Environmental assessment has come to mean the evaluation of potential environmental impacts associated with a particular development proposal, programme or policy – with the emphasis on development projects. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) process includes consideration for relevant bio-physical, social, cultural and economic aspects of the proposal and the interconnectedness of these spheres of influence.
Early interpretation of the term environment was restricted to biophysical factors and was generally limited to natural features, resources and processes concerning land, water, air, vegetation and wildlife. Since the 1970s, it has been increasingly recognized that the socio-economic and cultural, or human-centred, components of environment are equally valid and necessary to form an effective definition.
However, expertise and professional experience in the full consideration of social and cultural factors within the scope of environmental assessment is still developing. In too many instances the approach remains one of stressing the employment benefits along with counting the numbers of houses, roadways, hospitals, schools and heritage sites. There is no genuine identification and evaluation of the interdependence of social economic and ecological resources, as well as the distribution of potential impacts.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends developing integrated information systems for environmental monitoring, accounting and impact assessment; promoting risk and environmental impact assessments to help ensure an acceptable level of environmental quality.
Agenda 21 also recommends that further development and promotion of the widest possible use of environmental impact assessments, including activities carried out under the auspices of UN specialized agencies, and in connection with every significant economic development project or activity.
The environmental assessment process usually consists of: (1) a statement of intent prepared by the prospective developer and submitted to the relevant authority; (2) guidelines prepared by the authority for use by the developer in preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS); these may invited public input (3) preparation of a draft EIS by the developer usually with the assistance of a professional consultant; (4) publication of the draft EIS with an invitation for public submissions; (5) preparation by the developer of an amended or final EIS following consideration of public comment; there may be public hearings or meetings (6) preparation by the authority of an assessment of the EIS; (7) transmittal of the recommendations of the government assessment to the decision-making authority.
The role (functions) of EIA is to: (1) inform decision-makers; (2) inform and involve the public; (3) identify risks (environmental impacts); (4) minimize adverse impacts, notably by assisting in proposal and process design; (5) determine environmental acceptability; (6) demonstrate proponent competence; (7) enable government assessment; achieve more environmentally sound proposals; (9) resolve some conflict through provision of adequate information; (10) make environmental protection commitments; (11) provide a basis for ongoing environmental management.
The goals of environmental assessment impact assessment include: (1) identify and assess all potential significant adverse impacts, and minimize undesired consequences; (2) mitigate adverse effects or justify why not; (3) identify incidence and degree of effect among affected parties; (4) consider the full range of feasible alternatives and justify preferred alternative; (5) balance social, economic and environmental concerns, and make trad-offs explicit to affected parties; (6) provide full disclosure to affected parties in a timely manner; (7) identify conflicts in existing government policies and open up the policy making-process; (8) improve intergovernmental information exchange and coordination; (9) improve existing information base for public policy-making; (10) identify where "area-wide" plans are needed to deal with systematic impacts and remedies; (11) force agencies to do environmental planning as a programmatic operation.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), established in the USA by congress, projects such as building new highways and establishing new hazardous waste sites, have to undergo an environmental impact study before funds can be allotted.