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The project aims to build upon the experiences thus far gained in Denmark in the field of environmental assessment of parliamentary bills and other government proposals, and to contribute towards a dialogue on this issue among the ministries and state institutions involved. Moreover, the project specifically sets out to test the conditions for extending the Danish practice to embrace the internationally recognized principles of strategic environmental assessment. Thus the project's outlook is broadened to address the overall requirements of strategic environmental assessment, as well as a characterization of this instrument, at policy level.
The concept of strategic environmental assessment
Even though it is now common to employ the term strategic environmental assessment, with its English acronym SEA, for an environmental assessment at decision-making levels higher or below the project-level, there are a number of different opinions on the political and constitutional limits to its use on the one hand and on the results which may be expected by more widespread use of the term in practice on the other.
Some authors argue that SEA concerns the integration of environmental assessment in decision-making processes at strategic level, thereby serving to pinpoint decisions which might immediately or subsequently lead to an inappropriate impact on the environment. Others argue that SEA is one tool among many for ensuring that environmental considerations have a place in political processes.
Another view is that SEA is a step towards a sustainable development, combined with the feeling that SEA has played out its role when it has succeeded in integrating environmental considerations in the decision-making process.
Further on some are arguing that any extension of environmental assessment to strategic decision-making levels may mean a gradation of environmental assessment in policies, plans, programmes and projects, so that environmental assessment at the initial levels will provide the context and information for assessments at subsequent levels. In this way it will be possible to ensure that the environmental assessment is optimised at every stage with regard to quality and effectiveness, and in many cases assessments will be quite superfluous at the more advanced stages.
In direct opposition to this point of view, it is argued that SEA must be put into practice at strategic levels with the same stringency as EIA, and without diluting the basic practice of EIA in projects lest its content and relevance be lost.
There is general international agreement that SEA is a process which integrates environmental considerations in the decision-making process higher than the project level and applies environmental impact assessment (EIA) principles and procedural elements. Thus, clear opportunities for external participation (i.e. by the public) must exist and the process carried out in a proactive rather than a reactive manner.
The point of view underlying the attempts below to practice the environmental assessment of bills, which is also the basis of the present report, is: 1) that SEA is a tool for bringing environmental considerations into the process of decision-making at the strategic level, 2) that SEA has a different content from the environmental assessment of projects, which will not replace EIA, but 3) nevertheless builds on the same fundamental principles of documentation, procedure, significance, alternatives and the involvement of the public.
The thrust of the project, in accordance with the above-mentioned aims, is to apply the concept of SEA by testing its fundamental principles on two Danish bills.
Environmental assessment of bills (Case A and B)
The testing has been carried out in cooperation with the Ministry of Housing, the entity responsible for drafting the bills. One bill was tested retrospectively (Case A on tenancy, heating charges, individual water meters etc.); another as a part of the drafting (Case B on private urban renewal).
Both cases have followed the procedure set out in the Circular on Observations on Bills issued by the Prime Minister's Office. A test of the principles of public participation and the assessment of alternatives has been added in both cases, as these are not included in the Circular's requirements for environmental impact assessment. In Case A, this has been done by charting the process of environmental impact assessment of the bill, in addition to: 1) a hearing of the interest groups' views of the bill's environmental impact as well as the assessment carried out by the Ministry of Housing, and 2) the project's assessment of the bill's environmental effects together with a series of reflections on alternatives and their environmental outcomes. In Case B, the principles concerned were, in fact, embraced from the outset throughout the drafting of the bill and the assessment of its environmental impact.
In both cases the bills are examples of legislation generating many small projects which have cumulative effects when combined. The point about the environmental assessment of bills of this kind is that it is relatively easy to calculate and assess the effects on the environment of individual subsidized or regulated activities, whereas the scale of the cumulative effects is more uncertain, as the level of activity may be unpredictable. However, it is the cumulative effects which are of critical interest in the context of the environmental assessment of bills, since it is in them that the environmental impact is really reflected. Experience of both cases confirm this.
For this reason it is proposed to balance the degree of detail and accuracy when assessing effects primarily in proportion to the direction rather than the degree or scale of the impact, and to establish the significance criteria using this point of departure. Further on it is proposed to expand the very concept of environmental impact in cases like this to encompass the subsequent course of events in proportion to the formal decision itself, and thereby exploit the opportunities for amending the decision reached, which is just what happens in these cases.
Both cases also serve to throw light on the role which the strategic element in the decision plays in an environmental assessment of a bill. In particular, the two cases suggest that in these cases the strategic element is critical to whether a bill is introduced and how its actual adoption proceeds.
One marked difference arose between the environmental assessment of the bills carried out as part of this project and the environmental impact assessment presented by the Ministry of Housing as observations on the bills. The latter observations are far more general and less detailed than necessary, at least in the light of the much greater scope for environmental assessment of the bills concerned, as appears from the project's assessment.
Likewise, the environmental impact assessment's influence upon Parliament's adoption of the bills is murky and vague. The decision-makers, i.e. the politicians, are presented with statements claiming that enacting the bills would bring positive environmental effects, but this is not substantiated by any documentation nor any explanation of the basis upon which these conclusions have been reached. This means that the decision-makers cannot truly take environmental aspects into account, which clearly runs counter to the very intention behind carrying out an environmental assessment, namely that environmental concerns should remain visible throughout the decision-making process.
Nevertheless, one crucial conclusion of the project's testing is that the five internationally recognised principles of environmental impact assessment - documentation, procedure, significance, alternatives and the involvement of the public - can be applied to parliamentary bills without any major or fundamental obstacles.
Moreover, the project has demonstrated in practice that it is not a problem to assess environmental effects in a meaningful way and in a form accessible to non-experts, i.e. to decision-makers and the public. Technical, scientific as well as resource considerations allow for this.
The reason behind the disappointing presentation of the environmental assessment of the two bills before the decision-makers bears relation to the ranking of environmental concerns alongside a series of other strategic concerns. As it turned out, this did not favour the presentation of the environmental assessment's contents and scope for practical use.
The experiment points to some immediate opportunities for enhancing the environmental assessment and its presentation before decision-makers:
More explicit demands on the assessment's contents and scope may help to get the information on a bill's environmental effects presented to decision-makers.
Some characteristics of the environmental assessment of bills
As part of the project's conclusions, attention should be drawn to characteristic features of the environmental assessment of bills:
* Environmental assessment itself constitutes a strategic element. When this element further on is encapsulated in a decision-making process - which itself contains one or more strategic elements - it involves a situation which is full of contrast; this in practice means a furtherance of, and a barrier to, the content and potential effectiveness of the environmental assessment.
* A decision-making process surrounding a bill consists not of one single decision but of a series of decisions. Accordingly, an environmental assessment will also be subdivided into a number of different elements; at no time do these appear as one whole which, taken in its entirety, forms the basis for a specific decision, but nonetheless as a result they do constitute such a whole. These different elements provide both the basis for, and the constraints upon, subsequent elements.
* The dynamic nature of strategic decisions means that no decision will be definitive. It can always be repeated or adjusted to obtain the maximum desired effect in terms of the original purpose or any subsidiary purpose. Thus there is an opportunity to compensate for the lack of predictability in an environmental assessment by having the bill re-examined in practice, and on this basis readjusting the way it is framed with a view to achieving the desired effects and avoiding undesired ones, including those on the environment.
These characteristic features of environmental policy assessment contain a logic inconsistent with the whole idea of an environmental assessment. However, this need not lead to giving up the environmental assessment at the policy level, though it does point to an imperative need to aid the assessment's realisation as well as its presentation before decision-makers, thus strengthening its chances of influencing the decision, as has previously been highlighted.
This is because the same logic also gives specific opportunities for this. The dynamic nature of decision-making processes and the consequent possibility of adjustment favours an extension of the concept of strategic environmental assessment to match the said dynamics.
Finally, the experiments carried out by the project throw light upon a series of contrasts between environmental assessment of bills and of projects. These differences help to make the nature of both types of environmental assessment more explicit: