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Strategic Environmental Assessment

The Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) describes and evaluates the environmental effects of plans. The purpose of the SEA is to attach the same importance to the environment as to economic or social aspects.

The SEA can be performed in all planning activities prior to the project level. In general, these planning levels can refer to policies including legislative proposals, programmes, and plans (PPP). The SEA is increasingly used as an instrument for sustainable development.

Experiences made in the past have shown that problems often arise in the course of approval procedures because no or only unbalanced planning and programme decisions were taken in advance. A SEA makes it possible to recognise certain problems in time and helps to avoid them. With SEAs, environmental aspects can be incorporated into the planning processes in time. The early perception of certain environment-related problem areas delivers additional information to decision-makers involved in administration and business.

At a planning level, there is generally some room for manoeuvre for future activities. As part of a SEA, various alternative ways to achieve PPP goals can be presented and evaluated. By reviewing the different PPP variants in time, the environmental impacts and general consequential effects of varying strategy options can be tested and evaluated. Decision-makers are thus given the opportunity to recognise more environmentally friendly alternatives, and make respective strategy modifications, based on the information available, before the strategy is adopted.

This means that cost-intensive bad planning can be prevented because existing pollution, as well as any expected environmental impact, can be recognised, avoided or compensated in time.

The SEA is considered to be a process consisting of specific stages (see below). Following these stages and principles makes the planning process more transparent because the entire planning process becomes more accountable in this way.

The presently used SEA systems show in principle similar steps:

  • Screening
  • Definition of the scope of the Environmental Impact Assessment (scoping)
  • Consideration of alternatives
  • Documentation (environmental statement)
  • Public participation
  • Consideration of the SEA in the course of the PPP acceptance.
  • Monitoring

The purpose of screening is to assess whether or not a SEA is to be performed. Reasonably not every plan should be subjected to a SEA, but only those, where relevant impacts on the environment can be expected.

Scoping is used to define the assessment scope. It is defined which planned measures are examined with which methodology.

The consideration of alternatives helps to present various different approaches to achieving the PPP goals. The objective is to present possible alternatives and gather corresponding information on the effects of each of the approaches to be able to make the appropriate decisions.

Documentation should present the individual SEA steps in a traceable way (e.g. in the form of an Environmental Statement). The Environmental Statement (ES) should first and foremost describe and evaluate both the strategy’s and the alternatives’ relevant environmental impact on protective goods. Since the SEA does not primarily deal with individual effects, the ES should especially focus upon presenting interactions and cumulative effects.

The public affected by the planning should be continually informed and consulted throughout the planning process. The public can participate at various levels, for example, when establishing alternatives or during the scoping process or after producing the Environmental Statement. This will lead to the increased acceptance of the strategy by the public affected.

Monitoring is performed after a certain period of time to check whether the assumptions made have really come true or whether or not the implementation of the planned actions correspond to the PPP objectives. Such a check is a valuable source of information for later plans or for intended plan alterations.

The Strategic Environmental Assessment website (only in Germain) provides information on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) including a methodological modular system for SEA users to support practice-related assistance.

This website describes contents of a SEA, provides a survey on the most important laws at national and international levels, and makes available information on the most important methodological approaches. Moreover, you can find there short presentations of SEAs carried out in Austria as well as a comprehensive collection of links. The methodological modular system, a set of useful and practicable approaches, is to support the development of an individual process design adapted to the respective requirements of the plan or programme.