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Environmental Assessment

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is an assessment of the possible positive or negative impacts that a proposed project may have on the environment, consisting of the environmental, social and economic aspects.

The purpose of the assessment is to ensure that decision makers consider the ensuing environmental impacts when deciding whether or not to proceed with a project. The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) defines an environmental impact assessment as "the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made." EIAs are unique in that they do not require adherence to a predetermined environmental outcome, but rather they require decision ­makers to account for environmental values in their decisions and to justify those decisions in light of detailed environmental studies and public comments on the potential environmental impacts of the proposal.

EIAs began to be used in the 1960s as part of a rational decision making process. It involved a technical evaluation that would lead to objective decision making. In 1969, EIA was made legislation in the US in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It has since evolved as it has been used increasingly in many countries around the world. As per Jay et al.(2006), EIA as it is practiced today, is being used as a decision aiding tool rather than decision making tool. There is growing dissent on the use of EIA as its influence on development decisions is limited and there is a view it is falling short of its full potential.There is a need for stronger foundation of EIA practice through training for practitioners, guidance on EIA practice and continuing research.

EIAs have often been criticized for having too narrow spatial and temporal scope. At present no procedure has been specified for determining a system boundary for the assessment. The system boundary refers to ‘the spatial and temporal boundary of the proposal’s effects’. This boundary is determined by the applicant and the lead assessor, but in practice, almost all EIAs address the direct, on-site effects alone.

However, as well as direct effects, developments cause a multitude of indirect effects through consumption of goods and services, production of building materials and machinery, additional land use for activities of various manufacturing and industrial services, mining of resources etc. The indirect effects of developments are often an order of magnitude higher than the direct effects assessed by EIA. Large proposals such as airports or ship yards cause wide ranging national as well as international environmental effects, which should be taken into consideration during the decision-making process.