underestimates the number of chimpanzees that the project threatens, experts said.

This is a dangerous trend and it could unravel the biodiversity and ecosystem services — including the production of food and water, the cycling of nutrients, and the natural regulation of crop pests and pollinators — on which all life depends. Already, about 60 percent of those services are degraded.

With the world expected to invest about US$90 trillion in infrastructure, including roads, dams and power plants, in the next 15 years alone — resulting in more new infrastructure than is currently in existence globally — action is urgently needed to ensure that investment decisions account for projects’ real environmental consequences.

That is the purpose of strategic environmental assessments (SEAs). In 1991, parties to the UN Economic Commission for Europe agreed to a convention on SEAs in transboundary contexts.

In March, the UN Environment Assembly, the world’s highest-level decisionmaking body on the environment, adopted a resolution requiring all governments to conduct SEAs before approving any infrastructure projects.

These moves reflect a recognition that SEAs are needed to ensure that the decisions taken by governments and companies do not cause undue damage to the natural environment or the people who depend on it. Many countries acknowledge the relationship between economic activities and environmental outcomes, and require SEAs to be conducted before greenlighting projects.

However, as the examples cited above reveal, SEAs are not fulfilling their purpose reliably. This is because, as it stands, technical specialists typically conduct SEAs at the behest of project developers — a practice that, as advocates have repeatedly pointed out, is grossly unethical.

With the assessors frequently basing their conclusions on only a superficial appraisal of the ecological and market value of the affected ecosystems, it should be no surprise that damaging projects are often approved, despite failing to adhere to broadly agreed green development guidelines.

To play an effective role in protecting the planet and its people, SEAs must be rigorous, credible and transparent. This means that they must be conducted by well-regulated, impartial professionals.

To some extent, the laws and institutions needed to make this happen already exist: SEAs are legally required in many jurisdictions, and the International Association for Impact Assessment could provide self-regulation.

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