How to water down environmental impact assessments

By: Richard J. Ladle

As the political pendulum swings to the right in countries as diverse as the USA and Brazil, we are seeing renewed attacks on environmental regulations and the agencies charged with enforcing them. The rationale is always the same – assorted tree-huggers, do-gooders and hippies have created a labyrinth of bureaucracy that slows or sometimes even halts the march of progress (aka habitat destruction). What’s a politician to do? Well, for a start they can take a large pair of scissors to the symbolic red tape.

In a recent commentary in Environmental Impact Assessment Review, we outline some of the forthcoming changes to Brazil’s environmental monitoring legislation, and outline the potential consequences (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195925516303584).

Brazil has some of the strongest environmental legislation in the world, and a healthy environment for all is enshrined within the constitution. However, this hasn’t stopped the current crop of politicos trying to downgrade and partially dismantle the Brazilian EIA system. By far the most far-reaching amendment is PEC 65/2012, a proposal to actually alter Brazilian Constitution on environmental rights. If approved, environmental impact assessments in Brazil will become window-dressing, with companies only having to present an ‘Environmental Impact Study’ to gain their project license. Other related measures include new environmental licensing rules for ‘strategic’ development projects (e.g. roads) that allow them to circumvent the current (and more rigorous) licensing process. Moreover, overworked environmental agencies would have to meet tighter deadlines further decreasing the amount of scrutiny. In place of mandatory public participation meetings, project proponents will only need to inform stakeholders and interested parties of the proposed project and its potential impacts.

Destroying landmark environmental legislation to reduce bureaucracy is the political equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. Politicians around the world (Donald Trump, anyone?) would better serve the public by addressing the root problems that often limit the effectiveness and speed of environmental impact assessment. For example, weak institutions, political interference, technical shortfalls and inadequate budgets.

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