Interim Framework: Implementation of the Sustainability Guidance
Under the Impact Assessment Act, one of the factors that must be considered in impact assessments is “the extent to which a designated project contributes to sustainability”.footnote 1
This framework outlines the methodologies and considerations that practitioners can follow in describing a project’s contribution to sustainability. Practitioners of impact assessments may include proponents, consultants, federal or provincial officials, Indigenous groups or others. This framework builds on past practices in environmental assessment that considered elements of sustainability.
For more information on the legislative provisions, key definitions, and guiding principles that govern how sustainability should be considered in assessment and decision-making, please see the Interim Guidance: Considering the Extent to which a Project Contributes to Sustainability page.
2. General Approach
There are five phases in the impact assessment process: Planning, Impact Statement, Impact Assessment, Decision-making and Post-decision. Conducting impact assessments calls for the examination of potential changes to the environment and to health, social and economic effects of a designated project on valued components (VCs) and the consideration of mitigation measures. This framework therefore proposes a VC-centered approach for the assessment of a project’s contribution to sustainability.
In the approach outlined in this framework, sustainability will be a lens applied to assess potential effects of a designated project. Once baseline information has been collected and the potential effects of a project are assessed, this will serve as the basis for understanding a designated project’s contribution to sustainability. Applying a sustainability lens to the assessment of environmental, health, social and economic effects will allow practitioners to gather information that wouldn’t otherwise be analyzed. This includes the consideration of long-term effects on future generations, the interaction of effects and additional mitigation measures.
While the analysis of a project’s contribution to sustainability will occur after practitioners have conducted their assessment of effects, information and data requirements for sustainability should be considered from the outset of an impact assessment for planning purposes. The level of effort required to assess a project’s contribution to sustainability is scalable depending on the phase of the process and the context of the project. The analysis required should increase as proponents proceed through the impact assessment phases. Further, the level of effort should be appropriate to the context of the project. For example, in the case where there are predicted effects on future generations. The key actions related to conducting this analysis are indicated in the following table:
|Phase||Key Actions Related to Sustainability|
Minister or Governor in Council:
In order to support the implementation this framework, discussions related to sustainability in the planning phase of the project should include the proponent, the Agency, federal authorities, lifecycle regulators, other jurisdictions, Indigenous groups, treaty-based impact assessment co-management boards, the public and other participants. Early discussions with key participants will increase predictability in the process and where relevant, harmonization among jurisdictions.
Defining the scope of an assessment is a central part of the planning phase of an impact assessment. As part of this phase, the public and Indigenous communities will be engaged to identify key issues of importance to them. This engagement will help identify VCs, elements of the human and natural environment that are perceived as important by participants in an impact assessment process, and that should be carried forward into the assessment.
When assessing a project’s contribution to sustainability, practitioners should consider those VCs that participants characterize as important. Sustainability is contextual and project dependent; as such, it may be defined differently by communities, or even groups within communities. For example, a change to a VC could be viewed positively by some and negatively by others, depending on the context and preferences. The goal is not to seek consensus on areas of importance but rather to document and understand the views expressed. Without knowing what is valued, it is not possible to analyze the right issues and the sustainability of these elements.
Example: Valued Components
During the planning phase, some local community members near the site for a proposed mine indicated that they would support the project because they were seeking additional employment opportunities in their community. They also indicated that they wanted the benefits to be retained over a longer period, even if that meant that there were fewer positions available per year. Long-term viability and vibrancy of their community and its local residents was of key importance to the community. By contrast, local entrepreneurs seeking business opportunities preferred to maximize contracting opportunities in the short term so that they could build up their business capacities and skills before moving on to other possible projects. For these entrepreneurs, increasing business opportunities and capacities as quickly as possible was identified as most important. The proponent identified employment as a VC to bring forward into the assessment of economic effects and the assessment of the extent to which a project contributes to sustainability. These different perspectives were then noted in their Impact Statement.
When identifying VCs that should be further assessed through the sustainability lens, in addition to those identified by participants, practitioners should also consider VCs:
- that could experience long-term effects;
- that may interact with other VCs;
- that may interact with potential effects of the designated project; or
- that may interact with project activities.
As part of the planning phase, the temporal boundaries or time horizons for an assessment, will be identified. In order to assess a project’s contribution to sustainability, consideration needs to be given to the long-term effects VCs, how those effects could change over time and how these effects could affect future generations. It may take several generations before effects become fully apparent. A VC may also take generations to stabilize to a new state, or to recover from the impacts of a designated project. Selecting the appropriate temporal boundary should consider the predicted amount of time for the VC to return to baseline conditions, the resilience of the VC and whether the VC is expected to recover from the effects caused by the designated project.
The Agency will use the information collected in the planning phase to develop the Tailored Impact Statement Guidelines (TISGs), including the scope of the factors that are considered in an assessment . The TISGs will outline the information and analysis required to assess a project’s contribution to sustainability in the proponent’s Impact Statement. Expert federal departments and lifecycle regulators who may be in possession of specialist or expert information or knowledge will review the TISG to ensure the information and analysis required relevant to their respective mandates is identified.
3. Sustainability Principles
To conduct the analysis, it is recommended that practitioners analyze the potential effects of a project through the application of sustainability principles. These principles have been developed based on the definitions and concepts in the Impact Assessment Act and are informed by best practices, past environmental assessments and sustainability literature. The sustainability principles are:
- Principle 1
- Consider the interconnectedness and interdependence of human-ecological systems
- Principle 2
- Consider the well-being of present and future generations
- Principle 3
- Maximize overall positive benefits and minimize adverse effects of the designated project
- Principle 4
- Apply the precautionary principle and consider uncertainty and risk of irreversible harm
Practitioners, in their Impact Statement, will characterize, in their own words, a project’s contribution to sustainability. Practitioners should describe the context of a particular project, including the issues of importance to participants, the diversity of views expressed and the selection of VCs. As a best practice, proponents may wish to include information written from the perspective of the participants (see example below).
Example - Keeyask Generation Project:
In the Keeyask Generation Project assessment, the Cree Nation Partners (Tataskweyak Cree Nation and War Lake First Nation), the Fox Lake Cree Nation and the York Factory First Nation submitted Environmental Evaluation Reports written from their own perspectives. The Cree Nation Partners Keeyask Environmental Evaluation Report outlines how “the story we tell is our own, as are the conclusions we have come to regarding Keeyask. The methods we used to assess the likely impacts on us are based on our traditions and our worldview, and our decision to approve Keeyask can be understood in this context.” The report further describes their Cree Worldview, the consultation process with their members, their conclusions, etc.
The objectives of the Fox Lake Cree Nation (FLCN) Environment Evaluation Report reflect the long-term goals of FLCN towards living mino pimatisiwin:
“Mino pimatisiwin relates to the overall health of our people. Mino pimatisiwin includes the protection of Aski, our health and social wellbeing, socio-economic prosperity, integrity of culture and language, integrity of governance and autonomy, and healthy local ecosystems. Health is more broadly defined to include our physical, social, cultural, and spiritual wellbeing. We know what the environment should be like in order to provide all the things that we require to be healthy. Specifically, our lands and waters should be whole and healthy, both of which are the prerequisites of a peaceful existence. This concept of wholeness is expressed in one simple sentence, “everything is connected.” The understanding of the world in terms of the relationships among all things is paramount to the philosophy of mino pimatisiwin, and links our wellbeing to our perception of our environment. The relationship our people have with the land is best understood through the definition of Aski provided by the FLCN Core Kitayatisuk and Harvesters Group as lands, waters, animals, plants, people and all of their interrelationships.”
These reports helped decision-makers understand potential impacts to these Indigenous groups and more fully comprehend the context of the project.
Proponents should also describe how they applied the sustainability principles and conclusions drawn from this analysis. This summary should be qualitative in nature, but may draw on quantitative data as necessary. Recommended methodologies for applying the sustainability principles are outlined below.
3.1 Understanding Principle 1: Consider the interconnectedness and interdependence of human-ecological systems
Under the Impact Assessment Act, impact assessments require a consideration of the interactions among effects, as well as consideration of cumulative effects. Environmental, health, social and economic effects are often interrelated and complex. In order to consider properly the interactions among effects, a project’s contribution to sustainability should be examined using a “systems” approach.
A systems analysis involves examining the relationships among the environmental, health, social and economic VCs. Systems are dynamic and change over time; they are greater than the sum of their parts. Sustainability cannot be understood by looking at the potential effects of a designated project separately. A systems approach will allow for attention on interactions and facilitate a more complete understanding of a project’s contribution to sustainability. The degree of interconnectedness within systems and/or subsystems varies greatly; the interconnectedness may be very intricate and tight or quite loose and indirect.
A systems approach will also allow for examining the system’s resilience; the ability of natural systems to recover from disturbances and to tolerate or adapt to change. As illustrated in the figure below, proponents can develop conceptual diagrams of systems to assist in demonstrating the functioning of human-ecological systems as a whole that may be impacted by the project. Such system models help to position VCs and impacts in their broader context and facilitate understanding, dialogue and assessment. System models also facilitate consideration of cumulative effects.
Adapted from The Social-Ecological System Concept, Marta Pérez-Soba (Wageningen Environmental Research) and Janet Dwyer (CCRI), 2016
3.2 Applying Principle 1: Consider the interconnectedness and interdependence of human-ecological systems
Practitioners will be required to describe system-level interactions in the Impact Statement. The systems should be described in a sufficient level of detail to understand the direct and indirect relationships of a system. The description of the systems should not be an exhaustive list of all the potential effects of the designated project but rather highlight those aspects that are important to communities, the social-ecological system and to the context of a project.
Example: Illustration of an Integrated System of People and the Land:
In the report of Environmental Assessment and Reasons for Decision, Government of Northwest Territories, Tlicho All-Season Road Project, the Mackenzie Valley Review Board visually represented the connections between related and interdependent parts of human and ecological systems in the Project area. The arrows indicate major connections, while the plus or minus signs indicate whether the connection increases or decreases that part of the system. The illustration is not intended to be complete or exhaustive, but rather a heuristic to understand system interactions.
Practitioners should examine how the elements in a system, relate to one another and how these systems function together. All interactions, pathways and connections among effects to the environment, and to health, economic and social conditions should be described. Impacts of a project may diminish over time or be amplified through interaction with other forces. Practitioners should evaluate and describe how these interactions may change over time.
Indigenous knowledge is an important source of knowledge when describing system-level interactions. Indigenous Knowledge refers to the systems of knowledge of Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the distinct knowledge systems of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Where possible, proponents should ensure that the description of systems and the direct and indirect relationships are guided by input from Indigenous knowledge.
As a hypothetical example, if a lake were identified as a key VC by an Indigenous group, the practitioner would then describe the interconnectedness of the lake with other VCs in the system including fish and fish habitat, human health, social security, equal opportunity, equity, and traditional harvesting. The practitioner also would describe the relationship between the lake system and other systems, such as a system describing the impacts to air quality. Air pollution could have adverse impacts on the lake including impacts to fish, health (as it relates to drinking water), and potentially lead to the loss of the recreational use of the lake.
As a best practice, the public and Indigenous communities should be engaged to describe where they see areas of interconnectedness. Practitioners may develop simple images to represent visually the connections between human and ecological systems. These images may be helpful to use in engagement or to inform decision-makers. See “Illustrated Example of an Integrated System of People and the Land” above.
3.3 Key Considerations for Applying Principle 1: Consider the interconnectedness and interdependence of human-ecological systems
In applying Principle 1, the practitioner should consider the following guiding questions:
- What are key environmental, health, social and economic components that should be included in the system?
- What are the interactions between the environmental, health, social and economic components of the system?
- What are the potential pathways?
- What are the direct interactions?
- What are the indirect interactions?
- How are the systems impacted by cumulative effects?
- Has Indigenous knowledge informed the analysis?
- How do the interactions change over time?
- Will the system recover from disturbances?
- How will the system adapt to change caused by the designated project?
3.4 Understanding Principle 2: Consider the well-being of present and future generations
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”. This means that the long-term effects on the well-being of present and future generations need to be assessed.
This principle requires the consideration of the elements of environmental, health, social and economic well-being that communities identified as being valuable to them. Multiple effects may intersect with well-being, including environmental, health, social and economic effects. For example, well-being could include community cohesion, protection of the environment, culture, stress, or livelihoods.
Proponents should also consider how the environmental, health, social and economic effects on well-being could change over time and how these effects could affect future generations. Effects on future generations could include effects beyond the lifecycle of the project. Communities should be engaged in order to determine how effects on future generations should be considered.
Community Well-Being Plans:
Communities may have established community well-being plans that provides a framework for valued elements within their communities. These plans may address contingencies, provide recommendations, progress reports and desired outcomes. When these plans exist, proponents may use them to serve as the basis for examining the well-being of a community.
For example, as part of the Comprehensive Community Planning for First Nations in British Columbia, the T'Sou-ke Nation participated in the comprehensive community planning process where sustainability was a central theme of their planning:
“The theme respected First Nations traditional values of honouring Mother Earth, all living creatures and the elements: the sun, the wind and the sea. By adopting these values, the community felt it could work towards creating a more sustainable life for generations to come. To incorporate the overall objective of sustainability, the T'Sou-ke Nation expanded their planning horizon from 20 years to include the next seven generations, or 100 plus years. They began asking themselves what kind of community they wanted to create and leave behind for the seventh generation. This led to the development of four broad objectives around which their plan was based. They called these the Four Pillars of Sustainability: Energy Autonomy, Food Self-Sufficiency, Cultural Revival, and Sustainable Economic Development.”
3.5 Applying Principle 2: Consider the well-being of present and future generations
To conduct an analysis on future generations, proponents should first determine what the potential long-term effects are on well-being. Proponents should then assess how these long-term effects could affect future generations. The temporal boundaries of VCs may need to be extended beyond the lifecycle of a project.
Data collection and/or generation are important components of assessing long-term well-being of present and future generations. At times, it may be challenging to obtain or generate data to support the analysis. Potential effects on future generations should be considered with the supporting data or uncertainty. This uncertainty should be documented. Indigenous knowledge and community knowledge are important sources of information for this type of assessment as this knowledge is built up through generations of people living in a project area.
Example: Well-Being in the Assessment of the Red Mountain Underground Gold Project:
The Red Mountain Underground Gold Project was assessed under CEAA 2012 and under the environmental assessment requirements set out in Chapter 10 of the Nisga’a Final Agreement. The assessment examined effects on the existing and future economic, social and cultural well-being of Nisga’a citizens.
The social effects of the project were assessed by looking at Nisga’a Nation interests including migration and population, Nisga’a infrastructure and services, Nisga’a occupational and non-occupational health risks, crime and family and community well-being.
The Agency concluded that the Project would result in both positive and negative effects on the existing and future economic, social and cultural well-being of Nisga’a citizens who may be affected by the Project.
Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ) is the term used to describe Inuit epistemology or the Indigenous knowledge of the Inuit. Inuit Elders in Nunavut have identified a framework for Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, which is grounded in four big laws or maligait. One of these malaigait is “continually planning and preparing for the future”. IQ is defined as the Inuit ways past, present and future. [“IQ encompasses the entire realm of Inuit experience in the world and the values, principles, beliefs and skills which have evolved as a result of that experience. It is the experience and resulting knowledge/wisdom that prepares us for success in the future and establishes the possible survival of Inuit. The time continuum is not viewed as entirely linear. However, Inuit Elders have used the bow and arrow analogy to explain the relevance this life view, established over centuries, has for the future of Inuit. They say that if you do not draw back the arrow in the bow, it will drop a short distance in front of you. In other words, the level of our understanding of the views and values of our past helps determine the degree of success we have with our future; the better our understanding, the greater our success. This conceptually iterative approach of past informing present and future is a critical underpinning of Inuit worldview.”]
(National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health)
3.6 Key Considerations for Applying Principle 2: Consider the well-being of present and future generations
In applying Principle 2, the practitioner should consider the following guiding questions:
- How do communities define well-being? What elements are valuable to them?
- Are there existing community well-being plans?
- Have diverse groups and different perspectives been included in the definition of well-being?
- What are the potential effects to the elements described as valuable?
- What is considered future generation?
- What are the long-term effects on well-being?
- How will these long-term effects affect future generations?
- Will the effects change over time?
- Have you proactively sought out Indigenous knowledge and community knowledge to help inform your analysis?
3.7 Understanding Principle 3: Maximize overall positive benefits and minimize adverse effects of the designated project
Impact assessments require proponents to consider mitigation measures that are technically and economically feasible and would mitigate any adverse effects of the project. Mitigation measures include measures to eliminate, reduce or control the adverse effects of a designated project, as well as restitution for damage to the environment through replacement, restoration, compensation or other means.
Impact assessments also require an examination of the positive and negative consequences of changes to the environment and to health, social or economic conditions. Impact assessments will be required to include a consideration of ways to maximize the positive benefits of a designated project.
3.8 Applying Principle 3: Maximize overall positive benefits and minimize adverse effects of the designated project
Through examining the interaction of effects, the well-being of present and future generations and long-term effects of a designated project, additional mitigation measures or positive benefits may be identified, these additional measures should be described.
Additionally, project activities may cause different impacts for diverse subgroups in a community and could be more serious for vulnerable populations within that community. Proponents should consider who will receive benefits, and who will be adversely impacted and how this relates to the overall well-being of the affected groups, including across future generations. For example, project activities may result in disproportionate impacts to the intergenerational transfer of knowledge among different parts of the community, and across communities.
Example – Analysis of the Possible Benefits of the Kemess Underground Project:
The Environmental Assessment Report for the Kemess Underground Project, prepared by British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office, described how the project has the potential to produce substantial long-term benefits for the Tsay Keh Nay (TKN) First Nations. TKN is of the view that these benefits (if they were actualized) outweigh the risks associated with the potential effects. Some of the benefits described in the report include:
- School based initiatives to improve educational outcomes for TKN members
- A broad range of employment and training initiatives for TKN members
- Business opportunities for TKN businesses during construction and operation of the KUG Project
3.9 Key Considerations for Applying Principle 3: Maximize overall positive benefits and minimize adverse effects of the designated project
In applying Principle 3, the practitioner should consider the following guiding questions:
- Are additional mitigation measures required?
- Have additional benefits been identified?
- How can benefits be maximized?
- Does the direction of the impact (i.e. positive or negative) shift between different groups and sub-populations?
- Do some beneﬁt while others do not?
- Are there particular strengths or vulnerabilities in the potentially affected communities that may influence impacts?
- Do the impacts cause regional inequities?
- Do the near term benefits come at the expense of further disadvantages for future generations?
3.10 Understanding Principle 4: Apply the precautionary principle and consider uncertainty and risk of irreversible harm
One of the mandates of the Act is that “The Government of Canada, the Minister, the Agency and federal authorities, in the administration of this Act, 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”.
Impact Statements should clearly describe and document all uncertainties and assumptions underpinning an analysis and identify information sources. This includes documentation of the uncertainty, reliability, sensitivity and conservativeness of models used to reach conclusions. Significant gaps in knowledge and understanding related to key conclusions, and the steps to be taken to address these gaps, should be identified. For example, if there is uncertainty surrounding effects to a future generation’s ability to engage in traditional practices, these uncertainties should be identified.
A precautionary approach should be applied in cases where there is risk of irreversible harm. Irreversible harm refers to project-related effects from which a valued component is not expected to recover. Reversibility is influenced by the resilience of the VC to imposed stresses and the degree of existing stress on that valued component.
Example: Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Project:
The environmental assessment for the Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Project, conducted by a Joint Review Panel under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Newfoundland and Labrador Environmental Assessment Act included a consideration of the extent of the precautionary principle’s application to the project. The Panel considered that the precautionary principle or approach requires a proponent to demonstrate that its actions will not result in serious or irreversible damage. The Panel asked the proponent to take a conservative approach to its predictions by, for example, setting out worst-case scenarios, where appropriate. The Panel sought assurance that, if there was great uncertainty about the seriousness and irreversibility of the effects of any Project component, the proponent could reduce this uncertainty, correct the problem or suggest a viable alternative to that component. The proponent outlined to the Panel the ways in which it had incorporated the precautionary principle into the Project’s design to prevent adverse effects, prevent pollution, deal with unplanned events, develop monitoring and follow-up programs, and ensure that the company's liability and insurance regime would ensure that the proponent was accountable for damages.
3.11 Applying Principle 4: Apply the precautionary principle and consider uncertainty and risk of irreversible harm
Uncertainty may be characterized quantitatively or qualitatively. For issues that have been assessed using quantitative or statistical methods, it may be appropriate to describe confidence levels associated with these predictions. The approach used to determine the level of confidence should be explicitly stated and documented. Uncertainty can also be appropriately described qualitatively, through descriptors such as “high”, “medium”, and “low”. Qualitative descriptions of uncertainty should explain how the level of uncertainty was determined, identify sources of uncertainty and data gaps, and describe where and how professional judgment was used.
3.12 Key Considerations for Applying Principle 4: Apply the precautionary principle and consider uncertainty and risk of irreversible harm
In applying Principle 4, the practitioner should consider the following guiding questions:
- What uncertainties are associated with the sustainability analysis?
- Is there risk of irreversible harm?
- What measures have been taken to address these risks?
4. Considering Alternatives
The Act requires the consideration of alternatives to the designated project that are technically and economically feasible and are directly related to the project, as well as alternative means of carrying out the designated project. The practitioner should apply the sustainability principles to the assessment of those alternatives, where applicable.
See the Policy Framework: Overview of ‘Need for’, ‘Purpose of’, ‘Alternatives to’, and ‘Alternative means’ for more information.
Example: Black Point Quarry Project
In the Environmental Assessment Report for the Black Point Quarry Project, the Agency described how in the proponent’s assessment of alternatives it considered what communities had identified as being valuable to it and how this contributed to the selection of alternatives.
“Local fishers recommended that the marine terminal be located as far west as possible, to increase the sheltering effect from wind and strong currents off Black Point. The proponent noted that waters to the west are not sufficiently deep for the terminal. Following discussions with the local fishers, the originally-selected location for the marine terminal was determined to be preferable in minimizing impacts on fishing. However, based on advice from fishers, the proponent altered its shipping route to avoid preferred shrimping grounds between the established shipping lanes and the marine terminal”.
5. Sustainability Considerations in Decision-Making
The Minister or Governor in Council determine whether the adverse effects identified in the Impact Assessment Report are in the public interest. One of the factors that the Minister and Governor in Council must take into account in making the public interest determination is the extent to which a designated project contributes to sustainability. The Impact Assessment Report (produced by the Agency or Review Panel) will present the findings of the impact assessment and summarize the views expressed from communities. This will provide decision-makers with a more comprehensive picture of a project’s contribution to sustainability. The decision statement issued by the Minister will include the reasons for that determination.footnote 2 See the Interim Policy Context: Public Interest Determination (Decision-Making) page for more information in sustainability in decision-making.
In the case where the project may proceed, the decision statement will also contain enforceable conditions. Conditions are the requirements with which the proponent must comply. Conditions may be developed to address adverse effects identified in assessing a project’s contribution to sustainability. Furthermore, in making the public interest determination, the decision-maker may also consider complementary measures. Complementary measures are additional authorities of federal Ministers or federal programs that may be used to mitigate effects. For example, funding for a health-monitoring program could be proposed to address concerns of uncertainty related to the long-term health effects caused by a project.
Where a designated project is found to be in the public interest, the subsequent conditions of its approval must include the implementation of a follow-up program.footnote 3 The 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 require or facilitate suitable responses to emerging problems or opportunities. The analysis conducted under Principle 4 (Apply the precautionary principle and consider uncertainty and risk of irreversible harm) will inform the determination of where risk and uncertainties exist with respect to effects. This determination will support the development of mitigation measures, complementary measures (i.e., additional initiatives related to the designated project undertaken under federal programs or under the authority of a federal Minister or department) and any supporting adaptive-management program(s).
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