Ecologists at the 2019 IAIA Conference

The 2019 IAIA Conference in Brisbane asked "Evolution or Revolution: What's next for Impact Assessment?" Boffa Miskell ecologists attended and presented at this international symposium.

Environmental assessment (EA) is the appraisal of the environmental consequences — positive and negative — of a plan, policy, or project prior to the decision to move forward with the proposed action.

Most of Boffa Miskell’s work in landscape and urban design, planning, and landscape planning, has some measure of environmental impact; and these impact assessments (IA) are among the primary activities of Boffa Miskell ecology consultants.

Sarah Flynn and Ian Boothroyd  joined with other practitioners at the IAIA (International Association for Impact Assessment) conference in Brisbane to ask whether there are ways for impact assessment to be more effectively used in decision-making, or if a revolutionary remake of the IA approach is required.

“We were particularly interested in hearing the new updated Environmental and Social Framework for IA that has been launched by the World Bank,” says Ian. “Extensive consultation over five years has led to the revised framework with the most radical change occurring in social impact criteria. For example, the loss of ecosystem services is now included as a social impact and not just an environmental matter.”

Ian was part of the panel debate: Is Impact Assessment a blunt tool for Biodiversity? Yes or No?

The debate between Ian and environmental advisor Juan Quintero considered that although Impact Assessment is widely promoted as a tool to safeguard biodiversity, much of the world’s biodiversity continues to slide towards extinction, and whether IA is a good tool for safeguarding biodiversity or not; and if not, how it needs to change.

Ian argued that Biodiversity IA is a sharp tool with inadequate scope and management of development projects; while Juan argued that Biodiversity IA is a blunt tool in an Impact assessment process. The debate was entertaining and informative, and in a break from formal debate format, the audience was invited to join in. The vote was taken by participants choosing a Yes or No side of the room to sit. Juan narrowly won the debate, but it was agreed that IA in general is not a static tool and requires continuous improvement in line with changes in societal values.

Sarah and Ian jointly presented “Biodiversity Offsets using Whole of Landscape Management” as part of a session Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Are offsets the panacea?

The session focused on the pros and cons of offsets and raised issues with their application and their success. Sarah’s contribution touched on some evident issues that led to some debate during the discussion period. Offsets are still finding their feet in New Zealand and the conference has provided many insights into how offsets are used internationally.

Sarah says, “It is refreshing to know that language and teething issues with biodiversity offsets and compensatory mechanisms that we find in New Zealand reflect those of the international sector. Clearly there are still challenges ahead regarding how we approach environmental outcomes and the application of the mitigation hierarchy and offsets in New Zealand.”

IA in New Zealand: Lessons and Strategies to Enhance Practice was the subject of another discussion examining what can be learned from IA practice at project and strategic level to improve future practice, given the increasing pressure on the New Zealand environment

Ian talked to areas of contention in ecological impact assessment such as the language of mitigation, the focus on transactional outcomes vs environmental outcomes, the use and shortcomings of New Zealand’s approach to adaptive management and the emerging use of biodiversity offsets.

Ian says, “Biodiversity offsets are emerging as an important biodiversity management tool in New Zealand.  But although offsets are a well-established mechanism internationally, there is still much debate and controversy of their use, and on the need and the nature of the ‘currency’ for offsets, with a recognition that metrics of measurement need to be simple enough to understand but must reflect the complexity of the ecosystem – which is almost counter-intuitive. It turns out that the New Zealand experience is little different from the issues internationally on the use and application of offsets.”

The four-day event attracted IA practioners, including ecologists — academics, government and NGO representatives and consultants — from around the world.

Discussions and Q & A sessions after each presentation reflected the broad international spread of the audience, Sarah says.

“It’s a real opportunity to learn from each other, and recognise the common challenges we all face. It was good to see that New Zealand is seen as a leading light in natural resource management — although as professionals, we acknowledge that there will always be the need and desire to improve our practice.”

The overall theme of the conference was Impact Assessment: Evolution or Revolution? and final plenary of the conference saw eight young practioners give their view on the way forward, before a vote was taken in the audience usinthe conference app. The result showed that a gradual and incremental improvement in IA practice through ‘evolution’ was narrowly favoured over a more abrupt ‘revolutionary’ change.

Ian says that amongst the New Zealanders present, after reflecting on the ‘Evolution vs Revolution’ question, the group came to the conclusion that New Zealand had its ‘revolution’ with the introduction of the Resource Management Act in 1991, which is still regarded as a leading light of legislation internationally; and that we are continuing to improve our practice through gradual ‘evolution’.

He added, “Whether these changes can keep up with the rapidly developing world is a question that all of us might want to consider…”

For further information please contact Ian Boothroyd or Sarah Flynn

14 May 2019