Environmental Protection Authority

Sustainable development was first described by the Brundtland Commission in 1987: as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED, 1987). Since the Brundlandt Commission, many alternative definitions of sustain –ability have been proposed and diverse interpretations of the concept made. Many of these are based upon the ‘three-pillar’ or ‘triple bottom line’ (TBL) concept.

Whereas the Brudtland Commission presented a two-pillar model reflecting environment and development concerns, the three-pillar TBL model separates development issues into social and economic factors, emphasising that ‘‘material gains are not sufficient measures or preservers of human well-being’’ (Gibson, 2001, p. 7). There are quite a few approaches to sustainable development appraisal, one of them being the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)-driven integrated assessment approach.

Like traditional EIA, it is defined by its reactivity, and tends to be ‘applied’ after a proposal has already been conceptualised. It aims to identify social and economic impacts of a proposal (in addition to traditional environmental impacts), and to compare these impacts with baseline conditions. It is then possible to determine whether or not the impacts are ‘acceptable’.

George (2001) describes the application of EIA-driven integrated assessment to international trade agreements, noting that “the prime aim of such an appraisal, often referred to as a sustainability impact assessment (SIA), is to identify mitigation measures through which adverse impacts might be minimised or avoided”. This approach to sustainability assessment aims to ensure that impacts are not unacceptably negative overall, meaning that the guiding acceptability criterion for a proposal is that it does not lead to a less sustainable outcome.

This approach can be thought of as ‘direction to target’, where the exact position of a sustainable state for that particular proposal is unknown. If the respective impact assessment processes are not integrated effectively, then this form of ‘integrated’ assessment is reduced to three separate impact assessments, each generating data relating to the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of the proposal or initiative.

The three sets of data must then be ‘integrated’ in some way after it has been collected in order to reach a decision as to whether or not the proposal or initiative is acceptable within a sustainability context. A recent case saw the Western Australian Government’s two main environmental advice bodies recommend that an offshore gas processing plant be refused approval on a sensitive island nature reserve. The Government undertook an EIA-driven integrated assessment for this project proposal, and approved the development when environmental impacts were clearly negative (Environmental Protection Authority, 2003).

Another approach to sustainable development or sustainability is the Objectives led integrated assessment. Objectives-led integrated assessment reflects a desire to achieve a particular vision or outcome defined by integrated environmental, social and economic objectives. It assesses the extent to which the implementation of a proposal contributes to this vision, in contrast with EIA-driven integrated assessment, which aims to ensure that triple bottom line impacts of a proposal are acceptable compared with baseline conditions.