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The role of Strategic Environmental Assessment in greening economies

Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) can be instrumental in the transition towards the green economy. This was the key message delivered by three European environment ministers, UNECE, the European Commission, the Netherlands Commission on Environmental Assessment and civil society representatives on 9 June at a side event to the 8th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Batumi.

The side event gathered some 70 participants from various countries, international organizations' and international financial institutions. Rob Verheem Director of the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment skilfully facilitated the event highlighting the roles of SEA as an efficient tool for mainstreaming environmental considerations into the economic development of various sectors. He provided an SEA example for the Dutch Governmental Programme “Room for the River” that focused on protecting millions of inhabitants of the Rhine River basin from rising water levels related to climate change. In this case, the SEA helped to identify alternatives for approximately 30 sites and to select the most suitable ones based on carefully assessed pros and cons. It also ensured public trust in decision-making and helped obtain public support for future projects, particularly in areas where inhabitants were to be relocated. He also noted that SEA is a very efficient tool that is used by international financial institutions, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Gigla Agulashvili, Georgian Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management, and Valeriu Munteanu, Minister of the environment of the Republic of Moldova, both stressed the importance of establishing national SEA systems that are coherent with international standards such as the UNECE Protocol on SEA and the EU SEA Directive. They presented the progress made by their countries in setting up SEA legislative frameworks and thanked the UNECE and the EU commission for supporting their efforts through the programme ‘Greening Economies in the Eastern Neighborhood (EaPGREEN)’. 

Sharon Dijksma, Minister of the environment of the Netherlands, stressed that SEA is a powerful tool to green the economy that ensures social acceptance and makes plans and projects transparent and bankable. In this she underlined the value of having the NCEA as independent quality reviewer. She stressed the importance of international cooperation in this matter and the role that the UNECE Protocol can play in fostering SEA in the pan-European region and beyond. She further emphasized the importance of the Environment for Europe process as a unique pan-European platform for policy dialogue and joint progress towards sustainable development.

UNECE Executive Secretary Christian Friis Bach emphasized the advantages of harmonized SEA procedures as provided by the UNECE Protocol. The duly carried out SEA procedure for a national development strategy, for instance, gives confidence to potential investors that there will be no opposition in the future by authorities or the public – within or outside the country. This means, that investments will not be delayed and irreversible environmental damages will be prevented.

In his concluding remarks, the co-facilitator and speaker, George Kremlis, Head of the "Cohesion Policy and Environmental Impact Assessments" Unit in the Directorate-General for the Environment of the European Commission, and  Chair of the Bureau of the UNECE Protocol on SEA, highlighted the urgency for the EaP countries to adopt national SEA legislation and ratify the SEA Protocol. He stressed that establishing the national legislative framework is the first step in the right direction and that countries then need to incorporate SEA into daily planning initiatives. Mr Kremlis assured the participants that the EU Commission in Cooperation with the UNECE stands ready to provide further support to create human capital in SEA application and provide capacity building which will boost the implementation of SEAs and improve their quality.

Finally, Mr. Kremlis invited the Ministers and the participants to take part in the next Meeting of the Parties to the Espoo Convention and its Protocol on SEA that is scheduled to take place in Minsk (Belarus) from 13 to 16 June 2017.

The side event was organised by the Netherlands Commission on Environmental Assessment, the Ministry of the environment of the Netherlands, the of Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management of Georgia and the UNECE with the support from the EU funded EaP GREEN programme.