OPENING OF THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR IMPACT ASSESSMENT

  • Simon Upton
Environment

CHRISTCHURCH CONVENTION CENTRE

We live in interesting times. The echoes of that old Chinese curse ("may you live in interesting times") may yet come back to haunt us. These are times of challenge, change and opportunity. That is the interest and we should not be afraid to face it.

When we look back over the twentieth century it is the rapidity of its transformations that is most impressive. Many changes have been for the better. Some have been for the worse.

Developments in technology have been enormous. It is the technology of this century that allows you to come from the corners of the globe to a conference in Christchurch, New Zealand. Delegates have come from Brazil and Botswana, from Samoa and Sweden, from Canada and Cameroon. There are relatively few places on the face of the earth that are now more than two days away.

More immediate is the change in telecommunications. It's possible - almost - to talk to anybody anywhere at any time. The Internet is changing the way we do business; it allows us to communicate at a more rapid pace than ever before. It took radio 38 years before it had 50 million listeners, television needed 13 years, while the Internet crossed that line in just 4 years. Traffic on the Internet is doubling every 100 days. I have my own website and a substantial electronic network. I can instantaneously communicate - a few hick ups aside - with those I most want to influence. The organisation of this Conference would have been much more difficult without the Internet. It's strange to think that this technology is little over a decade old.

Technological change and increases in productivity have made many of us well off and allowed a degree of personal freedom and choice that would have seemed impossible at the turn of the last century. But the benefits of this change have been very uneven. There are many of you here from developing countries. It is in these countries where the unevenness of change is most apparent. The technology is available. But often it cannot be afforded. In a shrinking world, disparities are sharpened.

One of my other ministerial portfolios gives me responsibility for New Zealand's development assistance activities. NZODA has sponsored around 40 participants at this conference, mainly from the South Pacific. The Dutch government has also made a substantial contribution by sponsoring another 40. We are acutely aware of the need to build the human capacity in developing countries to undertake impact assessment activities. Our own development assistance programme in the Pacific has such a focus. I understand there are representatives of the World Bank, the United Nations Environmental Programme and some national development assistance agencies at the Conference. This underlines the importance these agencies place on capacity building and the role that IAIA and its members can play.

Another illustration of the unevenness of technological penetration I have spoken of is the impact of change on the environment. While technology has given us the tools to make huge improvements in everyday lives, it has also given us the ability to harm the environment with greater effect. Technological change, in the company of economic and population growth, has placed unprecedented stress on the environment.

As professionals, you are concerned about the impacts of change. For many of you, your role is to identify and assess the implications of change and to provide people like me with the information that will help us take decisions that improve the condition of people and the environment. You also provide the information that will help individuals make informed choices about their own welfare and the environment in which they live.

This is not an easy role. It must draw from many disciplines and take account of the relationships between people and their environment. It must take account of culture and gender. It must also take place in the real world, where the problems faced are often intractable and complex and it may be more important to fill a stomach than save a tree.

While there are major trends towards the globalisation of the world economy, there is increasing effort to recognise and accommodate individual cultures in the processes of change. The recognition of cultural as well as biological diversity is a challenge to impact assessors.

One recent positive trend in New Zealand has been the assertion of Maori culture and the need to ensure its recognition in environmental legislation. In achieving the purposes of the Resource Management Act, the relationship of Maori with their culture and traditions and their application to ancestral lands, water, sites, waahi tapu and taonga is considered a matter of national importance.

Culture is not an easy subject to address in impact assessment activities, particularly if the assessor is from outside of the culture. But it is critical that it be considered and those with distinctive cultures participate in impact assessment processes.

Jeff McNeely has previously spoken about the loss of biodiversity and the challenge that this presents to the nations of the world. I would like to talk about some of the other challenges that, I believe, confront your profession. Some of these are institutional or process issues, some cover particular environmental problems.

Economies will continue to grow, production will increase as will stress on the environment. The loss of biodiversity and the risks from climate change are just two factors requiring a de-coupling of growth and environmental impact. We need effective tools to do this.

A significant amount of production is "foot loose" and capable of being located or re-located where costs are least. There is a risk that industries with significant impacts on the environment will migrate to places which have low environmental standards. In the climate change debate, considerable concerns remain that action to impose strict conditions on CO2 emissions in some countries will simply see major emitters move to countries without such conditions.

Some issues are local and lend themselves to local solutions. Some are regional and some are global. The climate change debate illustrates the complexity of global problems. Here we have a "problem" - an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases that we have been creating for years and where the source is the by-product of everybody's activities. The timing, intensity and distribution of the effects of climate change are very uncertain and may not be known for decades. It is future generations that will be affected, not us. The "problem" can only be solved over a large time span. Any solution requires the co-operation of all countries because we all share the atmosphere. This issue challenges those assessing its impact, international institutions and all national governments.

While climate change is at the high end of complex environmental issues there are many others that will stretch our abilities to manage: hazardous wastes, ozone depletion, genetically modified organisms, persistent organochlorines, maritime ecosystems, natural water systems, the sustainable management of land and the conservation of biodiversity.

In an ideal world we would see consistency in international approaches to environmental management, including provisions for environmental assessment. But, realistically we can't expect that to happen overnight, if at all. Impact assessment professionals need to take international realities into account in the mean time, as well as pushing for the development of internationally acceptable environmental standards.

The increased international movement of people and goods also heightens the risk of unwanted organisms migrating to parts of the world where they can do great harm. Similarly, genetic engineers and a range of scientific explorers open fresh Pandora's boxes almost daily. We have not tried to arrest the tides of technology, trade and movement like a modern day King Canute, but we are trying to focus our minds and resources as best we can. A Biosecurity ministerial portfolio has been created in New Zealand with this in mind. Those of you from overseas will have noticed that New Zealand takes its biosecurity seriously.

The environmental implications of international trade are currently being hotly debated. This debate requires cool heads and a sound analysis of the impacts of trade. Restrictions designed more to benefit a nation's trading advantage rather than its environment put at risk the benefits of an inherently competitive international economy where wasteful practices are eliminated by market realities.

A further trend is the change taking place in the ownership of resources and production. Governments are getting out of business. The economic and social impacts of the changes can be considerable, as we have found in New Zealand. While the benefits are recognised as substantial there are costs that need to be identified and addressed. I understand there is a workshop at the conference on the environmental assessment of privatisation programmes and I know that multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, have taken an interest in the social and environmental impacts of structural adjustment programmes. Those who have been involved in the impacts of government businesses will have to adopt to the very different environment of the private sector. For some this will be a difficult transition.

The origins of impact assessment lie in project appraisal and implementation. This is still where most impact assessment activity takes place. But it is the framework of government policies, rather than individual projects that has most impact upon the environment. And in recent years there has been increased attention given to "Strategic Environmental Assessment". But this is a much more complicated and inexact art and the institutional basis for Strategic Environmental Assessment is not well developed in many countries.

On Monday of this week, there was an Intergovernmental Forum to discuss the environmental assessment of government policy. I will be interested to learn of its conclusions and hope these will be communicated to this Conference.

What decision makers need is a clear understanding of the effects and risks of policy change. This needs to cover the economic, social and environmental dimensions of public policy. The analysis needs to be sound and effectively communicated.

No one in public policy expects perfect knowledge about the impacts of proposals - and we should be wary of those whose imaginations are too lively. But decision makers need to know what the major issues are and what are the risks. It is for the people and their representatives to decide what risks they are willing to live with.

Because the impacts of decisions are often uncertain, the decision needs to include some provision for monitoring the impacts. What we and many other countries have found is that we often do not know what the environmental impacts of policy are or even what changes are taking place more generally to the environment - all of which makes it pretty difficult to conduct rigorous monitoring.

Here in New Zealand, we have started to develop a national system of environmental indicators that will assist us to measure trends in environmental quality and, eventually, provide us with a tool that can assist us assess the effectiveness of policy. In the meantime we have other systems in place to monitor policy implementation.

Environmental indicators are potentially an important tool for the impact assessment profession. They should help reduce the uncertainty about the effectiveness of policies. I note that little attention was given to this subject in the conference workshops.

Impact assessment processes, as a separate decision making tool had its origins almost three decades ago. These processes have become widely institutionalised, particularly as they apply to the assessment of projects. There has been substantial evolution of impact assessment since its origins but I would question whether this evolution is keeping up with contemporary needs - contentiously, the need for efficiency and effectiveness.

I am aware that many countries have impact assessment processes that stand separately from the more traditional resource planning or spatial planning. They may also apply across a quite limited range of activities, more specifically, those assumed to have a substantial impact on the environment. Impact assessment and "planning" often address the common issues of environmental externalities. Moreover, they often provide similar opportunities for public involvement.

New Zealand, like some other countries, set up a separate process for environmental impact assessment in the early 1970's. While this process still has limited application, the environmental effects of almost all activities are subject to a single piece of planning legislation; the Resource management Act 1991. This Act provides an integrated approach planning and impact assessment. Some of you will have attended yesterday's workshop on the operation of this legislation.

I cannot claim our approach is perfect or even applicable to other jurisdictions. Nor is New Zealand the only country to recognise the direct connection between planning and impact assessment. But the principles that guide the Resource Management Act and its commitment to an integrated approach provide a model well worth examination. Whatever approach is adopted it is important to have the institutional or statutory basis for an effective and efficient assessment system.

Another dimension of integration is bring together the various tools that are available for the effective management of the environment. Impact assessment already encompasses, technology, biophysical, social and risk assessment. But there are tools such as the use of economic instruments and education that may not be included within the tool kit of impact assessors. Knowledge of these opportunities will assist your effectiveness.

I've raised a number of the challenges facing practitioners in the Impact Assessment field - truly you are dealing with shifting sands. I hope you will all find this conference stimulating and useful, that you will return home encouraged by what is going on world-wide and challenged to keep up.