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Environmental impact assessment

1. Introduction

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a procedure that requires developers to follow in order to be granted permission for a development and was first introduced in European Union (EU) in 1985 (Glasson, 1999). The guidelines and requirements of EIA come from a European Directive (85/33/EEC as amended by 97/11/EC). In this process, developer requires to compile an Environmental Statement (ES) where significant impacts and its effects on the environment as a result of a development are described including mitigation measures (Lee, 1995). However, there are weaknesses in EIA process.

As a result of EIA weaknesses, Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) was introduced. SEA process was first introduced by EU Directive 2001/42/EC which environmental protection and sustainable development may be considered. It ensures that potential impact of proposed plans, policies and programmes on the environment are taking into consideration so that mitigation and communication between public and decision-makers are provided (Benson, 2003). Therefore, SEA is undertaken in the decision-making process of a development much earlier than EIA.

In this section, the differences between EIA and SEA as well as the weaknesses of EIA that led the development of SEA in EU Directive in 2001 are being discussed.

2. Differences between EIA and SEA

2.1. Differences in provisions between SEA and EIA Directives

Table 1: Summary of differences in action for EIA and SEA processes (Partidário, 2000).



Nature of action

It is more strategic and contains visions and concepts in its action

Actions towards the construction and operation level


Involved evaluation

Involved only assessment


More critical decision moments (decision windows) along with decision processes

Only in project level

Level of decision

It involves policy and planning

Only project level

Relation to decision


Involved evaluator which often taking into consideration of administrative requirement


Broader and spatial balance of location, social and physical strategies, technologies and economics.

More specific alternative in construction, operation, locations and design

Scale of impacts

Macroscopic involved local, regional, national and global

Microscopic mainly involved local

Scope of impacts

Sustainability issues, economic and social issues may be more tangible than physical or ecological issues

Environmental with a sustainability focus, physical or ecological issues, and also social and economic

Time scale and review

Long to medium term (after 5 years and then 7 years interval)

Medium to short-term (after 5 years then silent continuing review).

Key data sources

State of the Environment Reports, Local Agenda 21, statistical data, policy and planning instruments

Field work, sample analysis, statistical data


Mainly descriptive and mixture with quantifiable

More quantifiable

Rigor of analysis (uncertainty)

More uncertainty and less rigor

Less uncertainty and more rigor

Assessment benchmarks

Sustainability benchmarks (criteria and objectives)

Best practice and legal restrictions

Public perception

Vague/ distant

More reactive


Other strategic actions and project planning

Objective evidence in relation with construction and operation

2.2 Differences in procedural requirements of the EIA and SEA Directives.

Table 2: Summary of the main differences between EIA and SEA Directives in procedural requirements ( Sources from : Sheate et al., 2005).





It requires consultation from the environmental authorities.

Publicity: SEA does not need determination and reasons.

It requires no consultation.

Publicity: EIA requires determination and reasons.

Environmental information/report

Member States (MSs) have to ensure that sufficient quality and stronger emphasis on alternatives are provided in environmental reports (ERs).

No quality control requires in EIA and only minimun information shoud be provided


Involved relevant parties other than MSs such as public and autorities.

Involved relevant parties other than MSs such as public and autorities and also consultation provision from Public Participation Directive.


All consultation comments and ER are to be taken into account.

Consultation comments and environmental informations are included in decision-making.

Info on decision

More specific and detailed requirements.

Information provision from Public Participation Directive are mademore specific in the requirement.


Long term monitoring required

Not require monitoring

3. Weaknesses of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

3.1. Lack of consideration of cumulative impacts

EIA process is often facing difficulty in addressing cumulative impacts of a development. The significant impacts of a development especially issues on biodiversity, human health and cultural heritage are no included in their assessment (McDonald & Brown 1995).

For example in Scotland, several developments of wind farms proposed in close proximity have led to a very complicated EIA process (Glasson, 1999). Each developer required assessing the cumulative impact of landscape and visual application with those of neighboring projects (Benson, 2003). The planning process could face a delay due to this issue.

3.2. Insufficient public participation

Public involvement has shown to be insufficient in EIA process (Gailus, 1995). In a recent research suggested that this is due to the attitude of the developer that discourages the participation of public in EIA process in the European Community.

Due to lack of legislation and extensive for public involvement in Europe in the early 90s to influence the decision of a development, the general public is not aware of their rights and causes them not interested in the development involvement (Caddy, 1996).

3.3. Little monitoring and auditing process

Previous study has showed that monitoring and auditing issues are still weak in EIA. Follow-up process is only performed by developers in a minority of cases (Arts and Nootebloom 1999).

Monitoring process enables practioners to have better understanding for future extension, design and restoration projects (Frost, 1997). However, the river restoration process in United Kingdom (UK) was hampered by lack of monitoring process in EIA.

3.4. Inadequate consideration of alternatives

The compilation of alternatives appears to be very limited in EIA report (Tesli, 2002). For example in Hungary for radioactive disposal, the report did not provide in details or rather limited in reducing the impacts of the project to the human health (Benson, 2003). It is important to include various alternatives to allow solutions being taken in a development.

3.5. The poor quality of environmental impact statements and reports

The reports produced in EIA are often too complex in term of length and technical which is not easily understood by the public and decision makers (Lee, 1995). It is important for ES to be simple as it has to be made available to the public.

3.6. The timing of decisions

The decision-making process in EIA project enters too late where the effects of policy and planning critical decisions are not being considered (Lee, 1995). This is due to the absence of systematic impact assessment process where the outcome of it could subsequently influence the project planning and design (Harrop & Nixon 1999).

4. Conclusion

There were various weaknesses have been identified in EIA process. Due to these weaknesses, SEA was developed in 2001 under EU Directive to strengthen the environmental assessment process.

5. References

Arts, J. and Nootebloom, S. (1999) ‘Environmental Impact Assessment Monitoring and

Auditing' in: Petts, J. (ed.) Handbook of Environmental Impact Assessment - Volume 1,

Blackwell, Oxford: 229-251

Benson, J.F. (2003) ‘What is the alternative? Impact assessment tools and sustainable planning', Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 21 (4): 261-266

Caddy, J. (1996). Working Group on Environmental Studies, European University Institute, Florence. [Online]

[Accessed: 29/01/2010].

Frost, R. (1997) Planning and Environmental Impact Assessment in Practice. Chapter 7 EIA monitoring and audit in Weston, J (ed). Longman, Harlow. pp 141 - 175.

Gailus, J. (1995). Regional Environmental Centre: Hungary.


[Accessed: 29/01/2010]

Glasson, J. (1999) ‘The First 10 Years of the UK EIA System: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats', Planning Practice and Research, 14 (3): 363-375

Glasson, J. Therivel, R. and Chadwick, A. (1999) Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment, Spon Press, London

Harrop, O. and Nixon, A. (1999) Environmental Impact Assessment in Practice, Routledge, London

Lee, N. (1995) ‘Environmental Assessment in the European Union: a tenth anniversary', Project Appraisal, 10 (2): 77-90

McDonald, G.T. and Brown, A.L. (1995) ‘Going Beyond Environmental Impact Assessment: environmental input to planning and design', Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 15: 483-495

Partidário, M.R., 2000, Elements of an SEA framework - improving the added-value of SEA, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 20: 647-663.

Sheate, W. Byron, H. Dagg, S. & Cooper, L (2005), The Relationship between SEA and EIA Directives: Final Report to the European Commission. Imperial College London

Tesli, A. (2002). The use of EIA and SEA relative to the objective of sustainable development, Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR).

1. Content of an SEA report as required by EU Directive

The implementation of plans and programmes (PPs) in which likely significant effects produce by the project on the environment is the key requirement in preparation of an SEA report (European Parliament and Council of the European Union, 2001). Figure 1 shows the summary of the contents required by EU Directive (2001/42/EC) in producing SEA reports.

Not all projects need to perform SEA process (Barth & Fuder, 2002). The diagram in Figure 2 shows a set of set of criteria for application to PPs under the EU Directive (2001/42/EC). It specifies whether SEA is required or not according to the Directive.

For simplicity, the developments of the PPs and reasonable alternative options of SEA are summarized in five key stages according to the government guidance in England (URL 1).

1.1. The key five stages

  • Stage A: Context, Baseline and Scoping (SEA Directive - Annex 1)
  • Authority needs to include indicators, objectives and background information for SEA in the plan. The decisions of the scope can be decide by the authority including consultation on the statutory environmental bodies (URL 1).
  • Stage B:Alternatives and Assessment (SEA Directive - Article 5.1)
  • Authority need to identify reasonable alternatives and assess the effects of the project on the environment. Ways of reducing, preventing and offsets the effects have to be provided as well (URL 1).
  • Stage C: Preparing the Environmental Report
  • Draft plan/programme which includes the information of the effects has to be presented as a key output of SEA process (URL 1).
  • Stage D: Consultation (SEA Directive - Article 6.2 and Annex 1)
  • The draft plan and environmental report should be ready together for consultation where a statement are made from the consultation responses in order to produce an evolving plan (URL 1).
  • Stage E: Monitoring (SEA Directive - Article 10.1)
  • The implementation of the plan where environment effects are produced needs monitoring process. It helps to provide more baseline information for future plans (URL 1).

2. Difficulties and limitations in fulfilling these requirements

Table 1: Summary of the difficulties and limitations of SEA reports as required in EU Directive.

Requirements issues

Difficulties and limitations

Availability and access to data

Environmental data is often limited and not relevant because it is not collected and stored systematically. The process of data collection requires extensive resources and using these data are difficult because different departments tend to collect different set of data. The quality of good data is lacking and this issue has been reported by Member States such as Germany and Poland (European Commission, 2009).

Best example of this issue is Poland. They are facing difficulties of generating and collecting data of affected area because of the implementation of a plan/programme. The current picture of the environment has to be identified especially in large areas but they indicate that it is very problematic (European Commission, 2009).

Sometimes, the coverage areas of SEA are large (including few countries and produces large amount of alternatives (URL 1). This will increase the complexity of data collection and analysis (URL 1).

Public Participation

The availability of the data for the public is limited. In the UK, documents and information of the plan are not required to be published on their website until ER is finalized according to the draft Regulations (Partidário, 1996).

As a result, public participation is limited as not many public will travel to the plan-maker's office to view the documents at a minimum time period for consultation. It is important to set up a website to facilitate the consultation process for the public to participate (Partidário, 1996). Else, public is unaware that inspection of these documents are available to them and no feedback can be made (Kørnøv & Thissen, 2000).

EA at higher levels of decision making

As SEA involves higher levels of decision making, the implementation policy of PPs are subject to various departments decisions (Kørnøv & Thissen, 2000). For example, a Local Transport Plan requires policy from Regional Spatial Strategies, Aviation and Transport White Papers and Sustainable Communities Plan and Planning Policy Statements (Brown & Thérivel, 2000). Due to these requirements, a complex screening process has to be performed and decisions for PPS are even more very difficult in the assessment (Brown & Thérivel, 2000).

Deciding on the level of detail of the environmental report

The details of require information in SEA reports are vary due to lack of adaptation in assessment for the level of abstraction in PPs (European Commission, 2009). According to Member States (Latvia and Germany), the possible impacts of PPs are difficult to be included in SEA reports because of less information of the right scale and level required (European Commission, 2009). Therefore, important information for long term PPs is difficult as no appropriate spatial scale of information need to be included in the report (European Commission, 2009).

Development of assessment methods

As there are no specific guidelines, strong methodological background and lack of exchange for best practices, developing an effective assessment is very challenging (Brown & Thérivel, 2000). For example in Operational Programmes' objectives, high level plans in a viable assessment do not necessary show the actual physical ground effects although strategic policies are implemented European Commission, 2009).

Assessment of impacts

Although SEA addressing the importance of cumulative impacts, there is no standard and effective assessment methodologies are being developed (Partidário, 1996). The significant environmental impacts of PPs are difficult to assess and the identification of these aspects are limited (Partidário, 1996).

Monitoring and enforcement (Including issues of indicators)

The assessment of plans is limited because there is no sustainability and environmental criteria developed in the monitoring programme (European Commission, 2009). Therefore, monitoring indicators (local agenda 21 for instance) is being used however it is difficult for monitoring process as mentioned by Member States like France.

Environmental authorities have no proper enforcement tool to ensure that monitoring programme is being performed (European Commission, 2009). For example in the UK, no quality control body is being set up by the government to monitor the efficiency of monitoring process which is a limitation for SEA (Verheem, R. & Tonk, J. 2000).

Institutional and legal issues

The supports for SEA process are still insufficient politically (European Commission, 2009). The bureaucratic prerogatives may hinder the effectiveness of SEA performance. As SEA process is relatively new, lack of human resources especially knowledgeable authorities is a major limitation for SEA (European Commission, 2009).

3. Comparison between requirement of SEA Directive (2001/42/EC) and Sustainability Appraisal (SA).

In the United Kingdom (UK), SA and SEA are required in planning system and law for Government Plans and Programmes (Smith & Sheate 2001). For most Development Plan Documents (DPD) and Supplementary Planning Documents (SPD), both SA and SEA process have to be carried out and include in the Local Development Framework (LDF) in the UK (Smith & Sheate 2001). SA was developed to assess the likely economic, social and environmental impacts so proposed PPs can be implemented that leads to sustainable development unlike SEA which was previously described (Lee & Kirkpatrick, 2000).

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act (2004) and European Directive EC/2001/42 require both SA and SEA processes to be performed in any planning (Smith & Sheate 2001). It is also requires by the Environmental Assessment Regulations for Plans and Programmes in UK (Smith & Sheate 2001). In table 2, comparison of SA and SEA in terms of UK planning system for Government PPs are being summarized.

Table 2: Comparison between SA and SEA requirements within the UK planning system


Strategic Environmental Assessment

Sustainability Appraisals

Overall aims

The aim of SEA is to raise the profile of environmental considerations as part of an advocative approach during decision-making process (Kørnøv & Thissen, 2000).

In contrast to SEA, it is use as a support process in decision-making and representing an integrated approach that working towards in all aspects of sustainable development. Therefore, the interests at stake are remained neutral during this process (Minas, 2002).


Environmental effects (Lee & Kirkpatrick, 2000)

A full range of environmental, social and economic issues (Minas, 2002).

Environmental/ Sustainability aspects

It involves 15 components which is suggested in the 1993 guidance with additional social and economic factors to be considered in 1999 guidance (Thérivel, & Minas, 2002).

Aspects of biodiversity, human health, cultural factors, water, landscape, population and material assets are considered primarily (Thérivel, & Minas, 2002).

Report requirements

There are no formal requirements for SA. In good practice guidance, identification of scoping and impacts stages is recommended (Thérivel, & Minas, 2002). The 1999 guidance also recommends that planners should provide and evaluates alternatives. Environmental baseline conditions should be considered as well.

It involved extensive requirements of Annex 1 which have previously discussed (Barth & Fuder, 2002).


According to DETR Guide, the appraisal should emphasize on strategic options, alternatives, and policy impact matrices in achieving sustainable development. Therefore, the methodological statement is very brief if compare to SEA (Minas, 2002).

In contrast to SA, heavy emphasis is in place on actually baseline data which set as a benchmark to assess the alternatives performance. It is also requires authorities to consult the final environmental report from the public on the scope of the assessment (Thérivel, & Minas, 2002).


The process is being carried out very early where every stage of the development plan process is considered as an important element (Thérivel, & Minas, 2002).

In contrast to SA, it is usually being carried out during the preparation of a plan before the submission to the legislative procedure (Thérivel, & Minas, 2002).


The appraisals are subjected to consultation with outside groups such as public consultation during the plan preparation. The appraisal usually made available on the internet where it is being carried out sporadically (Thérivel, & Minas, 2002).

It is not required to make available on the internet. The consultation can be done during scoping stage by specified environmental authorities. Opportunity has to be given to the public to comment the draft plan (Partidário, 1996).

Documentation required

No formal requirements according to the guidance

A statement need to be produced by an authority to summarize all the considerations of the plan have been integrated. They need to provide a report of consultees' opinion which taken during the consultation process and valid reasons on why the alternatives are being chosen (Partidário, 1996).

4. Success of SEA report in delivering sustainable development objectives

A wide range of processes has been integrated with SEA report. It has shown to be a systematic process where accountable decision making can be achieve due to the earlier evaluating process being taken with strong alternative visions (Wood & Dejeddour, 1992). All these have incorporated in SEA policy, planning and program initiatives (PPPs) to ensure sustainable development with full integration of economic, social and political considerations (Partidário & Clarke, 2000).

Although SEA shows to be a great tool in project level but the process of SEA is not easily accepted or consider as an effective solution due to its complexity (Thérivel & Partidário, 2000). Recent research has shown that SEA produces both great opportunities as well as failures in sustainable development (Sadler, 1998).

4.1. Sustainability objectives are included in the integrated process of policy making and planning

During the design stage of SEA, objectives of sustainability are being considered which provides a greater plan and policy in decision making (Thompson et al., 1995). It gradually delivers its objectives of sustainable development because the use of SEA articulates sustainability goals by enhancing the political action where substantive action can be taken (Partidário, 1996). As the expectation of internal and external public of its delivery increasing, it offers the possibility of bringing better policy towards sustainable development into success.

The transition of SEA involved two main steps:

  • Information gathering and analysis work
  • The core of strategic decision making

Sustainable development consideration is being covered in a broader range where strategic level matters are separated from advisory conventionally-focused (Pezzoli, 1997). Sustainability criteria are used as the key bases to help in strategic decision making on the selection among best options available (Pezzoli, 1997). With these steps being taken, larger context of core policies and programmes in strategic assessment are identified in pursuing the objectives of national sustainability. Therefore, SEA report may be an important instrument in promoting sustainable development when it is fully integrated (Partidário, 1996).

4.2. Operationalises sustainability principles

In practical application, the concept of sustainability is very difficult because it faces high complexity and uncertain reality (Pezzoli, 1997). Interconnected generational boundaries and disciplinary of sustainability may further complicates the concept (Marsden, 1998). Therefore, the application of specific context of sustainability and commonly recognized principles are being clarified by SEA.

SEA identified three key principle of sustainability:

  • Integrated pursuit of ecological and socio-economic improvements
  • Uncertainty imposes precautionary obligations
  • Public choices involved

SEA is a visible confirmation of commitment to sustainability as it offers broader exposure to notions such as natural capital and the precautionary principle (Pezzoli, 1997). Therefore, it can be translated into the language of politics of sustainability and functions as a heuristic device (Thérivel et al., 1992).

4.3. Improves analysis of broad public purposes and alternatives

With alternative technologies, lifestyle choices and better resources, SEA offers better possibility in achieving sustainable development because it has the capability to contemplating these factors that cannot be address at lower levels (Wood & Dejeddour, 1992). Therefore, SEA report is the most effective and efficient point in finding alternatives and addressing the needs in pursuing the objectives of sustainability development (Thérivel et al., 1992).

4.4. Facilitates proper attention to cumulative effects

Strategic level proves to be the best way to deal with increasing number of cumulative impacts. The scope of SEA helps to identifying these impacts because of its space scales (Ortolano & Shepherd, 1995; Scott, 1992). As SEA is performed in an early stage, this assessment allows assessors to provide more attention in a wider range of actions in a larger area. It allows them to provide a broader context of cumulative impacts in addressing each of the impacts (Thérivel & Partidário 1996).

According to Thérivel & Partidário, undesirable activities as a results of a project can be removed before the project stage begins because these cumulative impacts have influence the project decision where SEA has incorporated environmental issues intrinsically during the planning stage. Earlier detection of these impacts helps to promote sustainable development.

4.5. Facilitates greater transparency and more effective public participation at the strategic level

With the extensive involvement of public participation in SEA, it has improved the credibility and accountability of SEA in sustainability where they facilitating external scrutiny of decision (Wood & Dejeddour, 1992). It creates increasing pressures in strategic decision making process to overcome bureaucratic fragmentation because in many jurisdictions, bureaucratic disorganisation and wastefulness in citizen has been declining.

The expanding role of public provided in SEA allows an intrinsic connection between environmental sustainability and equity (George, 1999) to promote basic sustainability goals.

5. Conclusion

There are many challenges ahead for SEA report. There are many difficulties in producing a good SEA report. Nevertheless, SEA report requirements did show success in achieving sustainable development goals. In order to ensure SEA report success, weaknesses and limitation needs to be considered and solution needed in order to overcome it.

6. References

Barth, R. & Fuder, A. (2002) Implementing Article 10 of the SEA Directive 2001/42/EC. Final Report : Freiburg, Darmstadt, Berlin.

Brown, A L, and Thérivel, R. (2000), “Principles to guide the development of strategic environmental assessment methodology”, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal , 18(3), September, pages 183-189.

Environment Agency (2004) SEA Good Practice Guidelines Accessed on 27/01/10.

European Parliament and Council of the European Union (2001) Directive 2001/42/EC on the assessment of the effects of certain plans and programmes on the environment Commission of the European Communities, Brussels.

European Commission (2009) Study concerning the report on the application and effectiveness of the SEA Directive (2001/42/EC): Final report. 2: p-67683-a.

George, C. (1999) Testing for sustainable development through environmental assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 19(2), 109-224.

Kørnøv, L, and Thissen, W A H (2000), “Rationality in decisionand policy-making: implications for strategic environmental assessment”, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 18(3), September, pages 191-200.

Lee, N, and Kirkpatrick, C. (2000), “Integrated appraisal, decisionmaking and sustainable development: an overview”, in N Lee and C Kirkpatrick (editors), ustainable Development and Integrated Appraisal in a Developing World (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, Cheltenham).

Marsden, S. (1998) Importance of context in measuring the effectiveness of strategic environmental assessment. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 16(4), 255-266.

Minas, P (2002), “The effectiveness of SEA at integrating env ironmental considerations into landuse development plans in England and Wales”, MSc dissertation, unpublished, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.

Ortolano, L. & Shepherd, A. (1995) Environmental impact assessment: Challenges and opportunities. Impact Assessment, 13, 3-27.

Partidário, R. (1996) Strategic environmental assessment: Key issues emerging from recent practice. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 16(1), 31-55.

Partidário, R. & Clarke, R., (2000) Perspectives on Strategic Environmental Assessment. Boca Raton: Lewis Publishers.

Pezzoli, K. (1997) Sustainable development: A transdisciplinary overview of the literature. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 40(5), 549-574.

Thérivel, R. & Partidário, R. (2000). The future of SEA. In Perspectives on Strategic Environmental Assessment, ed. M.R. Partidário and R. Clarke. Boca Raton: LewisPublishers.

Thérivel, R. & Minas, P (2002), Measuring SEA effectiveness: Ensuring effective sustainability appraisal. Beech Tree Publishing, 20 (2), pp81-91.

Thérivel, R. et al. (1992), trategic Environmental Assessment. London: Earthscan Publications.

Thompson, S., Treweek, R. & Thurling, J. (1995) The potential application of strategic environmental assessment (SEA) to the farming of Atlantic salmon (almo salar L.). In Journal of Environmental Management, 45, 219-229.

Sadler, B. (1996) Environmental Assessment in a Changing World: Evaluating Practice to Improve Performance. Final Report of the International Study of the Effectivenessof Environmental Assessment. Hull: CEAA.

Scott, S. (1992) Environmental considerations in decision making: A role for EIA at the policy level? CEARC MR7-92. Hull: Canadian Environmental Assessment Research Council.

Smith, S & Sheate, W. (2001), “Sustainability appraisals of regional planning guidance and regional economic strategies in England: an assessment”, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 44(5), pages 735-755.

URL 1: Key Stages about SEA. Accessed on 24.01.10.

URL 2: When is SEA required. Accessed on 24.01.10.

Verheem, R. & Tonk, J. (2000), “Strategic environmental assessment: one concept, multiple forms”, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 18(3), September, pages 177-182.

Wood, C. & Dejeddour, M. (1992) Strategic environmental assessment: EA of policies, plans and programmes. Impact Assessment Bulletin, 10(1), 3-22.

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