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Coffee with Dave Costello: Digital EIA - Key Challenges and Opportunities

TL;DR

We sat down for a coffee and a chat with Dave Costello, Consenting and Environmental Specialist at Continuum Industries, to discuss the evolving space of Environmental Impact Assessment.

Q: Dave, what are the key benefits of digital Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) compared to traditional paper-based EIA?

A: To be frank, the traditional paper-based EIA model is outdated and unwieldy in 2023.

Today's EIA Reports are rightly criticised as being bloated and inaccessible to planning and consenting specialists, let alone stakeholders or the general public. Clearly, an output that is too difficult to navigate, understand or even read is not fit for purpose any longer.

You regularly see images of boxes and boxes of printed and bound EIA documents sitting in the offices of consenting bodies. For instance, the average EIA for 500 house development is over 4,000 pages, while the High Speed 2 Phase One EIA Report was 49,000 pages long, costed £15,000 to print one copy and weighed as much as a small car. While the latter is an extreme example the principles are the same for any project requiring an EIA.

Adopting digital EIA will lead to drastic time savings, a more streamline process, real time collaboration between the applicant, stakeholders and the public, and most importantly moving EIA back into the ongoing process it was supposed to be from initial design through to mitigation rather than the ‘output’ focused report deliverable it has become.

Q: How can digital tools help improve the accuracy and reliability of EIAs?

A: Current methods of EIA data collections function as a ‘snapshot in time’. Results of surveys and assessments relate to a specific time period that may be months if not years prior to a project’s EIA being assessed in the consenting phase. There are several cases where applications are delayed as new baseline information is discovered or put forward by stakeholders, resulting in revisions to modelling, delays to consenting and the slowdown of the roll out of much needed green, net zero infrastructure.

Digital EIA will allow data to be captured on an ongoing basis, continuously updating and refining impacts as the inputs change. Theoretically, the EIA could continuously be updated through the consenting and determination phase if new information comes to light that needs to be assessed. Ultimately the digital EIA is more accurate, using consciously updated information, and more reliable, not being tied to a single point in time.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges associated with using digital tools in EIA?

A: The answer to this will probably vary from person to person but from my perspective there are two big ‘showstoppers’.

Firstly, the attitude of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’. Too many people across the construction, planning, government, stakeholder and environment sectors have become complacent. The bulky EIA full of thousands of pages of text has become the norm. People become comfortable and don’t see the need to embrace new and more efficient ways of doing things. Shifting EIAs from paper based to digital is an example of this. New ways of doing things that disrupt the status quo face obstacles.

The second major challenge relates to actually ‘defining’ digital EIA tools. There are many groups in the EIA space who have been pushing ‘digital EIAs’ that are effectively nothing more than an interactive PDF document on the internet with some GIS maps built in.This is basically the existing way of doing things slightly polished up and given a new haircut. Coming up with proper digital EIA solutions involves a lot of work.

Q: How can digital EIA tools be designed to ensure they are accessible and user-friendly for all stakeholders?

A: The only way to ensure new digital EIA tools are accessible and user-friendly for all stakeholders is by getting out there and talking to them. When people create digital tools they need that user research to be embedded from the start. Setting up panels and working groups with representatives not solely from industry but from the wider stakeholder groups such as charities, industry groups, community groups, councils, government agencies etc. is what’s needed. Too often the ‘tools’ that are presented are completely inaccessible and impenetrable to stakeholders as they have been developed solely for developers and consultants.

Q: How can digital EIA tools help improve stakeholder engagement and participation in the EIA process?

A: The traditional consenting process, of which EIA is an integral part, seeks to put stakeholder engagement and participation at its heart from project inception through to the implementation of mitigation features post construction. However, aspirations don’t always equal reality and in some cases stakeholder engagement is not given the proper treatment it deserves. Often, stakeholders and the public can be presented with a preferred final alignment for a new linear infrastructure project and asked to comment on it. No opportunity for alternatives to be put forward or considered exists.

The developer of the project has gone too far down the road, incurring expensive consultancy fees to go back to the drawing board in many cases. Digital EIA seeks to change that as digital tools will allow for a collaborative and iterative process between developers and stakeholders from beginning to end. Alternatives and deviations can be plugged in and analysed from the very start so that when the project is put forward for formal consultation the engagement has already been completed to an extent.

Q: How can digital EIA tools be used to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of mitigation measures?

A: Currently mitigation monitoring is effectively handed over to the consenting authority, usually local authorities, post consenting of new projects. There is no real ‘database’ of what mitigation was proposed and how it is being implemented, if at all, once the planning permission has been granted.

However, with digital EIA, mitigation can be built into the overall EIA from the outset. Certain software packages, like Optioneer for example! (shameless plug in), are able to function as data-driven collaboration platform, a single source of truth with input from environmental specialists, contractors, costing engineers, stakeholders and the public all collated in a single place. The centralisation of data allows for an interactive and iterative design process to be undertaken meaning mitigation measures are agreed upon and implemented into the CDE in advance of planning permission being granted.

As the mitigation measures are already embedded ‘digitally’, they can be updated and monitored constantly by anyone with editing access to the CDE space with issues/topics like species management plans and landscape planting constantly getting fresh sources of data that is available instantly rather than existing as a pdf report emailed to the local council once a year.

Q: What steps can be taken to ensure that digital EIA tools are integrated effectively into broader environmental governance frameworks and decision-making processes?

A: Governments need to really buy into digital EIA now, not in 5 or 10 years time, if they really want it to become adopted by industry. Current governance structures in many jurisdictions strictly and explicitly mandate that paper or pdf copies of EIA Reports need to be submitted in order for a consent application to be valid. If you still need to produce an old fashioned paper report what incentive is there for industry to push digital solutions?

Governments need to create a legislative framework that allows for digital EIAs to be submitted and reviewed by consenting bodies as the sole submission. Mandating that paper copies still need to be prepared is madness. Some countries such as South Korea and New Zealand and some US states are making progress in this regard but too many others, particularly in Europe, are lagging behind.