Blog post by Executive Director David Bancroft
COVID-19 is not a legitimate excuse for governments to roll back or scale down the implementation of proper impact assessments. Innovative technologies and procedures have proven their efficacy to ensure public participation and monitoring processes. The important values of protecting societal needs and environmental quality do not need to be sacrificed in attempts to re-start the global economy.
Despite these innovations, 40% of impact assessment professionals in a recent IAIA survey believe that COVID-19 will be used as a reason to temporarily relax or permanently dilute or limit environmental monitoring and management procedures. Eighteen percent acknowledge that there will need to be changes in future monitoring and management techniques.
Recent decisions within several nations, such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, and the United States, have reduced or eliminated environmental and social impact assessment. This was supposedly done to more rapidly reinvigorate economic activity that has been depressed by COVID-19.
These policy changes affect not only new impact assessments, but also ones currently being conducted as well as the management plans of those completed. The reduction or elimination of public participation, or of monitoring and management, has little to do with COVID-19. Instead, in many instances it is the implementation of long-held political strategies to reduce environmental regulation, for example in:
While COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing pose challenges to monitoring and public participation, our survey results show technology and tools can be deployed for impact assessment purposes. Impact assessment practitioners have successfully used remote technologies to monitor conditions in the field, and others have used web-based applications to present new information in a way that makes sense to the community. Survey responses indicate they have extensive experience with field technologies and tools such as remote sensing, virtual reality, mobile platforms, drone footage, 3-D printing and GIS, and Artificial Intelligence, as well as methods that can make communicating impact assessment results to communities and stakeholders more concise and efficient despite the reduction in travel and field work.
Impact assessment professionals are resilient and creative, so there is no need for political leaders to hide behind the excuse of COVID-19 to reduce monitoring and public participation requirements. From IAIA’s survey, over 68% percent of respondents said they have developed innovative ways of working at a distance. Of these, 29% are employing local organizations to collect information, 23% have deployed community groups or individual citizens to accomplish field work, and 15% say they are using aerial/satellite photography. They are finding a way and getting it done.
One major part of impact assessment is consulting and meeting with stakeholders. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, 52% of survey respondents said they ceased doing that type of work, while 29% were continuing their efforts.
Those continuing to conduct consultations, public meetings, and hearings were using video conferencing, email, social media, online surveys, and local consultants, and some were conducting consultations themselves as usual.
Monitoring, management, and public participation are key elements of wise decision making and legitimate environmental stewardship in order to foster social equity among disenfranchised populations. It is incumbent upon government officials that they foster innovation during these trying times, and they should not abandon their roles as societal guardians. IAIA calls upon agencies around the globe to maintain high standards for the implementation of impact assessment. Joining hand-in-hand with government policy makers, impact assessment professionals are up to the task of helping to make better decisions and more sustainable investments for children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Note: A full analysis on the results of IAIA’s 56-question “Impact of COVID-19 on IA and its Practitioners” survey will be released in August. A link to some preliminary results is available below.