Environmental assessments in the context of climate change: The role of the UN Economic Commission for Europe

Date01 April 2019
AuthorBenoit Mayer
Published date01 April 2019
Environmental assessments in the context of climate change:
The role of the UN Economic Commission for Europe
Benoit Mayer
Email: bnt.mayer@gmail.com The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has played an import-
ant role in the recognition of a customary international law obligation for States to
conduct an environmental assessment (EA) when a proposed activity is likely to have
a transboundary impact. It is unclear, at present, whether this customary norm applies
to the impacts of an activity on the global environment. In recent years, the EA frame-
works of many UNECE member States have been construed or revised so as to
include consideration for the impact of proposed activities on climate change. The
UNECE could help to establish this growing practice as a norm through the adoption
of a dedicated instrument on EA in the context of climate change. This article docu-
ments ongoing developments in UNECE member States and discussions that have
taken place under the auspices of the UNECE and discusses next steps.
Environmental assessment (EA) has been used across the world for
about half a century in order to ensure that decisions likely to have
a significant impact on our environment are well informed. The
importance of EA as an instrument for environmental protection was
recognized, among others, through Principle 17 of the Rio Declar-
ation on Environment and Development.
Today, most countries in
the world have a mandatory EA procedure applicable to projects
and, often, also programmes, plans and policies, which are likely to
have a significant impact on the environment.
On the other hand, historical and current greenhouse gas (GHG)
emissions have already impacted our global environment in concern-
ing ways. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC)
Fifth Assessment Report estimated that the global average tempera-
ture on our planet has already increased by 0.85°C.
The IPCC also
predicted that continued rates of GHG emissions would cause se-
vere, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.
Climate change is arguably the most severe environmental impact of
human societies inasmuch as it may directly threaten our very exist-
ence as civilization and species.
EA procedures have long been confined to harm affecting a par-
ticular place. In 1991, as the member States of the United Nations
Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) were drafting the Con-
vention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary
Context (Espoo Convention), they decided to exclude impacts exclu-
sively of a global naturefrom the scope of this instrument.
Just a
year later, the Earth Summit adopted the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which stopped short of
requiring that States conduct an EA when a proposed activity is
likely to cause substantial GHG emissions.
Few, in the early 1990s,
considered this new tool for environmental protection as a way to
address this growing concern of human kind (climate change).
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Rio Declaration on Environment and Developmentin Report of the United Nations Con-
ference on Environment and DevelopmentUN Doc A/CONF.151/26 (vol I) (12 August
1992) (Rio Declaration) Principle 17.
See, e.g., R Morgan, Environmental Impact Assessment: The State of the Art(2012) 30
Impact Assessment & Project Appraisal 5; H Abaza, R Bisset and B Sadler, Environmental
Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment: Towards an Integrated Approach
(United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 2004).
IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to
the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2015) 2.
ibid 8.
Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (adopted 25
February 1991, entered into force 10 September 1997) 1989 UNTS 309 (Espoo Conven-
tion) art 1(viii).
1992, entered into force 21 March 1994) 1771 UNTS 107 (UNFCCC) art 4(1)(f).
For an exception, see N Robinson, International Trends in Environmental Impact Assess-
ment(1992) 19 Environmental Affairs 591, 606.
DOI: 10.1111/reel.12263
wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/reel RECIEL. 2019;28:8293.

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