Lessons learned, best practices and critical gaps in regional environmental assessment: a synthesis of Canadian and international literature

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About the project

Governments, industry, non-governmental organizations and the public increasingly view regional-scale environmental impact assessment as a viable means of understanding and proactively addressing cumulative environmental impact issues of proposed development programs, such as carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation and watershed pollution.

Regional assessment (RA) is a discretionary component of project-based impact assessment (IA) legislation in Canada. However, there is limited research on the scope of RA practice in Canada and elsewhere, or on identifying lessons to support RA implementation. Drawing on academic and grey literature published between 2000 and 2020, this project aimed to characterize RA practice. It also identified some emerging good practices to improve RA’s value to decision-making about natural resource development and conservation.

Key Findings

By analyzing 42 Canadian and 10 international RA cases, the project found that RA practice in Canada has been concentrated in western and northern provinces and territories. Close to 75% of RA final reports were released within the last decade; nearly half within the last five years. The rising number of RA initiatives in Canada indicates increasing interest in this form of assessment, despite the lack of regulatory or legislative requirements to employ it. Various levels of government (mainly provincial) and other public-private partnerships initiated most RA initiatives in Canada; eight (20%) were led by Indigenous communities.

Of the 42 Canadian cases examined:

  • 27 (64%) had a strategic component;
  • 37 (88%) included a significant focus on cumulative environmental effects;
  • 23 (55%) addressed both of these elements.

Dozens of methods and tools are used to assess impacts on a variety of valued components. Public engagement and traditional knowledge are commonly used in RA practice, while scenario analysis is significantly less common. Internationally, RA practice is widespread and undertaken for various reasons, such as facilitating nationally important industries, expediently approving infrastructure investment programs, and establishing science-policy advisory partnerships. Various arms of the United Nations are especially active in promoting strategic forms of RA.

Of the 64 academic articles analyzed, only 12 (19%) offered case specific evaluations of RA practice. Others focused on concept and framework development; integration of principles; integration of RA with planning and policy-making; and promising methodologies, tools and techniques. The emphasis of regional-scale assessment has gradually shifted from facilitating project approval to also addressing issues of governance and building institutional capacity and relationships across institutions, as well as socio-political dimensions, innovation and collaborative science and management.

Overall, the literature is quite divorced from the RA practice record and there is a significant gap in reporting and analyzing case experiences, especially for early attempts at RA that were completed 10 or more years ago. As well, very few academic papers on RA touch on topics considered important to the evolution of IA and the future of IA in Canada, such as climate change, gender, equity and fairness, trade-offs, and Indigenous and northern contexts.

Policy implications

The practice of RA is in an early stage. It is possible to identify the inputs of an RA exercise (impetus, goals, scope, valued components, inputs/resources, assessment activities, assumptions and uncertainties, audience, etc.), as well as immediate outputs in the form of case documentation and programs (including scoping reports, draft and final reports, action plans, public commentary on the reports, etc.). However, it is too early to verify predictions or determine outcomes of most cases (either mid-term or long-term, expressed as changes in knowledge, awareness, practices or conditions).

The federal government needs to articulate clear goals and expectations for RAs initiated under the Impact Assessment Act, including for assessment of climate, northern, Indigenous and other key issues. It also needs to specify how regional-scale assessment of these differs from project-based cumulative effects assessment as defined in the Act. Regional assessment practice is diverse and any connections or benefits it may have to regulatory IA should not be assumed.

Federal and provincial governments should consider existing RA reports when embarking on future initiatives that apply to the same regions. They should leverage RA initiatives to advance environmental science and policy-making: RAs can serve as an incubator for novel research and subsequent environmental management experiments. Regional assessments can contribute to the study of ecological thresholds, limits and tipping points, and social-ecological system resilience, which are all key to sustainability development.

Given the small number of in-depth cases analyses in academic literature and the early state of RA outcomes, it would be premature to attempt to judge what RA can or cannot realistically accomplish. Clearly, the diversity, ambition and momentum displayed among all RA cases examined, coupled with rising incidents of practice in Canada and elsewhere, indicates a widespread belief in substantive procedural and transactive benefits.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Jill Blakley, Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Planning and School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan; jill.blakley@usask.ca

Bram Noble, Professor, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Saskatchewan; b.noble@usask.ca

Karen Vella, Associate Professor, Head of School, Built Environment Science and Engineering Faculty, Queensland University of Technology; karen.vella@qut.edu.au

Jérôme Marty, Project Director, Council of Canadian Academies; jerome.marty@cca-reports.ca

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, IAAC, or the Government of Canada.

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