HomeOpinion & AnalysisIncorporating climate change into EIA in Zim

Incorporating climate change into EIA in Zim

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Mitchell Mahachi
WITH the COP26 Glasgow speeches fresh in mind, especially the powerful one from Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, there could be no better time to bring in climate change-related topics for discussion.

The bone to chew this time is that much attention is placed on mitigation targets yet specific means to implement and achieve such mitigation targets seem to be less of a concern for global discussion.

There are rising calls, therefore, among environmental impact assessment (EIA) practitioners to use EIAs as a tool to support decisions either to adapt to or mitigate climate change.

History of EIA in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe initiated the system of EIA policy formulation in response to the Rio Local Agenda 21 Declaration (1992) which resulted in the Zimbabwe EIA policy document of 1994. In 1997, EIA guidelines were published and operationalised to guide EIA practitioners and stakeholders in the system of carrying out EIA studies. The EIA policy set out the parameters that needed to be followed by those who wanted to subject their development initiatives to the EIA policy.

Funding agents, donors as well as local banks then played a role in adoption of EIA practice by demanding compliance with EIA requirements before committing resources to projects. In 2003, the EIA policy was incorporated into the Environmental Management Act (Chapter 20.27).

However, EIA provisions of the Ema Act do not recognise climate change.

Some scholars are calling for more than just an environmentally-focused EIA but also a climate impact assessment to supplement our understanding of the overall environmental risks involved, and climate change-related costs and impacts.

Rationale for integrated consideration of climate change via the EIA procedures

In the face of climate change, EIA and strategic environmental assessment (SEA) are expected to translate global or national mitigation and adaptation targets to project and plan levels of decision-making.

By incorporating climate change concerns into the EIA procedures, it is expected that this will lead to an increase in the scientific understanding of climate-sensitive systems under changing climate conditions as well as helping to prioritise political and research efforts to particularly vulnerable sectors and regions.

This is particularly beneficial to poor countries with less resources to carry out research on climate change. Scholars argue that the absence of consistent consideration of climate issues could lead to poor environmental judgement in the age of climate change.

Key issues on mainstreaming climate change into EIA procedures

EIA procedures as we have become accustomed to, are designed to evaluate and prevent a significant impact of proposed actions on environment.

However, with regard to climate change, it means that we also examine a proposed action’s impact on GHG emissions such as increased emissions or sinks of GHG. Other climate change practitioners argue that the EIA procedures should also consider the impact of climate change on proposed actions.

Another topical issue in mainstreaming climate change to EIAs is how this may be achieved. Empirical study shows divergent practices. Canada and the EU have taken a holistic approach to incorporate both mitigation and adaptation into EIAs. Small Island Developing States have been on record to use EIA as a tool to adapt to climate change

This difference may be attributable to priority differences, as latter are known to be very vulnerable to climate change as highlighted by Mottley in her speech.

As highlighted before, countries like Zimbabwe have EIAs that are somewhat silent on climate change, but given the rapidly growing economy forecasted for the region, a lack of operable mechanisms to evaluate the impact of proposed actions on climate change will hinder the implementation of the country’s INDC and their progress evaluation under the Paris Agreement.

One key issue on mainstreaming climate change is the level at which climate change mitigation and adaptation can be better considered. Scholars point out that the EIA process is well developed to address specific activities.

However, they stress the need for strategic environmental assessments that address policies and mainstreaming climate change at that level.

There are several other factors that need to be considered when mainstreaming climate change into EIAs such as who determines whether to carry out a full climate change impact assessment or not. It is also critical to consider availability and reliability of necessary data and information crucial for proper integrated assessment. All this has a bearing on the quality of assessment reports.

Challenges to mainstreaming climate change and EIAs

Evidently mainstreaming climate change into the EIAs is not an easy task. As hinted to above, it entails a degree of scientific uncertainty that is unaccustomed to the existing environmental regulatory mechanisms. There are also disputes at times concerning methodologies, parameters, models and technologies applied for integrated assessment.

Less developed regions may lack the necessary finance and human resources or unbalanced distribution of limited resources further aggravate the prospect for integrated consideration. To add on, climate change assessments via the EIA procedures entails additional work compared to traditional EIAs. Given that EIA service is relatively young in regions like Zimbabwe, it may be safe to presume that provision of resources for inclusion of climate change is likely to be inefficient.

Learning from history

Today Munich airport is a very important centre for international travel handling over 47 million passengers annually. However, the airport built in 1980 lies on a drained peatland (wetland) which is capable of storing up to 30–700 tCO2/ha/m of peat depth and covers an area of around 1 500ha. In 2017, the airport used around 510 000 megawatt-hours of energy and emitted around 150 000 totonnes of carbon dioxide.

This would fuel an Airbus A320 airplane, fully occupied with 180 passengers, to fly around the Earth approximately 100 times! The airport has, however, come up with measures to be climate neutral by 2030 such as 60% reduction by technical means and 40% through offsetting by climate projects and has won a number of environmental awards.

The airport proposes to have a third runway constructed but this has faced stiff resistance from the public and environmental activists on concerns about climate change and biodiversity.

Regional perspective

South Africa our neighbours, recently published a notice inviting consultation on her intention to publish a national guideline for consideration of climate change implications in applications for environmental authorisations, atmospheric emission licences and waste management licences (the “guideline”).

The guideline has been published in response to recent case law, which suggests that climate change is a relevant consideration in certain environmental-related applications and decision-making processes.

The guideline suggests among many other criteria apply to a proposed development where the development will likely result in the release or absorption of GHG emissions and, therefore, exacerbate or mitigate climate change. The guideline seems to suggest that the choice to conduct the climate change assessment lies with the EIA practitioner which others may not agree with.

The implications for Zimbabwe

There is definitely a case for the mainstreaming of climate change into EIAs. While there may be debate on methodology, in principle most would agree to the need for this integration.

There is need to increase the number of people with skills and knowledge on climate change issues.

Zimbabwe may learn from other countries which have adopted or included climate change in development planning.

Zimbabwe could require projects with high emissions of CO2 to have climate change assessments while capacity is developed for other sectors.

Incidents such as the Munich airport may turn the country or concerned area from being a net sink of CO2 into being a source in a very short period.

Conclusions

One hopes that the introduction of climate change discourse into the EIA procedures can generate more momentum to achieving nationally-determined contributions as well as developing national capacity on climate change-related issues. The challenges to integrating climate change to EIAs are real but so is the cost of inaction.

Integrating climate change in EIA reports could be a game-changer in project development in Zimbabwe and an important mechanism to promote sustainable development.

  • Mitchell Mahachi is a masters student in climate change management at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences (HSWT) in Germany. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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