Taking an environmental ethics perspective to understand what we should expect from EIA in terms of biodiversity protection

Alan Bond, Jenny Pope, Angus Morrison-Saunders, Francois Retief

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14 Citations (Scopus)
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As a globally mandated decision-support tool, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has the potential to contribute to the protection of biodiversity, which is increasingly under threat because of human activities. Concern over its ability to do this, however, has led to the addition of trade-off rules, Ecosystem Services Assessment (ESA), and biodiversity offsets. But given that EIA is set in a political decision-making context, what is reasonable to expect of EIA? In this paper we seek to explore what level of biodiversity protection we can expect EIA to support (and therefore whether these additions are worthwhile). Our point of departure is that EIA supports its political context and associated societal goals, and those goals typically (explicitly or implicitly) reflect some form of sustainable development. Given that the appropriate level of biodiversity protection is a moral consideration, we take an environmental ethics perspective to explain how different levels of protection are associated with different ethical positions on a spectrum from anthropocentrism (where only humans have intrinsic rights) through to ecocentrism (where all individuals of all species have intrinsic rights). We then investigate how different sustainable development discourses, one economic (on a spectrum from weak to strong sustainability) and one ecological (on a spectrum from shallow to deep ecology) map against the environmental ethics spectrum. We find that the economic discourse on sustainable development, which tends to prevail in political decision-making, is heavily anthropocentric, whereas an ecological discourse has some potential to deliver ecocentrism, but only where a deep ecology interpretation is adopted. We then show that the practise of EIA (with or without the addition of other approaches) maps against, and is bounded by, an economic discourse on sustainable development. The reality is, therefore, that EIA can do no more than contribute to delaying incremental biodiversity loss. If EIA were legislated to protect biodiversity using a deep ecology discourse, then only brownfield development would be possible.
Original languageEnglish
Article number106508
JournalEnvironmental Impact Assessment Review
Early online date29 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


  • Environmental Impact Assessment
  • environmental ethics
  • anthropocentrism
  • biodiversity
  • trade-offs
  • ecosystem services assessment
  • biodiversity offsets
  • sustainable development

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