Is there a place for EIA in our lives?

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

The expert believes that the new edition of the Environmental Code does not cover many types of activities requiring EIA and public participation.

The method of environmental impact assessment (EIA) is widely known in Kazakhstan. Within its framework, the practice of public participation in consideration of environmental aspects of industrial, touristic, or infrastructural projects was developed. A good example would be the attempt to build a ski resort in the Kok-Zhailau tract near Almaty.

The new Environmental Code introduces new approaches to the regulation of EIA. However, will it facilitate the participation of citizens in decision-making on environmental issues?

This topic was discussed by experts and public figures at the webinar “Environmental assessment, environmental expert evaluation of projects” to raise CSOs’ awareness of BRI projects environmental assessment and opportunities for public participation in BRI.”

Although the Belt and Road Initiative was barely mentioned in the speeches, the correlation with the EIA is quite logical. As one of the webinar participants noted, the Belt and Road “super-project” is large-scale, so it will be present in our lives for many decades to come. Therefore, the public needs to have access to relevant tools in order to be able to influence it. However, it relates not only to projects with China’s participation.

So, what is the EIA about?

The importance and history of this tool were presented to the participants of the webinar by renowned international expert Carl Bruch, Director of international programs at the Washington Environmental Law Institute. He has helped a number of countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East develop laws, policies, and institutional frameworks for water management and biodiversity conservation.

As defined by the expert, EIA is a detailed analysis of the impact of a particular project on the environment. It should not be confused with a pure environmental assessment. That is a more concise analysis of environmental characteristics, parameters of situations and is used to understand and explain whether it is necessary to carry out a full assessment of the impact of a project on the environment.

“The history of EIA goes back more than half a century. When the first world conference on the environment was held in Stockholm in 1972, very few countries were implementing EIAs. However, by the time of the conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, many countries already had specific legislation that required an EIA, and many provided for an assessment as part of other laws. By 2017, these requirements have spread almost all over the world. In the European Union, a specific directive on this topic was adopted in 2011, and it pushed the EU countries to adopt EIA as a standard norm throughout the European Union. This practice began to roll out both at the national and transboundary levels: the UN Economic Commission for Europe has a Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, the Espoo Convention (the convention is named after the Finnish city where it was adopted),” said Carl Bruch.

In 20 years, EIA has turned into such a popular and widespread instrument that it has become an integral part of international law.

If, for example, we are talking about transboundary projects, then it is no longer just some kind of wish that can be fulfilled or not. It is a requirement. Among the key EIA requirements, experts put forward risk assessment and high-quality awareness. In projects that can harm the environment, decision-makers and the public must be aware of these risks and have the opportunity to work to reduce them. Another basic principle is transparency, meaning that the EIA should disseminate to all parties that may impact this project.

What does the situation with EIA look like in Central Asia?

In five countries of the region, environmental assessment and public participation differ from international approaches. Here EIA is a new tool that is just being introduced. As a result, there are considerable differences in how the EIA process develops in a given country. For example, there are no documents on this topic in the public domain in some countries of the region.

“Earlier, instead of EIA, the legislation stipulated that certain projects are the subject of state environmental expertise,” said Vadim Ni, a representative of the Socio-Ecological Fund.

The level of regulation of public participation in impact assessment varies significantly from country to country. For example, this issue is regulated in more detail in the legislation of Kazakhstan, which is associated with the active use of the mechanism of appeals to the Compliance Committee of the Aarhus Convention by the public. It led to the development of such standards in Kazakhstan, and the scope of public participation in projects for which EIA is being carried out was wide. In other countries, you can name many projects for which something is drawn up as EIA documents, but there is no public participation procedure.

On July 1, 2021, a new Environmental Code comes into force in Kazakhstan.

Now, the development of bylaws is underway, including the development of instructions for organizing and conducting an environmental assessment and rules for holding public hearings. They are in the current edition of the Environmental Code, but it is still unclear whether they will be in a new document.

“In the past, objects to be assessed were defined very broadly, but it is not entirely clear how. Even the experts used to give different interpretations. There was an instruction. There was a recommended list of activities for applying the EIA tool in the form of an annex to it, but this was usually not considered by the developers. In some mysterious way, many documents were assessed, public hearings were organized, but there was no clear understanding of which objects should be assessed and which should not. But, on the other hand, the scope of the projects was vast, which was quite satisfactory for the public. Although, at times, it was quite difficult to get to all the hearings,” – says Vadim Ni.

With the adoption of the new environmental code, the approach is changing – the list of objects that must undergo an EIA is reduced.

They are already enshrined in the code itself, in its annexes, which define threshold values for the types of planned activities for which environmental impact assessment is applied. One of the sections provides a procedure for screening projects. Still, until the rules are issued, it is unclear who is considering such a possibility – the Ministry of Ecology or its territorial divisions. It potentially creates complexity and confusion. For example, projects planned in Kazakhstan that are at the forefront of public attention, such as the construction of incineration plants or tourism facilities in national parks, are not included in the first section of Appendix One. In other words, they do not have to apply the EIA procedure and, therefore, public participation. It turns out that the public will have to fight for the right to participate in examining these essential projects.

“Traditionally, in our environmental legislation, the boundaries of projects for which it was possible to assess the impact on the environment were quite broadly outlined. The new code defines many types of activities for which EIA and public participation are possible,” – said Vadim.

Here is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the article – will the integration of the EIA in the legislation expand the public’s ability to influence critical environmental issues? Unfortunately, the answer is still negative. But we will see.

This article originally appeared on Living Asia in Russian.