UNUnited Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Press Releases 1997


UN/ECE Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context comes into effect

16 September 1997

How would you feel if one day you woke up to discover that electricity board 'X' plans to build a nuclear power station at 20 kilometres from your home? Probably powerless just because it will be located across the border. But fear no more. Henceforth you'll be able to influence the turn of events -- thanks to a new international agreement prepared by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE).

"On 10 September 1997 a new international convention to stem environmental pollution, especially cross-border pollution, came into force," declared Kaj Bärlund, Director of the UN/ECE Environment and Human Settlements Division. "This Convention will help authorities make informed decisions and give ordinary people more say in what goes on 'in their backyard'." Prepared under the auspices of UN/ECE, the Convention was signed in 1991 and has now been ratified by 17 countries (Albania, Armenia, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Republic of Moldova, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) and the European Community.

What is environmental impact assessment: (EIA)?

EIA is a process that aims to gather information on the environmental and sometimes also social effects of, usually, a large-scale project, such as the construction of a factory, a road, or a dam. But it can be applied to policies, plans and programmes as well as to projects. Basically, it combines administrative and technical aspects and opens the way for public information and public participation. By providing information on the link between the project and the environment, EIA helps the authorities to take an informed decision on whether to allow a project to go ahead.

EIA is innovative in the sense that it focuses on the environmental consequences of a project and that it allows the public to obtain information and express their opinion, either in writing or at public hearings. EIA has not remained confined to a small band of individual countries. In fact, a body of experience in the use of EIA to promote good relations across European frontiers has been steadily building up in the past few years. With the entry into force of the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, EIA will now be applied on a still wider scale.

The Convention on EIA in a Transboundary Context

The Convention was adopted on 25 February 1991 and signed by 29 countries and the European Union. It is the first multilateral treaty of its kind, spelling out the rights and duties of each side when the environmental impact of an activity spills across a frontier, and providing procedures for considering the impact when decisions to allow a project are taken. The countries in transition to a market economy should find this Convention particularly useful, as it provides them an opportunity to develop economically without causing harm to their environment.

With transboundary EIA there are no losers

So what benefits can environmental impact assessment offer? It involves thinking through the consequences for land, air and water, and for the natural and the built environment, for all that makes up the existing habitat, of a new development. For the would-be developer, making such an assessment before acting allows consideration of several possible approaches, followed by the identification of the most environmentally favourable option at an early stage, and the selection of the best practicable environmental option (these will sometimes coincide, but not always). In this sense, EIA is a means of streamlining decision-taking, and of improving the quality of the information available to those who take the decisions. For a developer or an entrepreneur (the proponent, in the language of the Convention), EIA is an opportunity to minimize risks by maximizing the information available at the time when it is most useful -- before resources have been committed by decisions which may prove expensive or impossible to reverse. It is equally a chance to build in environmental improvements, and to point out the positive benefits which may follow from selecting the option indicated by the EIA. And the development may well be seen to have gained a legitimacy in the eyes of critics which it might not otherwise have had, because it will have emerged from a democratic process.

But EIA is valuable for other reasons as well, and to other players. Because it is based on the precautionary principle (acting only when you are sure you will be able to avoid or minimize damage to the environment), it is an important tool for policy makers who are working towards sustainable development, which satisfies the needs of this generation without compromising the prospects for our descendants. It is a preventative measure: once it is completed, it gives you an idea of the mitigation measures that will be needed, and allows you to implement them before they are needed. And because EIA treats the environment holistically, recognizing the interdependence of different sectors, it avoids the partial approach which sometimes fails to spot important connections.

EIA pays a democratic dividend too. Because more people are involved in reaching the development decisions that are taken, because it involves informing and seeking the opinions of disinterested experts, and of citizens, EIA is a way of giving people an opportunity to help to shape some of the developments that affect their daily lives. To that degree, it can be an antidote to the pervasive feelings of powerless to which so many people are tempted to succumb.

The environment certainly stands to gain from the introduction of the Convention. Given that virtually every human activity has some impact on the natural world, anything which considers that impact and tries to reduce it to the minimum must be a step forward. And the emphasis in the EIA process on the search for alternative ways of achieving the same goal means there is a much better prospect than under other approaches of finding the best way of reconciling social, economic and environmental imperatives.

"There is even a political dividend to be expected from the Convention," according to Kaj Bärlund. The growth in its use across national frontiers has coincided with a redrawing of the map of Europe. There are more independent countries in Europe today than there were half a century ago, and that means there are more national frontiers. EIA is a legal instrument which allows the promotion of active, direct and action-linked international cooperation, and the UN/ECE Convention is a vehicle for achieving that at regional level. "It can slow or even halt the growing potential for cross-frontier environmental problems. And the experience gained, and the trust generated, by the successful application of EIA in resolving these problems offers the prospect of an improving climate of international relations in other spheres as well."