The Insignificance of Thresholds in Environmental Impact Assessment: An Illustrative Case Study in Canada

  • Cathryn Clarke Murray
  • Janson Wong
  • Gerald G. Singh
  • Megan Mach
  • Jackie Lerner
  • Bernardo Ranieri
  • Guillaume Peterson St-Laurent
  • Alice Guimaraes
  • Kai M. A. Chan
Article

Abstract

Environmental assessment is the process that decision-makers rely on to predict, evaluate, and prevent biophysical, social, and economic impacts of potential project developments. The determination of significance in environmental assessment is central to environmental management in many nations. We reviewed ten recent environmental impact assessments from British Columbia, Canada and systematically reviewed and scored significance determination and the approaches used by assessors, the use of thresholds in significance determination, threshold exceedances, and the outcomes. Findings of significant impacts were exceedingly rare and practitioners used a combination of significance determination approaches, most commonly relying upon reasoned argumentation. Quantitative thresholds were rarely employed, with less than 10% of the valued components evaluated using thresholds. Even where quantitative thresholds for significance were exceeded, in every case practitioners used a variety of rationales to demote negative impacts to non-significance. These reasons include combinations of scale (temporal and spatial) of impacts, an already exceeded baseline, model uncertainty and/or substituting less stringent thresholds. Governments and agencies can better protect resources by requiring clear and defensible significance determinations, by making government-defined thresholds legally enforceable and accountable, and by requiring or encouraging significance determination through inclusive and collaborative approaches.

Keywords

Environmental assessment Environmental impact assessment Significance Thresholds Significance determination 

Notes

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank Linda Nowlan and James Casey for useful discussions and two anonymous reviewers for their help improving the manuscript. This research was supported in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through a grant to WWF-Canada [#2229.01] to support JW and CCM and an NSERC Discovery grant to KC. BDR was supported by a scholarship from the Science Without Borders Program, Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Nível Pessoa, Brazil (CAPES). The funders had no role in the design of the study. Statement of responsibilities: GS, CCM, JL, MM, BR and GP designed the global project; JW and CCM designed the BC case study; AG, BR, CCM, GP, GS, GY, JL, JW, and MM collected data; GS, CCM and JW analysed data; CCM and JW led and all authors contributed to writing and editing the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cathryn Clarke Murray
    • 1
    • 2
    • 5
  • Janson Wong
    • 2
    • 3
  • Gerald G. Singh
    • 1
  • Megan Mach
    • 4
  • Jackie Lerner
    • 1
  • Bernardo Ranieri
    • 1
  • Guillaume Peterson St-Laurent
    • 1
  • Alice Guimaraes
    • 1
  • Kai M. A. Chan
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute for Resources, Environment and SustainabilityUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.WWF-CanadaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.Forest Sciences CentreUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  4. 4.Center for Ocean SolutionsMontereyUSA
  5. 5.Fisheries and Oceans CanadaSidneyCanada

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