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Espoo and the EIA: Effective Environmental Governance or Struggling, Conciliatory Measure?

(C) UNECE, with thanks

(C) UNECE, with thanks

1         MEAs & Effectiveness

With the negative effects of human activity increasing at national and international scales across the gamut of existence, the need for binding means commit governments and citizenry has long been recognised.  To prevent, mitigate and remediate the negative, transboundary effects of individual states’ activity, effective agreements between states necessarily require certain conditions, premised on mutual cooperation and some benefit or avoidance of detriment or harm (Barrett, 2005).

Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) are a form of international environmental governance devised to improve this situation by providing a mechanism through which countries can begin to address the effects of activities within and beyond their borders.  Kanie defines MEAs as “an intergovernmental document intended as legally binding with a primary stated purpose of preventing or managing human impacts on natural resources (Mitchell, 2003; in Kanie, 2007).”  MEAs are achieved through bi-lateral and multi-lateral cooperation (however motivated) and enforced through a variety of mechanisms and a multitude of channels, such as financial penalties (local and national), trade restrictions and sanctions (national and international), etc. (Barrett, 2005; Kanie, 2007).

To uphold agreements, states must be encouraged to maintain their responsibilities and discouraged to ‘free-ride’ (where they gain the benefits of the agreement without upholding it themselves).  However, when nation-states are multitude and conditions, and effects difficult to ascertain and complex to apportion, much more sophisticated methods are necessary to prevent unwanted consequences, particularly concerning environmental public goods (Kanie, 2007).

Walker,, (2009) and Barrett (2005) suggest that cooperation, sovereignty, democracy (or dictatorship) and ‘free-riding’ all play key roles in MEA effectiveness, particularly regarding transboundary issues.  Walker suggests that whilst compliance can be achieved through heavy-handed state control, legislation and penalty, a government’s absence is not an effective deterrent either.  Effectiveness necessitates the exercise of national power or perception of some threat/intervention/sanction within borders, preventing unwanted behaviours, enforcing law, and prosecuting as necessary (Walker,, 2009;  Barrett, 2005).

A logical conclusion to overcome issues of national enforcement and sovereignty would be to enlist international or transnational institutions.  However, the effectiveness of such bodies has been subject to scrutiny in the MEA arena; conclusions suggest their ability to enlist sufficient cooperation and enforce agreements has been weak at best (Kanie, 2007; Barrett, 2005; Walker,, 2009).  Barrett suggests that only the Montreal Protocol has been truly effective, and advocates that agreements must be flexible to cope with future unknowns and change, such as technology, governance, environmental conditions, etc. (2005).  Furthermore, with many international institutions focusing their attention on a single problem or closely-related problems, Walker,, suggest that this approach leads to institutions “ignoring system-wide interactions (2009:1345)”, where agreements must account for a much wider scope of inputs and effects to be sufficiently effective.

UNEP has highlighted several strengths and weaknesses of existing MEAs, finding certain strengths as:

  • “Cooperation clustering and opportunities for synergies and collaboration;
  • Opportunities for scientific cooperation;
  • Increase in arrangements for cooperation among conventions (UNEP, 2001:27-28)”.


Unfortunately, this research also found several serious weaknesses, such as:

  • “Resistance of some MEAs to cooperate with others;
  • Inadequate attention to harmonization of national reporting among MEAs;
  • Inadequate implementation and coordination at the national level;
  • Inadequate compliance and enforcement;
  • Lack of environmental/performance indicators for measuring effectiveness;
  • Inadequate funding for certain MEAs;
  • Lack of strategic support for implementation (UNEP, 2001:28-30)”

Many of these issues are echoed in other papers (Kanie, 2007; Barrett, 2005; Walker,,2009; Steiner,,2003; Young, 2002; etc.).  For MEAs to perform to their full potential, more work is necessary in negotiating sufficiently flexible but robust MEA design strategies whilst garnering participation and cooperation in the widest sense.


(C) UNECE, with thanks

(C) UNECE, with thanks

2         The Espoo Convention

Notwithstanding the challenges MEA instruments and their successful implementation face, one interesting method adopted by the international political community to prevent unwanted effects of human activities on environmental public goods is the Environmental Impact Assessment, or EIA.  EIAs were designed to help parties understand the impact of their plans, proposals and policies prior to a decision to implement, or as UNECE says, “to prevent environmental damage before it occurs (UNECE, undated).”

“Environmental threats do not respect national borders. Governments have realized that to avert this danger they must notify and consult each other on all major projects under consideration that might have adverse environmental impact across borders (UNECE, undated).”

Early adoption of EIAs by the United States in the 1960s, drafted into legislation in 1967 (Jay,,2007), led the way for both national and international activity in the field, culminating in their inclusion within the 2012 Rio+20 Declaration, as highlighted below.

The Espoo Convention for Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessments (TBEIAs) is a MEA administered by the UN Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and recently extended to nation-states outside Europe.  Signatories agree to implement Transboundary EIAs, administered by a competent national authority, at the level of projects, policies and plans to review, comment and approve or reject permission to proceed.  Importantly, the application should be made prior to a decision to approve or proceed with an activity deemed to have potentially detrimental transboundary environmental effects through an initial scoping.  This decision is based on pre-defined procedures and a minimum set of environmental impact assessment criteria outlined in the Convention (UNECE, 1991).

It is interesting to note that the chosen secretariat is economic, suggesting that Espoo is intended to mitigate against adverse impacts of human activity, including population expansion and economic growth, through the lens of economic activity, indicating Espoo’s role as a market-based mechanism, which I illustrate below.

Through the EIA process, jurisdictions public and private deemed affected by the project/policy are consulted by the applicant and advised of potential impacts, whether positive/beneficial or negative/adverse, and appropriate changes or mitigation measures is mutually agreed and implemented (UNECE, 1991:3).  This process is meant to be pre-emptive, fair and consultative.  Yet diverging from good scientific practice, the impacts are assessed by the project applicants (or their paid representatives) and presented to the national authority (UNECE, 1991), thereby introducing potential conflicts of interest into the process.  There are also examples of prominent countries with very poor track-records of undertaking EIAs prior to project implementation (Gu, 2005).

3         Governance Approach

What is governance and what are relevant approaches to it?  Governance, according to Capon,, refers to “processes to ensure the effective management of a project, organisation or system (2009:29)”, and has been found less the consensual, win-win-win scenario intended by Brundtland, but characterised more by conflict and power struggle (Brown,2009 in Adger, 2009:21).  Several governance approaches and discourses relevant to MEAs and Espoo are summarised below.

Adger and Jordan identify three discourses of governance as: empirical phenomena, theory, and normative prescription (2009:11-13).  They also identify three main modes of governing, through: markets, networks, and hierarchies (2009:13).  Goujon’s 2009 assessment of approaches to governance identify two principal approaches:

1)     Efficiency, economic or “neo-institutionalist” (Lenoble and Maesschalck, 2006; in Goujon, 2009), or technocratic (Ajibogun, 2009);

2)     Participatory, procedural or “pragmatist” (Lenoble and Maesschalck, 2006; in Goujon, 2009), or ownership approach (Ajibogun, 2009).


Also relevant are approaches that address both governance and scale:

1)     monocentric governance,

2)     multilevel governance, and

3)     adaptive governance (Termeer, 2012).


Espoo’s governance approach is concerned with outcomes of planned human activities, owing to its approach as a preventative mechanism, as well as the processes of decision-making, which Adger says: “directly affect the sustainability of their outcomes (2009:6).”  Espoo’s ability to address both processes and outcomes will appeal to a wider variety of parties concerned with not only scientific or economic perspectives, but also those of ‘equity, vulnerability, social exclusion, distribution of benefits and minimisation of impacts from development, etc. (Adger and Jordan, 2009:6)’.

Espoo’s approach is also as a normative prescription where EIAs are implemented “as something which should be adopted to achieve some preferred end-point (Adger and Jordan, 2009:13)”.  Espoo avoids a managerial discourse (which blames poverty, poor government regulation and resource management) in favour of one that identifies ‘exploitation, disempowerment, trade and consumerism’ as main causes of unsustainability (Adger and Jordan, 2009:14).  Furthermore, Espoo’s EIA procedure suggests a participatory or procedural governance approach, promoting ownership by parties to both the Convention and to individual EIAs themselves.

The governance scale of Espoo is multi-centric, with a central secretariat to coordinate and advance efforts of the parties and implementation undertaken at national levels (i.e. assessment is not referred back to the central secretariat but is handled at national level).  Espoo is multi-level in a very narrow but similar sense to this, although its’ primarily mono-level (transboundary) EIA mechanism is nationally administered.  The Convention provides for continuous advancement and improvement intended to adapt to changing conditions and contexts, and is therefore adaptive and fairly flexible.


(C) UNECE, with thanks

(C) UNECE, with thanks

4         Institutional Design Elements

In the following examination, I utilise eight institutional design choices identified by Fung (2003).  He contends that it’s worthwhile investigating instances of public spheres appearing as much smaller, “self-consciously organised […] ‘minipublics’ (2003:339)”, because:

1)     they are promising, constructive modes of public organisation,

2)     large-scale governance reform can successfully manifest through more ‘minipublics’, and

3)     understanding ‘minipublics’ helps to inform macro-scale institutional design (Fung, 2003).

This is helpful as Espoo operates and is governed at via EIAs at the ‘pseudo-minipublic’ level and at the macro-level as an institution.

As Fung highlights, for successful institutional design the vision and type of institution is of principal importance. Fundamentally Espoo’s vision appears to be a combined “participatory problem-solving collaboration” and type of “participatory advisory panel” (Fung, 2003:341).  The former is apparent in Espoo’s implementation of EIAs and the assessment of projects’/policies’ environmental impact as collaborative problem-solving through the involvement of stakeholders and public.  The latter is inherent in Espoo’s requirement to continually develop its signatories’ awareness and capability through programmes of research and capacity building in: assessing impacts, understanding cause-effect relationships, decision implementation, investigating alternatives, macro-level applications, and information exchange (UNECE, 1991:7).

In this sense, there is an element of an “educative forum” vision, particularly as capacity-building results are necessarily transmitted to the body politic, albeit a limited band-width comprised of administrators, professionals and consultees involved, and the public interested in the particular issue or project, itself having a somewhat limited scope geographically (i.e. rarely of a scale beyond the regional, even if trans-boundary).

Participant selection (Fung, 2003:342) in the institution (i.e. Espoo) are limited to ECE members, however participants in the manifestation of the institution (i.e. EIAs) are much greater.  However, the participating ‘minipublic’ beyond the involved/affected parties (or public-at-large) is open to more local selection processes (themselves subject to bias intended to be overcome via the selection process itself), either through voluntary self-selection, recruitment or incentivisation (Fung, 2003).

The subject and scope of deliberation at Convention/institution level is deliberately not limited to predefined topics; Articles 11 and 14 specifically invite signatories to table wider issues relevant to continuous improvement and development.  Yet this is clearly not intended as an open public forum; therefore its scope is predefined by Convention design.  Deliberation at project/policy level is limited in subject and scope by the nature of the project/policy, and by extent to public participation in EIA procedures and documentation (UNECE, 1991:3).  However, project/policy impacts are the very subject of EIAs – project proposals are regularly amended and even cancelled as a result of EIAs and their deliberative participation (Kakonge, in Petts, 1999:179).

The deliberative mode or “organisation and style of discussions (Fung, 2003:343)” at Convention level entails meetings of the Parties held at times deemed necessary.  This lack of structured meetings may limit sharing and updating experience and knowledge between parties and wider development and implementation of EIAs.  Deliberative mode at project/policy level is to solve a concrete problem/issue and follows the format of “proposal, justification and planning […] toward emergent consensus (Fung, 2003:345)”.

Stakes are an important aspect of MEAs and EIAs.  Addressing significant stakes, Espoo is designed to ensure stakeholders’ interests are addressed at both project/policy and Convention levels, particularly where their “welfare or deeply-held beliefs (Fung, 2003:345)” are affected, as projects with transnational impacts can engender public controversy.   Participants with much at stake tend to sustain deliberations, invest more in the process, making it “more thorough and creative (2003:345)”.

Empowerment is designed into Espoo’s processes, although not very democratically at project/policy level.   Although Convention Parties are empowered with one-vote-per Party (UNECE, 1991:8), EIA stakeholders and particularly their public participants mightn’t be capable of exercising any real authority (Fraser, 1992; in Fung, 2003:346); EIA decision-making rests solely with national authorities (themselves subject to multiple pressures), suggestions at public consultations are frequently interpretable subjectively by applicants and difficult to assess objectively.  Furthermore, formal disputes are determined by a non-democratically selected scientific/technical expert president of an Inquiry Commission, selected by the EIA parties or ECE Executive Secretary.  This ‘democratic deficit’ can manifest in a lack of accountability (Fung, 2003:346), leading to free-riding or rough-riding the system such as in China, where it is estimated that only 10% of projects actually undertake EIAs despite their legal requirement and fines (Gu, 2005).

Monitoring at Convention level is addressed by meetings of the Parties and necessarily requires: discussions on continuous improvement; exchanging information on experiences; and seeking scientific and technical advice about methodological and technical issues (UNECE, 1991:8).  This monitoring is achieved through implementation committees; working groups on specific topics, projects or geographical issues; and aforementioned general meetings (UNECE, undated).  Monitoring of EIA projects is incorporated into Espoo Article 7 Post-Project Analysis, necessitating: compliance monitoring; management and adaptation to change/uncertainties; and prediction verification for continuous improvement (UNECE, 1991:16).


(C) UNECE, with thanks

(C) UNECE, with thanks

5         Effectiveness

Espoo’s governance approach appears fairly effective in achieving its stated aims, although only when and where implemented.   As a regional institution, Espoo’s impact is obviously limited to its signatories, currently 42 Parties (41 countries plus EU) (Schrage, 2009).  Dependent on the capacity of the signatories to implement, monitor and assess EIAs against current best practice, Espoo is only effective as a kind of arms-length support mechanism for its signatories.  Without greater international support, methods of setting and measuring support targets, and implementing enforceable penalties, Espoo remains merely a loose network of early adopters.

However, the TBEIA framework is flexible to cope with changing conditions (environmental, social/political, scientific/technological, economic…), future unknown variables (Barrett, 2005), and implementation at various scales, industries and locations – much in the way that Quality Management Systems and Environmental Management Systems are intended.  They are also capable of being multi-centric, multi-level and adaptive, thereby actually incorporating all of Termeer’s previously separate governance categories (2012).

Based on the 1967 US model and its development into the 1991 Espoo convention, some nation-states have enacted national legislation requiring EIAs for activities that have some element of environmental impact on a much more local and regional level within national boundaries and not necessarily trans-boundary (Schrage, 2009).  With the advent of Espoo, the principle of EIAs was adopted by WCED in 1992 and drafted into the first Rio Declaration, embedding EIAs as a national instrument in Principles 17 and 19 (UNECE, undated-2).

For EIAs as an environmental governance mechanism to be more effective, they must be implemented on a much wider local, regional and national basis for activities across public and private endeavours.  They must encourage cooperation, localised flexibility, and assessment of system-wide interactions, and they must be enforced with an effective method of deterrence to compel compliance, discouraging ‘free-riding’.   Unfortunately, as currently designed their nature as a project-based mechanism with narrowly-defined extents actually prevents assessment of multi-level, wide-scope, system-wide interactions and impacts (Walker,, 2009), such as those effecting global-level social-ecological systems and planetary boundaries.

Regarding the effectiveness of Espoo’s institutional design, the preceding interpretation of Fung’s features of institutional design serves to illustrate ways EIAs can deliver Espoo’s visions and intentions for governance.  Espoo functions as an effective combination of “participatory problem-solving collaboration, […]advisory panel and educative forum (Fung, 2003:341)”.  Here, its only failing resides in the local effectiveness of publicising individual EIA public consultations (i.e. participant selection), and sufficient incorporation of their comments.

Espoo’s design to address stakes, recurrence and iteration, empowerment and the subject, scope and mode of deliberation also seem to be effective on the surface but are subject to the same drawbacks identified above, where it remains to be seen whether EIA stakeholders and particularly their public participants are capable of exercising any real authority (Fraser, in Fung, 2003:346).

Monitoring of Espoo’s effectiveness is successfully achieved at both institutional and project levels through Post-project Analyses, which are shared with Convention Parties in the interest of adaptation, compliance monitoring and continuous improvement.

6         Concluding Thoughts

With limited international uptake and serious local/regional implementation challenges Espoo seems more of a struggling, conciliatory measure than an effective environmental governance mechanism.  However, as a market-based, accessible, scalable mechanism, EIAs have become an important part of the sustainable development lexicon and a useful, if underutilised, instrument for managing environmental impacts from human activities, irrespective of source, or goal.

Notwithstanding its potential, the limited participation in Espoo is its principal failure.  This is potentially attributable to the exceedingly complex and overloaded global MEA system, challenging communications and cooperation within the international political community, and intense pressure from moneyed private-sector interests.  In its current incarnation, international governance of Espoo is insufficient to ensure its effectiveness without:

  • Greater communication and cooperation to secure widespread agreement in favour of adoptingEspoo internationally and EIAs locally;
  • Enhanced mechanisms required to better implement and enforceEspoo adopted;
  • Mechanisms to allow non-linear or cyclical patterns of stakeholder learning and the adaptation of MEAs to change [Walker,, 2009], and
  • Widespread local and regional networks to promote and implement these cyclical MEA systems.

Governing transboundary environmental impacts, whilst an important first-step, should be accompanied by mechanisms to assess wide-scope inputs and effects and provide appropriate localisation.  Expanding the scope and scale of EIA governance could capitalise on the effective, democratic voices of ‘minipublics’ in challenging commercial interests and pressurising government.  Making Espoo a ‘people’s movement’ would provide it with the traction necessary to effectively influence global-level decision-making that affects the environment.

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