What are environmental assessments?
Environmental assessments are important environmental protection tools. By involving authorities and citizens and incorporating environmental reports, the potential environmental impacts of a planned project can be identified at an early stage and taken into consideration during the decision-making process. To this end there are various instruments, for example the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and the strategic environmental assessment (SEA).
The goal of carrying out environmental assessments is to protect human health and the natural environment from the foreseeable, harmful effects of planned industrial facilities and infrastructure measures. In addition, by creating transparency and involving the public in decision-making processes, environmental assessments also help to gain wider acceptance for the project in question. Another goal is to give applicants and authorities planning security with regard to the project.
Germany fulfils European and international requirements with regard to environmental assessments when it comes to decisions concerning permits for industrial facilities and infrastructure measures and to planning decisions concerning plans and programmes relating to the environment. Germany thus satisfies the criteria of the Aarhus Convention for modern environmental policy.
Environmental impact assessment (EIA)
An environmental impact assessment (EIA) determines and describes in a report what impact a project will have on humans (including human health), on animals, plants, biodiversity, soil, water, ambient air, the climate, the landscape and cultural goods. The public and specialist authorities, as well as citizens and authorities in neighbouring countries that may be affected, may express comments and opinions on the report. The authority responsible for approving a project is tasked with evaluating the information and comments and with taking account of the results of the EIA when deciding whether to approve a project.
Regulations governing the EIA are set out in the Act on the Assessment of Environmental Impacts (Gesetz über die Umweltverträglichkeitsprüfung – UVPG).
Strategic environmental assessment (SEA)
The strategic environmental assessment (SEA) complements the EIA. The difference between the two is that an SEA is carried out at an earlier stage than an EIA. While an EIA is not carried out until an environmentally relevant project enters the approval process, an SEA is carried out at the planning stage because important decisions relating to the environment often have to be taken in the context of preparatory plans and programmes.
An SEA must be carried out for each important planning procedure that is of relevance to the environment, for example federal transport infrastructure planning, regional and area development planning, or planning in the fields of water and waste management, air quality management and noise protection. The key element in the SEA is the environmental report, which details and evaluates the anticipated environmental impacts of the plan or programme as well as sensible planning alternatives. Environmental authorities and the public must also be involved. After concluding the process the competent authority must describe how it took account of the environmental report and the comments and opinions submitted when taking its decision, and why a specific plan has been chosen after weighing it up against the other assessed alternatives. On account of the close connection between SEAs and EIAs, the Act on the Assessment of Environmental Impacts also contains provisions governing SEAs.
Guidelines on EIAs and SEAs
Experts at federal and Länder level have compiled non-binding guidelines on carrying out environmental assessments. These guidelines contain information concerning the application and interpretation of the new EIA regulations, the strategic environmental assessment procedures and the screening (case-by-case examination) required when determining whether an EIA must be carried out for a specific project.
Public Participation Directive
The EU Directive providing for public participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programmes relating to the environment of 26 May 2003 (Public Participation Directive) was transposed into national law by means of the Public Participation Act and the Environmental Appeals Act which both entered into force on 15 December 2006. Germany thus satisfies the criteria laid down in the Aarhus Convention.
European and international regulations
European Union directives
European legislation sets out basic requirements regarding environmental impact assessments (EIA) and strategic environmental assessments (SEA) at national level. For example, the EIA Directive stipulates the individual steps that EU Member States must take when carrying out an EIA as well as the types of projects. According to the SEA Directive, by contrast, certain plans and programmes must undergo a strategic environmental assessment prior to their issue. The SEA Directive also contains requirements regarding individual procedural steps. Germany has transposed these regulations into national law by means of its Act on the Assessment of Environmental Impacts.
Espoo Convention on Transboundary EIAs
Germany is a party to the 1991 Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (also known as the Espoo Convention), as well as to its two subsequent amendments. According to this Convention, the authorities and the public in other possibly affected neighbouring countries must be involved as part of a transboundary EIA before a project is approved, if the project can have transboundary environmental impacts. Germany implemented the requirements set out in the Espoo Convention with its Act on the Assessment of Environmental Impacts. Germany applies the participation procedure vis-à-vis all its neighbours. To facilitate practical application, concrete agreements have been signed – for instance with the Netherlands, France, Switzerland and Poland. The national Espoo contact points are listed on the Espoo Secretariat’s website.
UN Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessments
There is also an international protocol that obligates its parties to carry out a strategic environmental assessment: Germany is a party to the UNECE Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA Protocol) of May 2003. According to this Protocol, the parties must carry out a strategic environmental assessment for certain plans and programmes. In Germany this international agreement has been transposed into national law, for example by the Act on the Assessment of Environmental Impacts.
Whether it is a bypass around the village or an industrial enterprise on a lush meadow next door – the tool of environmental assessment introduced in the Aarhus Convention gives citizens the opportunity to inform themselves at an early stage about projects relating to the environment or upstream planning decisions in their vicinity, to express comments and opinions on them, and to influence the decision-making process. This involvement not only gives the public the opportunity to get involved in shaping the environment and the quality of life in their "own backyard", it also represents a call to action: Environmental assessments help the respective projects or plans to gain wider acceptance and help to avoid possible conflicts at an early stage. Responsible citizens, environmental awareness and environmental information provided by administrations and the project management constitute a three-pronged approach for environmental protection.