I was pleased to be present for my first in-person conference since the COVID pandemic at the 2022 annual conference of the International Association of Impact Asssesment (IAIA) held in Vancouver, British Columbia, 4-7 May 2022. This conference was jointly hosted by the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office, and the Salish Nations Xʷməθkʷəy̓ əm (Musqueam), Skwxú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) on whose unceded territory Greater Vancouver sits. The theme of the conference was “Confidence in Impact Assessments: Policies, Partnerships, and Public Involvement,” and all three themes were timely. Of the roughly 2000 who registered (from every part of the world), about half intended to show up in person; regrettably, visa backlog issues (partly related to the war in Ukraine) and COVID reduced that number somewhat.
As with other types of environmental management, impact assesment (IA) faces challenges of confidence, given the increasing evidence of decline across so many metrics that we use to assess the health of our socio-ecological systems, from climate change to biodiversity loss, and pollution of air, water, and soil, to social issues of procedural justice and social equity. And, of course, all of these concerns have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. As a regulatory tool, IA is guided by policies. In addition, as a form of organized information retrieval, IA depends crucially on partnerships of information gathering bodies, from government to private sector to academia. Moreover, being a decision making tool that must ultimately meet the test of social licence, IA rests on successul public involvement. The nearly 90 sessions spread out over eight concurrent streams throughout the four days of the conference covered all these themes, and usually with very concrete case studies associated with specific IAs, which is typical given how much of IA is focussed on individual development projects.
As a field, IA is dominated by practioners, working in government, industry, and NGOs, respectively. IAIA provides the international forum to advance best practices and innovation in impact assessment and the Association advocates for its expanded use for the betterment of society and the environment. So, the conference, as with others in the past, was heavy on topics addressing improving the methods of IA, geared for those making their living in the field. But academia is also engaged, and draws on fields such as law, environmental engineering, resource management, geography, and the bio-physical sciences for more theoretical approaches. Increasingly, the social sciences and humanities are engaging with IA, which is where my SSHRC-funded (Partnership Development Grant) NEDIA project comes in, whose goal is to contribute to this shift in Canada. Social science and humanities disciplines were particularly well represented at the IAIA 2022 conference in addressing both policy and engagement themes, and providing a notable focus on a growing cluster of more theoretical reflections on social and health impact assessment fields, as well as the role of IA in reconcilation with Indigenous peoples in Canada and abroad.
I presented my paper “Climate change and assessing offshore oil and gas” (see abstract below) within a panel entitled “New models of IA and climate change law worldwide.” This paper gave a perspective on internal contradictions with regard to assessment of climate change impacts of region-wide expansion of offshore hydrocarbon projects, such as the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador is anticipating. Jurisdictions around the world are facing this issue, as inevitable conflicts develop between commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions and the socio-economic needs of resource rich countries, particularly in the developing world, but also in jurisdictions such as Newfoundland and Labrador, which wish to expand the natural resource economic base in a way that includes hydrocarbon extraction. The role that IA as a form of pre-development deliberation can and should play in this sector is far from a trivial question, and the answers can depend as much on socio-political considerations as on the more narrow methodological focus of much IA scholarship.
One of the biggest benefits of “being there” was rediscovering how much it matters to be in the same physical space with others when learning and exchanging ideas. This opportunity included being invited to attend a special conference-adjacent workshop bringing together critical thinkers and practitioners of Indigenous impact assessment to engage in dialogue concerning Indigenous governing authority in impact assessments in Canada. I was able to meet for the first time Chief Leah George-Wilson, from Tsleil-Waututh Nation, about whose IA work in the context of the TMX pipeline I’ve recently published and discussed in a previous blog.
COVID taught us much about how virtual meetings can facilitate dialogue and exchange more efficiently and quickly, and with vastly decreased planetary impact due to less travel. But efficiency and expediency are not the only values that support the crucial conversations we must continue to have with one another to confront the challenges that our changing world faces.
Being there matters.
Stewart, I. (2022, May). Climate change and assessing offshore oil and gas. Paper presented at the 2022 International Association of Impact Assessment conference, Vancouver.
Abstract: This paper contributes to the topic of IAs and their role in addressing climate change in a tough case study: Canada’s offshore oil and gas sector in Atlantic Canada. A general survey and a specific case study of a recent Regional Assessment (2020) offers some cautionary insights. After a brief review of IAs in the offshore oil and gas sector in Atlantic Canada, the paper addresses the challenges (including various biophysical and socio-epistemic constraints) facing IAs in this sector. By necessity, learnings from project-based IAs feed into the more planning-focussed, regional, and strategic assessments (i.e., one phase of the “tiering” challenge). And it is at the level of regional assessments (with their theoretically greater capacity for cumulative effects assessment), and strategic assessments (with their greater policy orientation) that IAs should be able to help the region to weigh its ambitious plans to expand offshore oil and gas development against climate change considerations. But these higher level assessments typically depend on (project-based) IA sources that are not designed to serve tiering purposes. The resulting vicious epistemic circle underlies the contested (including legally contested) status of the recent Regional Assessment of Offshore Oil and Gas Exploratory Drilling East of Newfoundland and Labrador (February 2020), where perceived failures to assess cumulative effects and broader climate change considerations were central.
Blue, G., Bronwon, K., & Lajoie-O’Malley, A. (2021). Beyond distribution and participation: A scoping review to advance a comprehensive environmental justice framework for impact assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 90, 106607. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eiar.2021.106607
Contested authorities. Operationalizing Indigenous impact assessment. (2022, May 5). [Video; 1:42:51].https://vimeo.com/709738681/9f74aa7910
Croal, P, Chetkiewicz, C., Olszynski, M., & Lerner, J. [Panelists]. (2021, April 26). Webinar on impact assessment in Canada under COVID-19. Nedia. https://www.nedia.ca/pastwebinarrecordings/webinar-on-impact-assessment-in-canada-under-covid-19
Gibson, R. B., Peloffy, K., Greenford, D. H., Doell, M., Matthews, H. D., Holz, C., Staples, K., Wiseman, B., & Grenier, F. (2020). From Paris to projects: Clarifying the implications of Canada’s climate change mitigation commitments for the planning and assessment of projects and strategic undertakings (Full report). 235 p. SSRN. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3511932
Stewart, I. (2022, March 17). The significance of information in impact assessments: A new paper co-authored by EIUI researcher, Ian Stewart. EIUI Blog. https://eiui.ca/the-significance-of-information-in-impact-assessments-a-new-paper-co-authored-by-eiui-researcher-ian-stewart/
Winter, L., Plugmacher, S., Berger, M. & Finkbeiner, M. (2018). Biodiversity impact assessment (BIA+) – methodological framework for screening biodiversity. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, 14(2), 282-297. https://doi.org/10.1002/ieam.2006
Author: Ian G. Stewart