Improving Assessment and Management of Cumulative Environmental Effects
As visibility of the environmental effects of human activity increases so does the desire to understand their potential impact. Cumulative Effects Assessments (CEAs), “the process of systematically assessing impacts resulting from incremental, accumulating, and interacting stressors over space and time” (1) are an avenue for gaining this understanding. While CEAs have limited ability to identify the effect of any individual action when separated out from the whole, they are overall a useful tool understanding environmental effect s of human action. Dr. Bram Noble of the University of Saskatchewan has identified certain economic and bureaucratic barriers that limit the use and usefulness of CEAs: the conditions under which the Federal government requires a CEA are limited; conflicting motivations for doing a CEA; and, cost-related issues associated with producing an accurate assessment.
Federal environmental assessments limit CEAs to simple screening evaluations. Due to restrictions on time and resources, those proposing smaller projects are often allowed to restrict the amount of CEA science they need to integrate due to the perceived low environmental impact of the project. In some cases, this causes under-representation of the cumulative environmental impact that emerges out of each project, as well as underplays the cumulative effects of multiple projects. Noble uses as an example the case of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure receiving approval for a 100km highway twinning project. They were told to follow mitigation guidelines for construction near wetlands but were not required to use any form of CEA. This project directly affected 120 wetlands and posed a high risk of functional loss to 458 more (1).
In conjunction with the limited scope of CEAs, conflicting mandates limit the usability of CEA reports further. Noble argues that project proponents enter into CEA agreements with the purpose of minimally fulfilling its requirements, just enough to be acceptable by the public and federal regulatory boards. Thus, to minimize time and economic costs, project proponents only focus on the impact of their projects, not including the interactive effects with other projects in the area. These evaluations, therefore, are often missing the interactive effect of environmental stressors, an important component of proper CEA.
CEAs, when implemented, can be inadequate because of the time and resources involved with properly evaluating environmental impacts. Dr. Noble suggests adjusting the focus of a CEA. He believes assessment needs to focus more on the amounts and rates of development the environment can accommodate rather than thinking the environment has an “abundant capacity to absorb incremental human impact” (1). He also suggests a need to “rethink our assumptions about cumulative effects … integrate the current silos of assessment, science, and management in CEA practice; and build the capacity to implement and sustain CEA systems and frameworks” (1). The aforementioned requires collaboration between governments and institutions, and to invest in the capacity needed for a more involved evaluation of cumulative effects.
Dr. Noble claims “assessing and managing cumulative environmental effects has been a pressing environmental and resource problem in Canadian [environmental assessment] for more than 35 years” (1). Noble finishes by highlighting the need to “rethink our assumptions about cumulative effects; move toward integration of CEA knowledge in the current silos of assessment, science, and management; and invest in the capacity-building requirements to implement and sustain effective CEA systems and practices” (1).
This is a summary article written by Imtihan Ahmed. For more information, please access the full document:
Noble, B. 2010. Cumulative Environmental Effects and the Tyranny of Small Decisions: Towards Meaningful Cumulative Effects Assessment and Management. Natural Resources and Environmental Studies Institute Occasional Paper No. 8, University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George, B.C., Canada