Journey of Environmental Assessment towards Sustainability Appraisal


(A longish post – but could be of help to students and young professionals)

Environmental assessment (EA) as a concept came about due to the thinking of “precautionary principle” and “do no harm” to the environment.

Box -1 The Precautionary Principle[1]

The precautionary principle (or precautionary approach) to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action that may or may not be a risk.

The principle is used by policy makers to justify discretionary decisions in situations where there is the possibility of harm from making a certain decision (e.g. taking a particular course of action) when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

EA was conceived as a proactive  tool to ensure that the projects in their construction and operational activities produced least negative impacts possible and that the residual impacts were communicated to the stakeholders and mitigated by appropriate environmental management plans.

The first country which promulgated a legislation on EA on a national scale was the United States of America.  The National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) laid the foundation of the EA process requiring certain projects to undergo an environmental examination.  The criteria for such projects was based on project type, project size and project location.  The NEPA also stated the reporting requirements for obtaining approval of the responsible administrative body.

Box – 2 The National Environmental Protection Act of the United States[2]

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a United States environmental law that promotes the enhancement of the environment and established the President’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The law was enacted on January 1, 1970. As the bill was an early step towards the development of the United States’s environmental policy, NEPA is referred to as the “environmental Magna Carta”.

NEPA’s most significant outcome was the requirement that all executive federal agencies prepare Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). These reports state the potential environmental effects of proposed federal agency actions.

NEPA grew out of the increased appreciation and concern for the environment that resulted from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. During this time, environmental interest group efforts and the movement resulting from Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, helped to pass the Wilderness, Clean Air, and Clean Water Acts. Another major driver for enacting NEPA were the 1960s freeway revolts, a series of protests that occurred in response to the bulldozing of many communities and ecosystems during the construction of the Interstate Highway System.

Since its passage, NEPA has been applied to any major project, whether on a federal, state, or local level, that involves federal funding, work performed by the federal government, or permits issued by a federal agency. Court decisions have expanded the requirement for NEPA-related environmental studies to include actions where permits issued by a federal agency are required regardless of whether federal funds are spent to implement the action. This legal interpretation is based on the rationale that obtaining a permit from a federal agency inherently results in federal funds being expended, even if no federal funds are directly allocated to finance the particular action.

The initiation of NEPA in the US led to ripples in other countries notably in Canada, Australia, Netherlands and the United Kingdom.  Each of these countries, based on experience in the US and priorities and context of their own countries came up with EA related policies and legislation.  Soon the requirements of EA were followed by developing countries especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Outcomes of the EA were linked to the Environmental Clearance (EC). Since EA was performed by the developer in the interest of EC, the quality of assessment was generally poor and biased and the situation has not changed even today.

Most countries followed the criteria of project screening based on project type, size and location. Only certain type of projects required EIA and most did not e.g. schools, parks, renewable energy projects like solar, wind and even metros (!) on the argument that these projects are intrinsically environment friendly. Projects required more deeper or rigorous examination if the project was proximal to a sensitive location such as a reserved forest or a sanctuary or a turtle breeding ground. Many countries therefore delineated environmentally critical or sensitive zones and the buffer distances that should be maintained. Depending on the sensitivity and complexity of the project, EA was conducted at two levels – Rapid EA or Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) or Comprehensive EA. The call on the appropriate level of EA was often subjective and every project developer or investor (i.e. the Consultant) argued the case for an IEE instead of a Comprehensive EA to save on costs and time.

Deciding the threshold on project size is however a complex exercise and rather subjective matter. In Hawaii for example, hotels having less than 100 rooms were not required to perform EA. Consequently, after the legislation, most hotels were built with 99 rooms.  Thresholds on requirement of EA have always been  abused. Recently responding to the severe air pollution in Delhi, the Supreme Court of India directed a ban on diesel-guzzling luxury cars and SUVs with engine capacity of 2000 cc. Mahindra’s came up with a new vehicle fitted with a 1990 cc engine!  Do you think 10 cc reduction in the engine capacity will solve Delhi’s problem of air pollution!!

In India, environmental assessment was made mandatory under Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 1994 under the EPA. Since 1994, the notification has been amended several times (and you can simply lose the track) to bring in (apparently) more clarify, improve implementation and address any specific issues or lacunae.  The notification follows a schedule that presents project types and thresholds. There are siting rules and zones and buffer distances notified. There is a scheme of categorization that directs whether the EA will need to be submitted for review and EC at the Centre or at the State. Everybody looks for a State level clearance that believed to be easier to manage.

In the last three decades, and especially so in India, EA has been followed on project level and the instrument is primarily used to identify mitigation plans prior to the EC. Experience has shown that limiting EA to projects alone is not going to help in the interest of sustainability, and  consideration will need to be given to regional level impacts where multiple project contribute to impacts cumulatively. In other words, EC must look at regional situation and development scenarios to recognize the indirect/induced and cumulative impacts and  ensure that the carrying capacity of the region is not unduly exceeded.

Many countries have therefore enhanced their EA legislation to address requirements of regional and cumulative EAs especially when dealing with area wide development projects. Examples are industrial estates, network of transport corridors, urban and peri-urban developments etc.  Here, apart from mitigation plans,  the regulator thinks about planning as well as policy measures. This led to extension of EA to Strategic EIA.   SEA is practiced in most developed countries today by law including in countries like China.

Box – 3 Strategic Environmental Assessment[3]

Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is a systematic decision support process, aiming to ensure that environmental and possibly other sustainability aspects are considered effectively in policy, plan and programme making. In this context, SEA may be seen as:

·       a structured, rigorous, participative, open and transparent environmental impact assessment (EIA) based process, applied particularly to plans and programmes, prepared by public planning authorities and at times private bodies,

·       a participative, open and transparent, possibly non-EIA-based process, applied in a more flexible manner to policies, prepared by public planning authorities and at times private bodies, or

·       a flexible non-EIA based process, applied to legislative proposals and other policies, plans and programmes in political/cabinet decision-making.

Effective SEA works within a structured and tiered decision framework, aiming to support more effective and efficient decision-making for sustainable development and improved governance by providing for a substantive focus regarding questions, issues and alternatives to be considered in policy, plan and programme (PPP) making.

At a sector level, SEA has been applied. But in most instances, these requirements have been promoted or rather “forced upon” by the Development Financing Institutions. In fact, it may not be wrong to state that agencies like the World Bank, International Financing Corporation (IFC) and the Asian Development Bank have significantly influenced the national EA systems across the world. As early as in 1992, Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) undertook Sector Environmental Assessment of Mumbai’s Transport Plan. This study was insisted by the World Bank. I had an opportunity to work on this assignment where we looked at road, sea and rail alternatives.

Again at the insistence of the World Bank, in 1996, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India conducted Sectoral Environmental Assessment of the proposed Hazardous Waste Management Project. The focus of Sectoral Environmental Assessment was generation and analyses of alternatives to identify the most preferred option that would do a justice to environmental and social considerations. The project outlay was USD 300 million and I was asked to prepare the Sectoral Assessment report that included five public consultations across the country. This was one of the first such reports produced by the World Bank on SEA.

Another variant that emerged in this process was the programmatic EA which looked at a project from the perspective of up scaling and replication and beyond the specific project.  While the project by itself may not require EA or an Environmental Clearance (EC), the same project when replicated or up scaled had potential to cause adverse impacts on a regional scale.  The technique of programmatic EA brought out idea of developing mitigation plans in the form of best practices. These best practices got then embedded in the very project design. A project of 500 bus stands was proposed in 1999 in the State of Punjab. The bus stand as an individual project did not require an EA or EC. However the design, layout and siting of the bus stand was looked from environmental and social perspectives and a “model” project configuration was arrived at – that met with environmental and social expectations. This design was then replicated all over the State. This work was carried out jointly by IL&FS Ltd and the World Bank and I had an opportunity to lead the Team. In the Philippines today, a blend of programmatic and SEA is conducted for certain area-wide projects but it is not officially approved in the President’s decree.

EA thus reached a hierarchical structure in the form of a “pyramid” where policy or Strategic EA gave the overall direction and laid down the principles, followed by regional/programmatic and cumulative EAs with the base as the Project EAs. This led to Environmental and Social Management Frameworks (ESPF) that were recommended and adopted by the borrowing financial institutions (Category Financing Intermediary or FI of the World Bank or ADB). ESPFs were also used by cities and regions to ensure that environmental and social considerations were mainstreamed in policies, plans, programs and projects or the 4Ps. In India ESPFs are operated by organizations such as IL&FS Ltd, IDFC, PowerGrid, SIDBI etc. I often call these examples as “islands of excellence”.


(Limitation of Project-Limited EAs)

EIA and Development Effectiveness

(ESMF and Development Effectiveness)

By end of 2000, I would estimate that almost 50,000 EAs would have been produced across the World. There were two important elements that needed to come in – EA review criteria and Effectiveness of EA through “auditing” mechanism. In the mid 1995, Norman Lee and Chris Wood from the Manchester University developed criteria for EA review. Very few post-audits were however carried out – few in Australia but not on a global scale. This task was undertaken by Barry Saddler with the support of International Association of Impact Assessment (IAIA). My good old friends L Panneerselvam (now retired), Sonia Kapoor (now at ADB), colleague Radha Gopalan and I did a detailed study of 14 Bank supported projects in India and came out with a publication. Do download this report from

Many of the observations made in this report are still valid today.

As it was realized that there cannot be siloed approach in management of environmental and social issues, a specialized discipline of Social Impact Assessment (SIA) emerged.  Social development specialists, especially from the Universities (dominated by experts from North Americas and Canada) took the lead and started working on the methodology for SIA as a complement to EA. Ideally, both processes should be integrated, especially during scoping, analyses of alternatives and public consultation but due to different procedural requirements and different processing departments (what a pity!), we often see separately prepared reports on EA and SIA.  Despite the importance of integration, even now such a practice has remained, giving a rather piece meal or sliced approach to deal with management of environmental and social issues.  Again in SIA, emphasis is primarily given to the issues related to resettlement and rehabilitation rather than on the induced social impacts. In general there is simply a non-availability or lack of an “integrated expertise”

Very close to SIA is the area of Health Impact Assessment.  This dimension to EA got added when impacts were visualized on regional scale considering both environmental and social parameters over a long term.  Impact on health was considered as a result of both direct and induced/indirect impacts with complex relationships between pollution release, contamination of resources and their consumption leading to phenomenon such as bio-accumulation.  Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is today not a separate mandatory requirement but is an aspect to be factored in the EA or SIA for certain types of projects.

Consideration about health impacts led to realization that understanding of impacts is rather complex and there are several uncertainties about the assessment. This led to the discipline of Environmental Risk Assessment (ERA) focusing on the nexus between health and the eco-systems.

I had the fortune to work with Dr Richard Carpenter who was one of the major players in the drafting the NEPA. Richard was a chemist by training and a pioneering expert on environmental indicators and risk assessment. He worked for long with the Program on Environment at the East-West Center in Hawaii, and later at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, the United States. His publications on Environmental Risk Assessment are must to read. Do check out the PDF I have attached  below on Risk Assessment . I still recall long dinners with Richard (Dick) on EA at the Peace Hotel in Shanghai near the harbor, years ago.

Richard_Carpenter_RISK ASSESSMENT

The next logical step after ERA was to focus on biodiversity. Biodiversity Impact Assessment is today a field by itself where the EA process is followed and adapted e.g. Environmental Management Plan becomes Biodiversity Protection and Conservation Plan .

Given the expanse of EA from project level to policy and planning levels, integration with social development, health and safety related aspects, the next logical step was to wrap all these perspectives into one crucible i.e.  Sustainability.

Sustainability framework was thus the major extension of EA in the last decade. The idea was not just management of risks but to identify and leverage opportunities while staying within the “limits of growth”.  Sustainability integration or sustainability based appraisal provided EA a new dimension and a role beyond permitting or EC. The Sustainability Appraisal (SA) essentially integrated economic, environmental and social considerations. Integrated Assessment (IA) is synonymous to Sustainability Appraisal.

Box – 4  Integrated Assessment[4] 

Integrated Assessment (IA) brings together natural, social, and economic information to assist analysis of policy options for decision makers. The IA process also brings together scientists, policy makers, citizens, NGO, and industry representatives to evaluate options for particularly challenging – or wicked – problems. Since IA builds partnerships and a framework to share knowledge, problems that have both arguable definitions and solutions are best suited to this process.

IAs vary widely depending on the geographic scope, budget, type of issue, and range of decision makers. The following are useful IA steps that ensure the process is both relevant to participants and factually credible:

1) define the policy-relevant question,
2) document status and trends,
3) describe the causes and consequences of those trends,
4) identify desired outcomes and policy options,
5) evaluate the likely environmental, social, and economic outcomes of each option,
6) provide technical guidance for implementation
7) assess uncertainty[5].

These elements are best seen as a flexible framework – different stages might be emphasized depending on the policy context and the scientific and public understanding of the issue.

Integrated Assessment can appear to be overly complex with vague outcomes. However, because sustainability problems often lack a clear cause or solution, the IA process offers an innovative way to build consensus and guide decisions for these pressing and unique challenges. It is also important to acknowledge that there are both tangible and intangible benefits associated with IA. The goal of this study is to communicate both sets of benefits.

Sustainability based EA or Integrated Appraisal is therefore the recent avatara of EA.  It has been widely practiced for planning local area development in the United Kingdom and has been made mandatory that such appraisals are carried out every year and reported.  Few private sector equity investors have also evolved sustainability appraisal frameworks. Some of the DFIs such as World Bank, IFC, and DFID have already set up sustainability based / driven environmental and social assessment requirements.

More recently, the dimension of climate change has been added. In specific, Asian Development Bank (ADB) has come up with climate proofing and its integration in the environmental assessment with several sectoral guidelines.

After years of experience in the application of EA, several “templated” environmental management plans have emerged. These plans are essentially a repository of good practices and have influenced project design and project management practices. These best practices have been now mainstreamed and are implemented upfront without a push from legislation.  In the Kingdom of Bhutan, roads are built how they should be and not a result or consequence of EA.


(Road construction in Bhutan)

We must remember that EA is essentially a generic tool that links activities with environmental components.  It therefore has a place in the establishment of Environmental Management System (EMS) of ISO 14001.  In these systems, EA is used to analyse project activities, associated aspects and their influence on the environmental component so as to check whether the impacts are in compliance or whether they pose a threat or risk to human health and eco-systems.

As the understanding on the environmental impacts of making, packaging, distributing and servicing products increased, the tool of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) emerged.  LCA uses the core principles of EA to predict, assess and manage the adverse impacts, influencing thereby the product design, material sourcing and product use and management of rejects/residues. EA thus provides a generic framework to address manufacturing systems and services following once again the precautionary and “do no harm” principles. This “power” of EA is not recognized by most as the understanding of EA is limited simply to obtain Environmental Clearance.

It often surprises me that in India, EA has been a pretty neglected subject at the Ministries and State Environment Departments. The Indian EA system has remained outdated and has not responded to the needs of required “modernization”. The community of EA professionals is weak, largely engaged in unethical practices and the project proponents and investors are still ignorant about the advantages of EA. I prepared for MoEF, at the behest of the World Bank, a Project Implementation Plan (PIP) for improving the EA regime in India. V. Rajagopalan was then the Joint Secretary then who later became Chairman of Central Pollution Control Board and finally Secretary to the MoEF.

Many of my suggestions in the PIP got reflected in the 2006 Notification – however  points made on SEA, Regional EA and Cumulative Assessment were shelved. My proposal to set up a National Environmental Information Centre (EIC) was looked at favorably and was supported using grants from the World Bank- but once again due to bureaucratic reasons, the EIC project was aborted after a year of piloting.

I recall in 2011 I made a sincere effort to set up a 12 institution EIA Training and Knowledge network (EtCON) and came up with a very detailed plan for delivering nationwide training based on a network of institutions approach. I did this work with the support of the World Bank and it was ironical that the very World Bank delayed and finally shelved this project because of their internal politics and found awkward to “fit me in”.

I like Dick  Carpenter’s definition of E I A as Early, Integrated and Always. In India none of these three letters are understood, appreciated and followed.

Only God can save this country.


Cover image taken from







  1. Well written article and very informative in the way you have linked the progression of the practice of assessment. I fully agree that the practice in this country is weak and has been further diluted by unethical short term bottom fishing approach

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