SEA: Forewarned is Forearmed

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

“Strategic environmental assessment, building the capacity of the participants to conduct a strategic environmental assessment of documents relating to BRI” – this is how self-explanatory the webinar was named that was held as part of the project designed to raise public awareness on the impacts of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The experts tried to explain the importance of strategic environmental assessment (SEA). Marianna Bolshakova, Coordinator for Environmental Law and Governance, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), was also happy to share her knowledge on this issue.

What does strategic environmental assessment mean? 

In simple terms, strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is a systematic assessment process aimed at addressing environmental issues to integrate them into the preparation of policies, plans, and programs before their full entry into force. We have already covered this public participation tool in one of our previous materials, “Strategic environmental assessment: slowly but surely.”

The legal basis for this assessment was laid down in principle 10 of the Rio Declaration (1992). However, the SEA protocol is defined in the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention). The Espoo Convention is an international agreement that was initiated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and signed in Espoo, Finland. The protocol includes an assessment of the potential environmental risks, including those related to public health. According to the 2018 United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), there are approximately 40 countries with an established strategic environmental assessment system.

Why is this assessment important for Central Asia?

Unfortunately, Central Asian countries have not joined the SEA protocol yet. So, it raises a very reasonable question: why do we need to talk about strategic environmental assessment then? The answer is simple: despite the temporary incapacity of this protocol in the region, the Aarhus Convention is still actively applied in our countries.

The Aarhus Convention is a convention of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe “On Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters.” Besides, in most of our countries, national legislation envisages the process for assessing the environmental impact of projects. Also, in Kazakhstan, additional legislation on strategic environmental assessment has recently been developed.

In other words, the formation of the “strategic environmental assessment” concept in our region has already been launched. It should also be noted that such international financial institutions as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank oblige to use this public participation tool in their procedures.

Why do we need this assessment, and who participates in it?

Answering the first question, it is worth mentioning that the plans and programs developed at the national level undoubtedly affect the public as a whole.

Now, let’s figure out who is covered by the concept of “public.” So, according to the SEA protocol, the “public” is one or more individuals or legal entities. As you can see, we have a very vague definition that does not explain much. Therefore, now, it is the time to refer to the Aarhus Convention, which provides a much more specific explanation of “the public concerned,” i.e., it is “the public that is or may be affected by the decision-making process, or that has an interest in the process.”

That is why it is critical to identify specific groups and strata of the population whose interests will be affected. However, it is not always easy to do so at the national level.

At which stage does the public get involved?

Again, we got both concrete and vague answers: at different stages of the environmental assessment. So, let’s try to understand what does it mean step by step. 

  • Screening: determining the need for SEA. Public participation is possible but relatively rare.
  • Scoping: defining the scope of environmental issues to be addressed in the SEA. Considering the public opinion at this stage is already essential but still not critical.
  • Report preparation: Public participation is not possible.
  • Commenting on the SEA report and the draft strategic document. At this stage, public opinion must always be taken into account.

This is how the “traditional” scheme of public involvement in decision-making under SEA looks like. We see that, as a rule, the opinion of the population is taken into account at the latest stage, which, naturally, complicates its full integration into the processes.

What about the timeline? 

There are three main criteria for public consultation. It should be: 

  • Advance – the public should be aware of the hearing in advance;
  • Timely – consultations should take place at a stage when the views of stakeholder groups can still be taken into account;
  • Effective – in terms of which methods are used and how public opinion is taken into account.

This explanation demonstrates that it is difficult to set a fixed timeframe for public consultation. Timing varies from country to country. We need to understand that the procedure should be as flexible as possible in terms of timing since a lot, in this case, depends on the complexity of the strategic document itself. In addition, the approach to collecting comments from the public should also be flexible. Traditionally, two methods are used: in writing and during public hearings. However, the past year has clearly demonstrated that we are never immune to such emergencies as, for example, a pandemic. Remote locations may simply not have reliable Internet access. And all these factors must also be considered when taking into account public opinion.

Summing up, it is worth saying that although strategic environmental assessment has not yet found its full-fledged application in Central Asia, we are systematically moving in this direction. That is why the public must have access to information on the procedures for the conduct of this assessment. We must clearly understand that our opinion matters, and it must certainly be considered during the decision-making process.

This article was originally published on Living Asia in Russian.