Test before you crash: sustainability impact assessments to make Rio+20 deliver
Guest Blogger: Louis Meuleman (senior fellow, Center for Governance and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Boston)
When we buy a product, we expect that it was tested thoroughly on possible health impacts or risks before it arrived in the shop. Similarly, we probably also expect that government decisions are tested beforehand, as they can result in unexpected damage during their implementation. It may be a surprise, but the fact is that governance decisions are often not put to the test in some sort of a ‘policy wind tunnel’.
This is problematic because Rio+20 has created high expectations: Governments on all levels have agreed to a higher commitment to take sustainable decisions. The final conference document mentions the importance of monitoring during policy implementation, and stimulates evaluations in order to measure progress. It does however not say that sustainability impact assessments are needed before decisions are taken. This is like when you by a car or a computer, and there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will not fall apart or crash soon after the purchase.
Some would say that our world is so complex that one can never be certain that the aimed results of decisions on sustainability issues will be achieved. This attitude should be applauded as it recognizes complexity, but this makes it even more important that likely impacts of policies, programmes or projects on sustainability objectives are assessed with the best scientific methods, before decisions are final, while knowing that absolute certainty is impossible.
In many, but not a majority of the nations united on the sustainability agenda, legally binding procedures exist for such ex-ante assessments. Many of them focus on the environmental dimension, like the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directives which apply in all EU countries and other nations, and are promoted on a voluntary basis in other nations. More integrated Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) mechanisms are also available. The experience with all these assessments is that they lead to much better decisions that take into account environmental and other sustainability impacts, to broader and earlier participation, to less litigation and other delays after the decision and therefore to saving money and time. Such assessments do not guarantee the most sustainable decisions, but at least the decisions are more transparent and more evidence-based. Moreover, they trigger decision-makers to think more long-term and consider indirect and cumulative impacts. This of course applies to all governmental decisions with possible sustainability impacts, not only Rio+20 implementation actions.
There is no reason why we would find it acceptable that government decisions are not pre-tested on their sustainability impacts, as the methods and good practices are available. When I buy a second hand car I can imagine that some retailers would be hesitant to do a thorough pre-test – but I fail to see what good reasons governments (on all levels) could have to not pre-assess decisions. A sustainability ‘test before you crash’ principle should therefore be part of any good governance practice.