Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

Ideally, the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) takes place before the specific planning of major projects in order to identify, evaluate and avoid possible environmental impacts at an early stage. The early and effective involvement of the public helps both to reduce or avoid environmental impacts and to increase public acceptance.

The SEA: Basis for higher acceptance in infrastructure projects

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, such as plans for water management, waste management, zoning or building development, must already be assessed.

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

  • Why do we need this infrastructure?
  • Are there alternatives? 
  • How are the alternatives likely to affect the environment?

The key to success lies in finding, assessing and avoiding environmental impacts at an early stage. The early consideration of possible environmental impacts thus prevents avoidable environmental damage and at the same time reduces the costs for plan changes or compensatory measures.

The second success factor is the involvement of the affected public right from the start. In this way, after a well-done SEA has been completed, environmental protection organisations can testify that the plan submitted has been jointly assessed for its environmental impact 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.

One SEA (SUP in German) may be the basis for several EIA (UVP) proceedings. The graphic shows that a master plan for the power grid is being developed in a SEA. This master plan is the basis for the EIA for several power lines.

SEA procedure in Austria

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. 

The waste incineration plant in Vienna-Simmering. Result of the first round table 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.

Wind turbines near Weiden in Northern Burgenland. Undisputed thanks to the round table SEA.

ÖKBÜRO is advocating more and better SEA procedures.

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. In our opinion, however, the Austrian SEA regulations still do not comply with the European requirements. We therefore advocate full implementation of the SEA Directive. Within Justice and Environment, our 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 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 (German only) .

Last but not least, ÖKOBÜRO itself participates in SUP processes. The early involvement of the public in fundamental planning issues is a valuable right that must also be used. We therefore also support other members of civil society if they wish to participate in a SEA.