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The inclusion of biodiversity in environmental impact assessment: Policy-related progress limited by gaps and semantic confusion

Bigard, Charlotte, Pioch, Sylvain, Thompson, John D.
Journal of environmental management 2017 v.200 pp. 35-45
biodiversity, development projects, environmental assessment, guidelines, habitat destruction, issues and policy, land use, monitoring, planning, stakeholders, France
Natural habitat loss and fragmentation, as a result of development projects, are major causes of biodiversity erosion. Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is the most commonly used site-specific planning tool that takes into account the effects of development projects on biodiversity by integrating potential impacts into the mitigation hierarchy of avoidance, reduction, and offset measures. However, the extent to which EIA fully address the identification of impacts and conservation stakes associated with biodiversity loss has been criticized in recent work. In this paper we examine the extent to which biodiversity criteria have been integrated into 42 EIA from 2006 to 2016 for small development projects in the Montpellier Metropolitan territory in southern France. This study system allowed us to question how EIA integrates biodiversity impacts on a scale relevant to land-use planning. We examine how biodiversity inclusion has changed over time in relation to new policy for EIA and how the mitigation hierarchy is implemented in practice and in comparison with national guidelines. We demonstrate that the inclusion of biodiversity features into EIA has increased significantly in relation to policy change. Several weaknesses nevertheless persist, including the continued absence of substitution solution assessment, a correct analysis of cumulative impacts, the evaluation of impacts on common species, the inclusion of an ecological network scale, and the lack of monitoring and evaluation measures. We also show that measures for mitigation hierarchy are primarily associated with the reduction of impacts rather than their avoidance, and avoidance and offset measures are often misleadingly proposed in EIA. There is in fact marked semantic confusion between avoidance, reduction and offset measures that may impair stakeholders' understanding. All in all, reconsideration of stakeholders routine practices associated with a more strategic approach towards impact anticipation and avoidance at a land-use planning scale is now necessary for the mitigation hierarchy to become a clear and practical hierarchy for “no net loss” objectives based on conservation priorities.