Strategic Assessment

The Strategic Environment Assessment, which assesses the effects of certain public plans and programmes on the environment, was introduced into EU law by Directive 2001/42/EC (the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive). As required by the Directive, the Commission has adopted a Report on the application and effectiveness of this piece of legislation.

Background

The Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (SEA Directive) was introduced in order to make sustainable development a core part of public planning and policy making. Under the provisions of the Directive, public plans and programmes (P&Ps) were obliged to undergo a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) before being adopted.

SEAs include the drawing up of an environmental report in which the likely significant effects of a proposal on the environment are analysed, and reasonable alternatives identified. P&Ps also have to demonstrate that consultations (with the public, environmental authorities and with other Member States in the case of cross-border impacts) have been carried out.

Although the SEA Directive specified that the Commission should publish a Report on the application and effectiveness of the Directive no later than 21 July 2006, the information available was not sufficient to produce a Report. The Report was therefore postponed, and was finally published in September this year.

Aim of the Report

The Report was written with the intention of studying the ‘application and effectiveness of the Directive on Strategic Environmental Assessment (Directive 2001/42/EC)’. In addition, the Report also had the objective of potentially proposing amendments to extend the Directive’s scope into other areas and sectors.  

Main Conclusions

The Report provides a mixed picture of the application and effectiveness of the SEA Directive across Member States. It is noted that the experiences of Member States have been quite diverse and that as a result, further experience is needed before deciding on whether the Directive should be amended and, if so, how this should be done.

The conclusion of the study is that, overall, the SEA Directive contributes to the systematic and structured consideration of environmental concerns in planning processes. The Report notes, however, that Member States would prefer stability as regards their legislative requirements in order to allow SEA systems and processes to settle down. The Report therefore recommends no changes to the legislative framework and suggests that the next report should be adopted in 2013.

Effectiveness of the Directive

A majority of Member States mentioned the contribution of the SEA Directive in improving organisation in planning procedures. In particular, the formal requirements of consultation with environmental authorities and the public have, according to Member States, led to increased transparency in planning procedures.

Moreover, most Member States reported that, in many cases, SEAs changed the content of the P&P. SEAs did not change the major goals or the allocation of funds among the funding objectives; what it changed were certain funding objectives, schemes or criteria. However, other experiences show that, at the level of major national plans, a significant number of the SEA findings had a strong influence on the substance of the plans, including in the selection of alternatives or by incorporating important suggestions from the SEA.

A majority of Member States also report that the contents of P&Ps are gradually being modified as a consequence of conducting SEAs, alongside the preparation of P&Ps. Member States specifically mention that expensive mitigation measures adopted previously may now be superfluous as a direct consequence of the early inclusion of environmental considerations in the P&P.

Possible Merger between EIA and SEA

The Report also discusses the possibility of a merger between the SEA Directive and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive. It notes that this has the potential to increase clarity and boost efficiency. The Report recommends however that at present no changes should be carried out, as most Member States believe that each process should remain completely separate in its own right. Moreover, the Commission has stated that given the limited experience of Member States in applying the SEA Directive, it would not be appropriate at present to merge the two measures.

Climate Change Issues

The SEA Directive does not contain specific guidelines on the consideration of climate change issues. Instead, climate change issues are considered in the Directive on a case-by-case basis, and mainly in relation to P&P with a potential significant impact on climate, such as energy or transport P&P. A trend is emerging however whereby Member States pay greater attention to climate change issues in their P&P.

Some Member States are developing specific methodologies to measure the potential greenhouse gas emissions of particular P&Ps; others have set a target of "carbon neutrality" (i.e. the implementation of the P&P should not result in an increase of greenhouse gas emissions) or of identifying impacts on climate change in terms of an expected reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The Report recommends however that there should be further development of specific guidelines for the consideration of climate change issues in order to ensure that these considerations are universally applied.

Possible Amendments

While the Report does not recommend substantially changing the SEA Directive, it identifies a number of areas where the Directive could be improved. These improvements are related in particular to the SEA Protocol (more often known as Kiev Protocol), signed by members of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The SEA Protocol will enter into force on 8 October 2009.  

The SEA Protocol goes further than the SEA Directive in that it encourages SEAs to be applied to policies and legislative proposals, and not just P&Ps. The Report suggests that it may be necessary to consider the possible inclusion of policies and legislation in the application of the Directive as an option for the future.

The Report also identifies capacity building as a problem among Member States. It recommends that capacity building should be strongly encouraged, in particular via targeted campaigns for the recruitment and training of SEA experts and guidance documents. A lack of guidance is highlighted in the Report as a problem for certain Member States and, consequently, the Commission is exploring avenues for producing better guidance.