EIA can be defined as ''a process by which information about the environmental effects of a project is collected, both by the developer and from other sources, and taken into account by the relevant decision-making body before a decision is given on whether the development should go ahead.'' The legislation of the European community requires that EIA includes: ''A description of the aspects of the environment likely to be significantly affected by the proposed project, including in particular, population, fauna, flora, soil, water, air, climate factors, material assets, including the architectural and archaeological heritage. This description should cover the direct effects and any indirect, secondary, cumulative, short-, medium-, long-term, permanent and temporary, positive and negative effects of the project.'' It can be defined more simply as an assessment of the impacts of a planned activity on the environment. In addition EIA will consider aspects such as project alternatives and mitigation measures that should be implemented if the development is allowed. EIA was for a long time focused mainly on assessing direct negative impacts on the environment, even the definitions required to assess all type of impacts (as mentioned above). It was recognized from the inception of EIA that many of the most devastating environmental effects may not result from direct impacts from individual project, but from the combination of effects from existing developments and individually minor effects from multiple developments over time. As result, assessment of indirect and cumulative effects was included to the EIA process. Notwithstanding significant advances in EIA in recent years, there are only a few EIAs considering the assessment of indirect effects, cumulative effects, and impact interactions, as this process is often thought to be difficult due to technical and institutional barriers. In countries such as Australia, the cumulative effects are addressed by planning or resource management agencies on a regional or catchment wide basis, together with projections in future development demands, enabling the identification of polices guiding the allocation of sustainable cumulative impacts across potential future developments. In recent years, in the interests of economic efficiency, the quantum available for allocation has been traded using market systems. EIAs typically comprise five steps:
• a description of the proposed activity or development and potential effects on the environment;
• assessment of likely environmental impacts (beneficial or adverse) of the proposed activity, including the identification of indirect and cumulative effects;
• identification of a range of development or process alternatives and their analysis to determine which alternative or combination of alternatives yields the best mix of economic, ecological, and social outcomes;
• identification of the relative importance of the effect (based on economical and ecological costs and benefits analysis);
• the use of indexes or weightings or other decision tool to rank the alternatives.
The origins of EIA lie in the USA in 1969, with the passage of the National Policy Act (NEPA). Since that time EIA has been widely used all around the world as a valuable tool for decision making. The spread of EIA, however, has not just been confined to national environmental protection legislation. Major international funding organizations such as the World Bank have also embraced the EIA system to add environmental probity to their investments. Moreover, multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have also integrated EIA into their decision-making procedure. Since EIA came into being it has grown and developed into a viable environmental planning and decision-making tool. Over the years, it has become increasingly evident that the authorization of proposals is not the sole decision point. There are many decision-makers involved in the evaluation of a set of development proposals and the influence of most of them is exerted long before the submission of an application for formal project authorization. Indeed, the greatest contribution of EIA to environmental management may well be in reducing adverse impacts before proposals come through to the authorization phase. Although generally considered a tool of project management, EIA is equally applicable at other levels of planning (assessing legislation, programs, policies, and plans). EIA now not only provides scientific information about the physical environment of a development area to decision-makers but also acts as a public consultation document and an environmental management tool for the developers. In recent years, the field of EIA has expanded enormously with the evolution of EIA specialisms such as 'social impact assessment' (SIA), 'environmental health impact assessments' (EHIA), and 'strategy environmental assessments' (SEA), which seeks to determine the effects of implementing policies, plans, or programs on the environment.
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