With most of Australia being covered in arid and semi-arid land, the introduction of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in South Australia (SA) is an issue of great importance. Over the past few years, the concept of SEA has widely emerged as an approach that provides tools that can be employed in making vital environmental considerations in proposed plans, laws, policies, and programs. While having existed for quite a while in some countries, the concept has seen increased adoption in Australia, with its spread to South Australia being a recent development. SEA has been termed as an improvement of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) approach, with the former being continuously employed in cases where the latter has shown less success. This paper is going to review the potential benefits and problems associated with the concept of Strategic Environmental Assessment and the methodological and procedural approaches that might be employed to achieve a useful outcome.
As much as no international definition of SEA has been agreed upon, various scholars have come up with related definitions of the concept. In all their definitions, scholars tend to recognize SEA as a system that systematically evaluates the consequences of proposed programs, plans, or policies on the environment. This system is aimed at ensuring that such consequences are adequately addressed at the initial stages of the process of decision-making alongside other social and economic considerations. Various debates regarding the concept have been observed, with most stakeholders differing when it comes to defining the scope of its application. Nevertheless, it is important to note that a single “blueprint” cannot be employed when it comes to the application of SEA and that the political circumstances, institutional realities, and other conditions specific to individual countries and states define the highly effective and efficient approaches.
As compared to EIA, which is deemed a process of decision-making, SEA is more of a process of decision aiding. It is applied as a tool in planning forward and can be applied flexibly at different stages of the cycle of making policies. As such, considering this broad view, SEA involves assessment of concrete plans and programs as well as broad policy initiatives that have spatial and physical references. While covering such a scope, one problem increases in certainty. There develops a great difference between the methodologies that are to be employed at the adjacent ends of the spectrum of decision-making. In most cases, there is an idealization of the relationship between programs, policies, and plans as a tiered or hierarchical decision-making process.
Nevertheless, the process of policy-making is not limited to a logical sequence of technical, discrete steps. Instead, this process is more iterative and complex, where there is the gradual narrowing of the choice range and foreclosure of most options occurs in the course of the project phase. It is important to note that this consideration has critical implications in the application of SEA in the practical sense. Moreover, the terms, programs, plans, and policies hold different meanings in various countries; thus, their application depends on the institutional and political context. However, generally, policies are considered as any broad statements focusing on and reflecting the government’s political agenda and capable of initiating a decision cycle.
South Australia has employed the EIA process in most of its projects to assess the environmental impact of such projects in order to allow them to be put into consideration during the process of decision-making. This has always allowed for the adoption of measures that would mitigate any negative effects of the projects on the environment. SEA holds more potential benefits if well administered in South Australia as compared to the benefits that were realized with the use of EIA. This is in the view of the various weaknesses and limitations that constrain EIA. Such limitations include the structural weaknesses of EIA, where it is mostly applied at a late stage, as compared to SEA, which is applied at the initial stages of the decision-making process. At the point where EIA is applied, critical questions of where, whether, and the type of development that ought to be initiated have already been decided without much environmental analysis. As such, one of the benefits that South Australia is likely to reap from the application of the SEA process in its project is the strengthening of the EIA of the project and upholding sustainability. Therefore, with the application of SEA, EIA can be complimented at the project level to include environmental alternatives and considerations into the program design, policy, and plan. The application of SEA’s in the “upstream” allows for increased sustainability of the decisions made as it informs the initial development of policies, programs, or plans, as opposed to EIA. The latter only reacts to such programs, policies, and plans that have already been developed.
Another distinctive benefit of applying SEA is its capacity to address large scale and cumulative effects. Various efforts have been put in the development of EIA to address certain cumulative effects involving large projects such as transport infrastructure and incremental effects of various similar small-scale actions such as road improvement and alignment. However, such efforts are still inadequate to address cumulative effects that are more pervasive and environmental changes that occur on the large-scale, resulting from multiple actions, and cut across ecological and policy boundaries. Considering the SEA principles, one should note that it holds the capacity to address such cumulative effects. On the other hand, another potential benefit of the SEA process is that it allows the achievement of sustainable and environmentally sound development. Its application at the initial stages also warns the decision-makers about unsustainable development options, thus saving time and money that could be invested in correcting mistakes later. In addition, SEA promotes public trust in the program, plan, and policy-making and enhances good governance. In this case, SEA incorporates opinions from various stakeholders at the initial stages; thus, it makes it possible to consider such opinions in the decision-making process, allowing for increased credibility of the developed polices, programs, and plans as well as upholding accountability.
Application of SEA at the state level in South Australia may prove to be a challenge since it directly affects policy, which is the prerogative of senior bureaucrats and politicians. As such, as much as constraints may be methodological or technical in cases where the environmental practitioners are less experienced, the impact of SEA on policy leads to a whole new set of constraints. The different issues that accompany environmental assessment, including economic and social issues, at the level of policy development have meant that the major constraint of SEA likely to be experienced in SA is lack of institutional and political will. This means that SEA will not be considered as a major issue at the policy development level. The full potential of SEA can only be unleashed if it is applied during the initial stages of development of policies, programs, and plans. Thus, if not considered during this stages, it will not be able to adjust unsustainable practices that are likely to have negative effects on the environment. Another major constraint involves the establishment of the critical leverage points within the policy, which may come as a challenge in some cases and lead to inapplicability of SEA.
Institutional immaturity in SA may also impair inter-sectorial dialogue, which is important in taking into account environmental considerations throughout the formulation, revision, and implementation of programs, plans, and policies. Such dialogue is necessary to allow for influencing of the decision-making process. On the other hand, lack of appropriate skills within government agencies and departments and within the private sector may also come as a major constraint in the application of SEA as it requires a high level of skills in identifying, when, how, and where to apply the process. Inadequate capacity, in terms of both financial and human resources, may also hinder proper implementation of the SEA in SA. Political will to support SEA as a framework for enhancing environmental sustainability is a major determinant of how much funds the state government will be able to allocate towards the implementation of SEA in all the projects and how much they are willing to invest in education in line with application of the SEA process in projects.
Methodological principles form a basis, on which methodological approaches are established in the implementation of SEA. As such, it is important to ensure that regardless of the methodology applied, the approaches remain within these principles, as this would enhance effectiveness of the approaches. One of the core methodological principles is that the SEA processes must be integrated. In this case, there is need to conceptualize SEA as a framework that has its incrementally tailor-made core elements and to integrate SEA with the system of decision-making already in place. Thus, SEA would become a critical part of, and offer guidance to, development of initiatives and strategies in SA. Another important methodological principle in this case is that the SEA process should focus on the alternatives. SEA insists on the establishment and assessment of the alternatives specific to a region. By comparing multiple alternatives specific to SA, the decision-makers will be provided with a clear insight of the potential consequences of any of the actions if upheld.
Another principle that underlies the method applied is that SEA should be regional-based. The process of cumulative effects are mostly connected to issues related to environmental management within the region and complex global patterns, including biodiversity and climate change. As such, in SA, the adopted valued ecosystem component concept in SEA should be relevant to the scale of analysis in the region. In addition, it should be represented by a wide range of indicators of regional environmental change and ecosystem health. Furthermore, the SEA methodology should be interdisciplinary in the sense that it should consider different levels of interests that range from disciplinary specialists to political figures, and different public sectors, including industry. It is important for the methodology to promote an approach that cuts across all the disciplines, one that would allow all the parties to play a part in the identification and addressing of shared issues. Last but not least, another principle that should be adhered to by the SEA methodology is that it should be systematic and structured. In this case, the methodological framework should be able to offer guidance that is generally applicable to different contexts and situations within SA.
It is clear that strategic environmental assessment is a highly beneficial approach as compared to the environmental impact assessment approach that was initially used in South Australia on a wide scale. Such benefit is centered in the applicability of SEA at the initial stages of policy, program, and plan development, which allows for making appropriate adjustments that would prevent any unsustainable environmental consequences. However, lack of political will to support SEA, low capacity for implementation of the SEA framework, and lack of professional expertise to allow for proper implementation of SEA are major constraints. Nevertheless, the increased political support in South Australia is a clear indication of the potential success of SEA in the state. It is also evident that an interdisciplinary SEA approach is likely to be more effective as it engages all stakeholders at the initial stages; thus, interests are put into consideration throughout development of programs, policies, and plans, an aspect that increases the chances of success of the SEA approach.