International Association for Impact Assessment

The world is pivoting due to COVID-19. Should IA as well?

  • Guest post by IAIA member Peter Croal

    The world is pivoting due to COVID-19. Should IA as well?

    IAIA members were recently able to study the results of the second survey on “Impact of COVID-19 on Impact Assessment,” which was done 29 July – 6 August 2020. This survey has resulted in some data that are troubling for the practice of impact assessment (IA), and may require a focused examination by IAIA and its members. The survey had 700 respondents from across the world. One of the main objectives of this survey was to highlight government pressures to bypass impact assessment rules and regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Forty-five percent of respondents indicated that, as a result of COVID-19, impact assessment laws and regulations have been or are proposed to be relaxed.

    Indeed, many governments have relaxed impact assessment laws and policies to allow economic stimulus packages to proceed more quickly, and to keep people safe during the pandemic by not allowing field visits, public meetings, and other engagement processes. However, nearly 30% of the survey respondents felt that IA will become more, not less, important. This may be true in theory, but it can’t happen if governments do not see IA as an important tool during or after the pandemic.

    "IA is too bureaucratic, protracted, and complicated"

    Once the pandemic is over and governments, industry, and civil society recalibrate their activities to reflect a post-pandemic world, we must ask ourselves if IA, as currently practiced, will better inform how decisions are made. Over the last forty years there have been many studies to analyze the benefits of IA. Regardless, there has been a parallel litany of complaints and critiques from industry that IA is too bureaucratic, protracted, and complicated and lacks focus for clear decision making.

    IA practitioners know how the world works. We have intimate knowledge about ecosystems, biodiversity, and climate change perils that the world is experiencing. These changes will affect all of our health, resilience, and well-being. The more these issues accelerate and magnify, the more IA practitioners bear down on the rhetoric that IA has to precede decision making. IA has incredible beneficial outcomes for projects and programs, applying a “look before you leap” philosophy. However, we must now ask ourselves if IA needs rethinking and reform to respect emerging transitions happening in governments and society as a result not only of COVID-19, but of parallel crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and growing social inequity.

    There is a growing chorus around the world about how we must “do things differently” once we are out of this pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in all our governance and economic development systems. Climate change has amplified the effects of COVID-19 too by increasing mortality and illness where there is more air pollution and increased natural disasters like floods, landslides, and wildfires. The plight of rapidly-diminishing wildlife has drawn growing attention, as has the growing chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots,” Adding to this is the growing flight of institutional investment capital from the oil sector to renewable energy supplies. These are strong signals to which the IA community must respond.

    Over the decades, the basic steps of IA, from screening through to monitoring and compliance, have changed little. This process often results in court challenges, delays, and public protest. With the speed that the planet is changing, coupled with the many opportunities the pandemic is offering society on how to do everything differently, we must take this opportunity to examine IA to determine how it should be changed to respond to how society is “pivoting” to a new normal.

    "Have we been successful in convincing decision makers that IA is a vital tool?"

    I am reminded about an interview that was held with a Deputy Minister in charge of Canada’s aid agency (CIDA) many years ago, and a researcher doing an international study on how IA was being practiced in aid agencies. When told about all the benefits of IA, the Deputy Minister responded by saying: “What does it eat in winter?” This is a powerful metaphor for IA today. She was saying that decisions must always be made in the face of tradeoffs and competing interests, and that IA may not always address these tradeoffs in a realistic way. Therefore, have we been successful in convincing decision makers that IA is a vital tool to support complex decisions in a dynamic and rapidly changing world? And is IA doing enough to prioritize those considerations which reflect the key challenges facing the health of not only people, but of our planet?

    In some quarters, we have been quite successful. However, the IAIA survey shows that globally about 30% of IA laws and processes are being relaxed in the face of the pandemic. Once the pandemic is over, these laws could well remain relaxed or even modified to a significant degree.

    "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste."  

    The pandemic has spawned a new category of terms such as “regenerative tourism” and “post-carbon transition.” The terms “pivot” and “resilience” are now also deeply integrated in all our conversations. The pandemic has challenged all sectors of society to determine if they are effective when they are stressed. IA is no different. The pandemic has offered IAIA and IA practitioners a wonderful opportunity to look inward to determine how IA should be modified to work more robustly in a post-pandemic world. Stanford economist Paul Romer said in November 2004, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

    The implications of the pandemic and COVID-19 for IA and IAIA are these: Governments and industry are rapidly reorganizing operations and procedures to allow them to operate during the pandemic. Many new operational methods and procedures will remain post-pandemic. Are IAIA and IA practitioners seizing this opportunity to gather our creative energy and passion for the environment to re-examine IA so that it too can pivot to a new global post pandemic reality? Let’s start this conversation now!

    Peter Croal, P.Geol.

    Questions or comments? Log in now and continue the discussion on IAIAConnect.

    The Impact of COVID-19 on Impact Assessment: An Initial Rapid Review (Survey 1)

    Tracking How the Pandemic is Affecting the Practice and Profession of Impact Assessment (Survey 2)

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