Environmental assessments should always be carried out as early as possible. Early consideration of possible environmental impacts prevents avoidable environmental damage on the one hand and reduces the costs of plan changes or compensatory measures on the other. The special feature of Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) is that, ideally, it starts before the concrete project planning begins. Instead of only examining one project for environmental impacts, the SEA already examines the underlying public plans and programmes, such as water management plans, waste management plans, zoning plans or development plans. If the public is involved effectively and at an early stage, this can reduce or avoid environmental impacts on the one hand and increase public acceptance on the other.
European environmental law makes the implementation of SEA mandatory. The legal basis for this is the EU SEA Directive (2001/42/EC). According to this directive, the possible environmental impacts of official plans and programmes must already be determined and evaluated. In contrast to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which always refers to a concrete project, the SEA starts one step earlier with the strategic planning considerations. Many fundamental questions arise at this point, such as
The key to success lies in finding, assessing and avoiding environmental impacts at an early stage and in involving the affected public from the very beginning. In this way, for example, after a well-done SEA has been completed, environmental organisations can testify that the submitted plan has been jointly assessed for its environmental impacts and represents the best possible variant. This creates acceptance and understanding and defuses conflicts over individual projects. SEAs are therefore not a substitute for a later EIA, but should be seen as a useful complement to it. If a programme or plan contains several projects, the subsequent EIAs can all draw on the results of this one SEA and build on them.
Austria incorporated the requirements of the SEA Directive into various federal and provincial laws. In Austria there is therefore no uniform SEA law, but there are numerous individual provisions in various laws. These regulations concern air, water, waste management, transport and regional planning. However, these provisions do not specify how intensively the public is to be involved. Therefore, in practice there is lack of legal provisons to actually improve acceptance by means of SEA.
Examples of high acceptance thanks to „Round Table SEA“
In Vienna, the construction of new waste incineration plants was for a long time associated with fierce resistance from residents and citizens' initiatives. As a result, the City of Vienna had an implementation concept for a SEA developed, which placed particular emphasis on public participation in order to increase the acceptance of waste incineration. In 1999, this "Vienna Model", also known as a "Round Table SEA", brought together several environmental protection organisations - including ÖKOBÜRO - as well as independent experts to jointly develop a waste management plan for the coming years.
The aim of this round table SEA was to find the best way of dealing with the expected volume of waste in the city, taking all factors into account. In the SEA, the participants had all the data from the Vienna Municipal Department (MA 48) at their disposal and it was therefore possible to jointly examine scenarios and alternatives. Waste incineration proved to be environmentally superior to other waste disposal methods, which the environmental protection organisations in the SUP team were able to see for themselves. In addition to the construction of a further waste incineration plant, support measures for waste avoidance and separation were agreed in the course of the SEA.
This first round table SEA was followed by the EIA process for the Simmering waste incineration plant. In contrast to the previous approval procedures for waste incineration plants, this process did not result in any significant resistance to the project. Vienna's need for the additional plant and its safe operation for the population were legitimised by the transparent public participation previously carried out in the SEA. In addition, the participating environmental protection organisations had ensured that the plant would meet the highest environmental and health standards. Based on these positive experiences, MA 48 has since voluntarily renewed its waste management plan and, since 2013, an additional waste avoidance plan every five years as part of a round table SEA.
The provincial government of the federal state of Burgenland also voluntarily subjected the zoning for wind turbines in Northern Burgenland to a SEA round table. As a result, wind power in Burgenland is undisputed today and already covers more than the total electricity consumption of the federal state. In Lower Austria, on the other hand, the lack of such a consensus plan led to a long period of uncontrolled expansion of wind power. In 2013, the Lower Austrian provincial government finally let strong resistance from the population pull the emergency brake and even issued a temporary ban on the approval of wind turbines.
For ÖKOBÜRO the implemantation of a SEA is a unique opportunity to achieve an early reconciliation of interests between all parties involved in major infrastructure projects. An important area for which SEA have not been prescribed in Austria so far is the planning of energy networks. How a SEA could also accelerate the environmentally friendly conversion of the Austrian power grids for energy system transformation is described in a brochure.
In our opinion, the Austrian SEA provisions still do not comply with the European requirements. We therefore advocate full implementation of the SEA Directive at the legal policy level. Within the framework of Justice and Environment, a European environmental law network, we also exchange views with environmental lawyers in other countries in order to obtain suggestions from them for better SEA legislation in Austria.
An essential feature of SEA procedures is that the public must already be involved in fundamental planning issues and their comments must be taken into account. This valuable right of participation must also be exercised. ÖKOBÜRO therefore contributes itself to selected SEA procedures on the one hand and supports other members of civil society with their participation on the other.