Ethny Childs
March 2021

EIA for better design: Moving beyond mitigation

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is an integral part of planning and development, and EIA professionals hold a unique position for influencing stakeholders involved in developments and promoting sustainable outcomes. However, EIA professionals can be constrained by client expectations, conflicting stakeholder views, and rigid project plans. 

EIA professionals have the difficult task of straddling the often-conflicting worlds of fulfilling the client's wishes, whilst advocating for the strongest environmental outcomes and promoting the ‘public good’.

One way in which EIA professionals can navigate this difficult terrain is through greater involvement in the design process of a project; this helps to incorporate built-in measures for positive environmental outcomes rather than bolt-on mitigation measures added later in the project cycle. 

The question is then, how can EIA be used as a tool to influence the design of a project? And, specifically, at what EIA stage and by-what-means can EIA professionals have the most scope to influence design? 

These questions were explored at the recent EIA Community Debate.  

Collaboration drives iterative design 

The debate was informed by a case study from Jeff Turner and Nigel Cossons from Ramboll outlining a project in which EIA professionals shaped the design of a project. The key takeaway was the need for a multidisciplinary collaborative approach to developments – one that has buy-in from all key stakeholders. Key to developing this collaborative approach is early engagement with the design team, allowing for a balanced approach to project design in terms of engineering feasibility, stakeholder acceptability and environmental sustainability. It is only through multidisciplinary working that a truly iterative approach to design can be achieved. 

A key question that came out of the presentation was who should lead or coordinate projects to facilitate a collaborative approach to iterative design? Should this be the environmental team, the engineers, or perhaps even the contractor? 

At what stages can EIA professionals influence design? 

Discussion moved to the various stages at which EIA professionals can influence design and what the barriers to this might be. The following stages were discussed: 

  • Feasibility 
  • Options appraisal 
  • Environmental Statement 

Eleni Antoniades, Project Environmental Lead at Eleni Antoniades Environmental Ltd, provided context for the discussion and highlighted the importance of EIA professionals engaging with design teams at the earlier stages of EIAs, as these are the stages in which there is greater scope for EIA professionals to influence the design and ensure that environmental concerns are given equal weighting with engineering and financing concerns. 

The feasibility stage therefore provides a good opportunity for EIA professionals to avoid adverse environmental impacts and ensure design teams have a good understanding of risk as they move further into the development process. The options appraisal stage was identified as an essential tool and there was consensus that it should be utilised more often. It was mentioned that there could be a conflict in how options are assessed, with engineers typically preferring criteria systems whereas environmental professionals prefer RAG (red. amber, green) systems – allowing for dealing in “different shades of green”.

Finally, the group discussing Environmental Statements highlighted that the different levels of involvement of EIA professionals in design was dependent on whether an EIA is required or not. If required, it was thought that EIA professionals should lead the iterative design process. 

Many EIA professionals are now dealing with designing schemes to parameters rather than detailed design. This allows for in-built flexibility that ensures future options are not precluded provided they fit within the set parameters; congruent with iterative design of projects. 

A vital part of ensuring EIA professionals have more influence in the design process is to communicate clearly to design teams the value that can be added by involving EIA professionals, beyond risk management. This will also allow design teams to move beyond mitigation and consider enhancements, such as increased biodiversity net gain and carbon sequestration.  

Next steps 

Guided by these discussions we will be looking at how we can support EIA professionals to overcome some of the barriers to influencing the design process, and will be exploring how we can connect with engineering institutions and professionals to promote multidisciplinary collaborative working and subsequently move towards genuinely iterative design of projects.  

We will also work to highlight best practice case studies which illustrate the value that can be added by involving EIA professionals at the early design stages and will explore ways we can support EIA professionals in engaging with stakeholders and maximising their ability to influence design at key stages of EIAs. In particular, we will further explore the potential for digital EIA to support this process. 

Only through breaking down these barriers to collaborative working will we be able to move away from EIAs as a risk management tool and instead integrate them within the entire design of a project, ensuring positive environmental and social outcomes.