Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is the process of predicting and evaluating the impact of a strategic action on the environment, and using that information in decision-making. SEA is basically environmental impact assessment of strategic actions: policies, plans and programmes.  Environmental impact assessment of projects is the starting point for SEA, but EIA and SEA have some key differences:

Strategic Environmental Assessment of Policies, Plans and Programmes

  • Takes place at earlier stages of decision-making cycle: aims to prevent impacts
  • Pro-active approach to development proposals
  • Considers broad range of potential alternatives
  • Cumulative effects assessment is key to SEA
  • Emphasis on meeting environmental objectives, maintaining natural systems
  • Broad perspective, lower level of detail to provide a vision and overall framework
  • Multi-stage process, overlapping components, policy level is continuing, iterative
  • Focuses on sustainability agenda, gets at sources of environmental deterioration

whereas EIA of Projects

  • Takes place near the end of decision-making cycle: aims to minimize impacts
  • Reactive approach to development proposal
  • Considers limited number of feasible alternatives
  • Limited review of cumulative effects
  • Emphasis on mitigating and minimizing impacts
  • Narrow perspective, high level of detail
  • Well-defined process, clear beginning and end
  • Focuses on standard agenda, treats systems of environmental deterioration

Source: UNEP (2002) Environmental Impact Assessment Training Resource Manual, 2nd Edition, UNEP, Geneva. Amended from CSIR (1996)

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

Limitations of EIA

  • EIA takes place once many strategic decisions have already been made, it can often address only a limited range of alternatives and mitigation measures: those of a wider nature are generally poorly integrated into project planning.
  • Consultation in EIA is also limited and the contribution of EIA to the eventual decision regarding the project is unclear.
  • Although project EIA is widely used and accepted as a useful tool in decision-making, it largely reacts to development proposals rather than proactively anticipating them
  • Project EIAs are also generally limited to the project’s direct impacts. This approach ignores a wide range of impacts, including:
    • Cumulative impacts: the environmental impacts of multiple plans, projects and other actions
    • global impacts: impacts that go beyond the local, project level, for instance climate change
    • indirect, secondary or induced impacts: impacts that occur several steps away from the original action, for instance new houses that generate more vehicle movements that increase air pollution that affect the flora in an area
    • Synergistic impacts: where impact A + impact B have a total impact of more than A+B: for instance NOx emissions and ozone emissions which together cause smog, which has impacts over and above those of just the NOx + ozone.

Strategic Environmental Assessment can deal with many of these difficulties, as it:

  1. incorporates environmental issues into project planning and decision making;
  2. considers alternatives or mitigation measures beyond project level
  3. involves consultation on more strategic issues

Promotion of sustainable development

  • 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.

Technical and Procedural Limitations of SEA


Type Limitation Outcome
The concept of Strategic Environmental Assessment, particularly sustainability-led SEA, is not yet politically accepted Many countries traditional approaches to policy-making, the worldwide emphasis on economic well-being (e.g. GNP) rather than total quality of life, and the sheer effort involved in determining sustainability criteria/targets all frustrate this concept.
Procedural A strategic action may have no formal authorization stage Instead it evolves in fits and starts through to implementation. There may be issues of confidentiality. Decision-makers may also be concerned that SEA should not take over the process of decision-making. SEA is also inherently a political process.
SEAs have to deal with information at a different level from project EIAs A national-level SEA needs to focus on national -level concerns, and thus may have to disregard impacts that are important at a local level but that do not influence a national-level decision
SEAs often have to cope with limited information Environmental Data Collected in different countries are often incompatible or limited
SEAs are subject to greater levels of uncertainty than project EIA Uncertainty, in terms of future environmental, economic and social conditions, likely development as a result of the PPP, and likely future technologies
Technical Strategic Environmental Assessment generally cover a large area, sometimes several countries and a large number of alternatives This makes collecting and analysing data for SEAs very complex

On the technical side the relative lack of case studies and experience of SEA exacerbates these limitations. On the procedural side decision-makers, competent authorities and stakeholders must be aware that Strategic Environmental Assessment is inherently a political process, and should ensure that SEA informs decisions but does not make them.

General Process of Strategic Environmental Assessment

Process of Strategic Environmental Assessment

  • Identify Sustainability Objectives – Ensures that issues of ESD are incorporated at the earliest stage of decision making in the process
  • Identify Targets and Indicators – Determines whether the objectives of the strategic action are achieved
  • Describe Environmental Baseline – Illustrates the existing environmental/sustainability conditions in the context of the strategic action
  • Predict and Evaluate Impacts – Determines the sustainability impacts of the strategic action alternatives and identifies opportunities for mitigation
  • Mitigate Impacts – An ongoing process to ensure the strategic action is sustainable and the impacts of the proposed strategic action are minimized
  • Write SEA Report – Documents the strategic action, and the Strategic Environmental Assessment process, results and decision making
  • Establish Environmental Guidelines
  • Monitor Environmental Impacts

Read about: Types of environmental pollution  What is meant by Environmental Education?

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