Is EIA still there?

This image was taken from the Living Asia website where this article was originally published

We devoted a series of our recent publications to such important and complex concepts as “Environmental Impact Assessment” and “Strategic Environmental Assessment.” And we did it for a reason. These assessments are the focal point of the project aimed at raising public awareness of the impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative.

After all, without knowing the theory, one cannot fully understand what is happening in practice. Therefore, today we would like to cover the environmental impact assessment (EIA), but this time in regards specifically to Kazakhstan, especially within the Belt and Road Initiative frameworks.

We would also like to remind you that the Belt and Road Initiative is aimed at China’s external economic investments, including investments in Central Asia.

Vadim Ni, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Socio-Ecological Fund and an international expert on environmental law, will share his knowledge on the topic.

Vadim, could you please explain the importance of the environmental impact assessment (EIA)?

It is critical to understand that in order to protect the environment, we should take measures not only to mitigate negative impacts but also to prevent them. It is precisely the purpose of the environmental impact assessment. It allows not only to foresee the risks at the design stage but, in some cases, to abandon potentially dangerous projects completely. A good example is a construction project of a large reservoir, which can lead to flooding of nearby areas.

To summarize, within the environmental impact assessment, environmental and social risks from the planned activity are considered and assessed at the planning stage of economic projects.

Then, what is the difference between “strategic environmental assessment” and “environmental impact assessment”?

These are two instruments that follow one after another. Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is carried out at the stage of considering specific plans or programs. For example, a state has a plan for tourism development, and this is where the strategic environmental assessment comes into play. It allows us to determine that the construction of ski resorts in the face of climate change is impractical. In other words, the SEA enables us to avoid potential risks from the very beginning.

In the case of the environmental impact assessment, we already deal with specific projects. For example, when it comes to constructing a specific cement plant, the EIA allows us to assess the risks from the use of particular technologies. To illustrate, Kazakhstan is actively discussing the issue of the possibility of incineration. At this stage, only legislation was adopted, i.e., we are dealing with the strategic environmental assessment. But when it comes to constructing any specific waste incineration plant, let’s say, in Almaty, we will have to refer to the environmental impact assessment.

Is the EIA a requirement?

In Kazakhstan, compared to other Central Asian countries, the EIA procedure is the most regulated. This is because the public actively employs the mechanism of appeal to the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention.

In addition, it is essential to emphasize that this area already has its own market, i.e., companies that are professionally involved in the preparation of environmental impact assessment documentation.

Moreover, as you may know, a new Environmental Code, which also reflects a list of projects that must go through the EIA procedure, comes into force in Kazakhstan starting from July 1, 2021.

In your last interview you mentioned: “The new code drops out many types of activities for which the EIA and public participation are possible”. Could you elaborate on it, please?

Even though there was no mandatory list in Kazakhstan before, most projects were submitted for environmental impact assessment. The coverage of this procedure is now shrinking.

What is the difference between the state expertise and EIA?

In the case of EIA, a specially hired company prepares a document highlighting potential environmental risks, then it is handed over to the public.

You can learn more about public participation in the decision-making process by clicking the link – “Public participation: expectation vs. reality”.

In its turn, the state expertise is conducted by a group of experts. In other words, the EIA is a much more open process since it implies the active participation of the public. In contrast, the state expertise is, roughly speaking, an assessment prepared by experts for experts.

To give more specific examples, could you please explain why is it important to conduct the environmental impact assessment as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In order to answer your question, I should first explain the context. In Kazakhstan, the environmental impact assessment has initially become widespread within the projects related to oil production in the Caspian region. In this case, investments were made by Western companies, which already had an EIA culture. In other words, the investors who came to us were used to higher environmental standards. In this case, the investors themselves were interested in carrying out the environmental impact assessment.

In addition, we should also understand that many projects in our country were financed by international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Asian Bank, which have a precise procedure in relation to the environmental impact assessment. It also contributed to the rapid progress of the EIA in our country.

As for the Belt and Road Initiative, in this case, we are relying on investments from China. It is a country that adheres to lower environmental standards, which also applies to the environmental impact assessment.

Consequently, domestic standards happen to be higher than those of foreign investors who enter the market. Unfortunately, many Chinese entrepreneurs are not ready either to hold public hearings or to disclose information on ongoing projects. As a result, their activities on the territory of our country are secret.

Hence, the public is worried about this initiative. Moreover, this issue also has an economic aspect. If within the framework of similar projects, some investors will conduct the EIA, others will not, and the third group will conduct it formally, then, initially, they will have different price ranges These differences will consecutively create inequality in the market. Therefore, we believe that environmental standards should be the same for all companies operating in the country, regardless of where they come from.

Are there any successful examples of the EIA carried out by Chinese companies in Kazakhstan today?

Unfortunately, today, there are very few examples. However, there are companies such as, for example, the Shymkent Oil Refinery, which was originally owned by a Canadian company, which already had an established EIA system in place. Then it was bought by the Chinese company CNPC. However, you need to understand that the foundation of the corporate culture, including the conduct of the EIA procedure, was laid by the Canadian management.

Considering that Kazakhstan is a party to such important agreements as the Aarhus Convention and the Espoo Convention, we cannot excuse Chinese enterprises for their unpreparedness for our standards. After all, Kazakhstan will be seen as a country that does not stick to its promises. And I want to summarize my idea by saying: “Dear investors, make yourself at home, but do not forget that you are still visitors.” (Russian proverb)

Thank you very much, Vadim, for such a detailed explanation of a complex topic.

Interviewed by Dina Ni.

This article originally appeared on Living Asia in Russian.