The second main reason for SEA is that it can enhance the integration of environmental concerns in policy and planning processes, thereby helping to implement sustainable development. It can help to ensure that environmental and sustainability criteria are fully considered throughout the planning process, for instance in the identification of suitable (or unsuitable) locations for development, and in the assessment of alternative strategic actions.
SEA as currently practised reflects the Brundtland Commission's approach to sustainable development, which suggests that environmental protection and economic development can only progress hand in hand. Under this model, SEA is used to fine-tune strategic actions and mitigate their most negative environmental consequences. Cynically viewed, it allows decision-makers to enter the heaven of environmental righteousness after having survived the purgatory of writing an SEA report. On the scale from light to dark green (where dark green would allow development only within ecological constraints), SEA as currently practised is near the light-green end, although it has the potential to be dark green.
As part of the development of a strategic action, SEA can:
- interpret and implement sustainability principles from policy to lower decision-making levels;
- help to ensure that environmental and sustainability considerations are incorporated into the objectives of a strategic action;
- identify environmental and sustainability targets by which the effects of a strategic action can be tested; and
- appraise whether the impacts of a strategic action are likely to be in accordance with sustainability objectives.
The illustration below demonstrates how SEA can complement EIA and lead to the development of more sustainable strategic action.
Sustainability-led approach for SEA?
Ultimately, as a result of the influence of sustainability in strategic decision-making, a wider framework of "sustainability-led" SEAs could include:
- commitment to the principle of sustainability;
- determination of carrying capacity;
- SEA of all relevant tiers of PPPs and their alternatives;
- EIA of specific projects within the constraints set by SEA; and
- monitoring and iterative feedback to stages 2-4.
SEA is in many ways a prototype of the new approach to environmental issues. It requires institutions to consider the consequences of a range of actions early on in the planning process, to choose the most appropriate action on environmental as well as socio-economic grounds, and to minimise any remaining environmental impacts. It is thus characterised by its strategic nature and its emphasis on preventing environmental damage. SEA requires institutional cooperation to collect data and to make consistent predictions. By requiring planning decisions to be made in a more rational and open way, SEA is likely to promote both equity and public participation.