Interim Guidance: Considering the Extent to which a Project Contributes to Sustainability

1. Introduction

1.1 Purpose

Under the Impact Assessment Act, sustainability is a way to assess the potential effects of designated projects. One of the key goals of sustainability in impact assessment is to provide a broad or holistic description of a project’s potential positive and negative effects, including the interactions among those effects and the long-term consequences of the effects. Better information on these effects will support more informed decision-making. This guidance document provides an overview of the legislative provisions, key definitions, and guiding principles that govern how sustainability should be considered in assessment and decision-making.

1.2 Context and Relevant Legislative Provisions

The importance of sustainability is evident throughout the Act. The Act’s preamble and the mandate it grants to the Government of Canada, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change (the Minister), the Impact Assessment Agency (the Agency) and federal authorities in the exercise of their powers refer to the commitment to fostering sustainability. The purpose of the Act includes “fostering sustainability” and protecting “the components of the environment and the health, social and economic conditions that are within the legislative authority of Parliament from adverse effects caused by a designated project”.

The Act goes on to say that all impact assessments must take into account the extent to which designated projects contributes to sustainability, along with other factors. The Minister or the Governor in Council’s public interest determination must also consider sustainability as one of five factors to be considered in rendering a final decision. See the Policy Context: Public Interest Determination (Decision-Making) page for more information on sustainability in decision-making.

Additionally, other key legislative requirements contribute to operationalizing the approach to sustainability, such as the factors that must be considered in the impact assessment including alternative means of carrying out the designated project, the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, etc. Annex 1 outlines the specific legislative provisions related to this subject.

1.3 Explanation of Key Terms

Under the Act, sustainability means the ability to protect the environment, contribute to the social and economic well-being of the people of Canada and preserve their health in a manner that benefits present and future generations. Sustainability is contextual, tied to human-ecological systems and is project dependent. It is important to understand different perspectives and values of Indigenous groups and communities involved in an impact assessment, in order to properly assess the project’s contribution to sustainability. There may be different perspectives or values in or among different groups and communities.

The precautionary principle is referenced in the Mandate of the Act, and was also part of the Mandate of CEAA 2012. The precautionary principle states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost‑effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”footnote 1 In the context of impact assessment, all aspects of a project should be examined to enable decision-making in a careful and precautionary manner. Impact Statement should clearly describe and document all uncertainties and assumptions underpinning an analysis.

Furthermore, in cases where there may be risks of irreversible harm, it is important to exercise precaution by assuming that adverse effects are more rather than less. These considerations should be described in a proponent’s Impact Statement. The Impact Assessment Report by the Agency or a Review Panel would then characterize the level of uncertainty and risks of irreversible harm. The Impact Assessment Report will allow decision-makers to consider this in their public interest decision and determine the appropriate monitoring requirements and the need for adaptive management.

Considering effects on future generations involves looking at the long-term effects of a designated project so that the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is not compromised. The appropriate scale will depend on the characteristics of each designated project and its effects.

2. Guiding Principles

Impact assessment requires examining potential changes to the environment or to health, social and economic conditions and identifying the positive and negative consequences of these changes. In order to assess these effects holistically, a project’s contribution to sustainability will be analyzed using a sustainability lens, guided by the principles set out below. This analysis will serve as the basis for assessing a project’s contribution to sustainability. The application of the principles will result in better information on the effects of a project, including long-term effects and identifying the effects on different people.

The sustainability principles developed for the purpose of implementing the Act are:

  1. Consider the interconnectedness and interdependence of human-ecological systems;
  2. Consider the well-being of present and future generations;
  3. Maximize overall positive benefits and minimize adverse effects of a designated project; and
  4. Apply the precautionary principle and consider uncertainty and risk of irreversible harm.

3. Consideration of Sustainability in the Impact Assessment

In a proponent’s Impact Statement Report, proponents should describe the extent to which a project contributes to sustainability. It is recommended that a proponent apply the methodology outlined in the Interim Framework: Implementation of the Sustainability Guidance document as well as in the Tailored Impact Statement Guidelines template. It is also recommended that a proponent apply the sustainability principles when assessing alternatives to a designated project that are technically and economically feasible and are directly related to a project, as well as the alternative means of carrying out a designated project.

Where there are relevant regional or strategic assessments, these should also inform the analysis of sustainability in a project-level impact assessment.

During the impact assessment itself, the Agency or a review panel will undertake consultations and analysis in order to describe the project’s contribution to sustainability in the Impact Assessment Report.

4. Sustainability in Decision-Making and Post Decision

One of the factors the Minister and Governor in Council must take into account when determining whether the adverse effects identified in the impact assessment report are in the public interest is the extent to which a designated project contributes to sustainability. The decision statement issued by the Minister would include the reasons for that determination. See the Policy Context: Public Interest Determination (Decision-Making) page for more information on sustainability in decision-making.

The Impact Assessment Act also permits the Agency to establish monitoring committees for matters related to the implementation of follow-up programs. Follow-up programs can be used to verify predictions, identify if any unanticipated effects are occurring and fill in any gaps in the data.

Annex 1: Specifics Legislative Requirements

The Impact Assessment Act has several provisions that reference sustainability and how it will be considered in the impact assessment process. There are indicated below.

Under the Act, sustainability means the ability to protect the environment, contribute to the social and economic well-being of the people of Canada and preserve their health in a manner that benefits present and future generations.

Paragraph 6(1)(a) states that one of the purposes of the Act is to foster sustainability.

The Preamble of the Act and subsection 6(2) confers the mandates on the Government of Canada, the Minister, the Agency and federal authorities, in the administration of this Act, and indicates that they must exercise their powers in a manner that “fosters sustainability, respects the Government’s commitments with respect to the rights of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and applies the precautionary principle”.

Paragraph 22(1)(h) states that one of the factors that must be considered in an impact assessment of a designated project, whether it is conducted by the Agency or a review panel is, “the extent to which the designated project contributes to sustainability”.

Paragraph 63(a) states that one of the public interest factors that must be considered when the Minister or Governor in Council makes a public interest decision is, “the extent to which the designated project contributes to sustainability”.

Additional legislative requirements will contribute to operationalizing the sustainability approach. Some of these supporting legislative requirements that are linked to sustainability are:

Purposes of the Act (Subsection 6(1)):

Subsection 22(1) states that the impact assessment of a designated project, whether conducted by the Agency or a review panel, must take into account the following factors:

Section 63 states that the Minister and Governor in council must take into account factors in making the public interest decision. These factors are:

Paragraph 65(1)(a) states that the Minister must issue a Decision Statement to the proponent of a designated project that informs the proponent of the determination in relation to that project and the reasons for the determination. The reasons for the determination must demonstrate that the Minister or the Governor in Council, as the case may be, considered all of the required factors.

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