Cumulative Environment Impact Assessment as a Mean to Achieve Sustainability

Clarissa Dias (ELP 2021) | Technical Director, Cia Ambiental, Brazil

Whenever I hear that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, I think of family. Since I was born, my parents have been working in environmental agencies and consultancy. While growing up, I was surrounded by this subject. Watching them build a career in this field of work encouraged me to pursue a degree in environmental engineering.

I have been working for more than ten years with environmental studies for licensing processes in Brazil. Throughout this time, I have been able to work in a range of different projects including the private sector, landfills, roads, railroads, harbors, wind power plants, and hydroelectric power plants. 

In Brazil, and I believe in most countries, environmental assessments are done following these steps: description of the project, diagnosis of the environmental attributes of the installation site and surrounding area, and prognosis with the identification of expected impacts to establish measures and prevention programs to mitigate or compensate negative impacts or to maximize positive impacts. Considering my past work experience, I realized that environmental impacts from new projects are identified, quantified, and analyzed focusing only on the project itself. This is quite all right and is done following all the rules and regulations set by environmental agencies. 

So usually, the standard approach is to focus on the project and analyze all the impacts that it can bring to the area. The problem is that this widely used approach quite often does not assess the broader context of the surrounding environment and other projects’ impacts in the same area.

A simple perspective shift can optimize an environmental assessment, taking into account not only the individual impacts of a single project, but the sustainability of environmental components existing in the location. This can be done through a cumulative impact assessment. In this sense, cumulative impact assessments are important for determining measures that would guarantee environmental sustainability regardless of the parties involved. 

When we consider most of the environmental problems faced nowadays, such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, climate change, reduction of fish stocks and scarcity of water sources suitable for consumption, they stem from cumulative impacts of different human activities. If the activities that bring about these impacts are considered individually they might not be relevant enough to cause any harm, but together they can lead to great effects and damage for the environment.    

For instance, consider a hydroelectric power plant being planned in a river that receives effluents from a large factory as well as domestic sewage from a nearby community. All the players will comply with the environmental legislation, which sets standards for effluent discharge, and have the required permits from the relevant environmental agency. When considered individually, each enterprise doesn’t have the potential to change the river’s water quality, but together their effects can lower quality standards. Each enterprise also conducts its own monitoring programs and has a set of measures to reduce their polluting potential. No player can be considered the sole responsible party for the degradation of the river and be held responsible for not adopting more restrictive measures in their discharge of effluents. If a cumulative approach for the environmental assessment of the hydroelectric power plant was to take place, this situation could be better evaluated and shared measures could be enacted.

Unfortunately, this is seldom the reality in developing countries where few proper cumulative assessments are held. In order to change this reality it is paramount that government and environmental agencies be aware of the importance of conducting or requesting cumulative impacts assessments in licensing processes. Investors and funding agencies also play a crucial role in promoting and demanding cumulative assessment of environmental impacts and measures from entrepreneurs. 

Also, and even more important, within their ESG policies entrepreneurs must take into account their responsibility for ensuring environmental sustainability in the places where they carry out their activities. They must not only consider their activities but the context of the area and the past, present and future activities conducted or planned for the same place. 

It is not a matter of individual impacts but of the collective ones and how to engage in shared measures. At small and large scales, environmental measures to avoid harmful impacts should always be thought of collectively, as there is no enterprise dissociated from another when they share the same space, the same environment, and, in a broader perspective, the same world.