According to the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act, 1997, anyone who might cause an adverse effect to the environment is required to first assess the impact of their actions. This assessment, technically an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, is the first step in our law’s attempt to coerce us to consider the environment at every stage of our development. Despite the simplicity of this requirement, the nature and role of the EIA report is still deeply misunderstood.
The point behind the requirement of an EIA report is to bring the environment into the decision-making process — indeed any decision-making process. For example, I consider myself sensitive to environmental concerns, but if I were to construct a home for myself, I wouldn’t know who to turn to for advice on how to make such a construction as environmentally friendly as possible. This is why I need to commission an environmental engineer to examine the plans for my proposed home, assess the environmental damage that it will cause and recommend steps I can take to avoid or minimise such damage. In short, without an EIA report, I’ll never know how environmentally unfriendly my proposed house can be or what steps I can take to mitigate these effects.
The construction of a home for a family may not normally be associated with environmental harm. Spilling untreated industrial effluent into river is far more environmentally harmful than building a house, but this doesn’t mean that home building is environmentally friendly. For example, the cement needed to build solid foundations and the metal needed to reinforce beams, pillars and roofs come from factories that produce large quantities of environmentally damaging effluent. It’s a mistake, then, to think that, just because the construction of a house doesn’t pollute on the same scale as these industries, precaution shouldn’t be taken to ensure a house is as environmentally friendly as it can be.
Building a house may not be the typical example that leaps to someone’s mind when talking of EIA reports. Most people tend to think that EIA reports are needed when you’re setting up a new chemical plant or planning to build a road through a protected forest. They are, but according to the PEPA, they are needed whenever a project “is likely to cause adverse environmental effect.” Such effects can be brought about by the smallest of projects, and so the spirit of the law requires us to consider the environment before proceeding.
To continue with the example: I commission an EIA report for the construction of my home and the consultant returns with a list of recommendations that will make my home green. He may suggest the use of energy-saver light bulbs and the installation of solar water heaters to reduce the need for natural-gas- heated water. He may suggest collecting “gray water” — the water that leaves our bathroom and kitchen sinks and showers — so that it can be recycled (such water is good for watering lawns and washing cars, for example, and is far more environmentally friendly than using drinking water extracted from a sinking water-table). These are typical recommendations that don’t cost much but which, if implemented, do translate to a greener home. They also reduce dependency on “the grid” — the infrastructure that provides utilities to your home — and this means significantly lower gas and water bills.
But the consultant can go further. He can recommend the use of certain adobe bricks that provide better insulation and so reduce the need for an air-conditioner in the summer and heaters in the winter. He could also suggest “district refrigeration,” which is a process by which air-conditioners are driven by ammonia. This “zero carbon” technology translates to a 50% decrease in the cost-per-unit of running an AC system. He could suggest the use of a 2.5kv solar-power unit so that the lights, fans, refrigerator, TV and computers in the house don’t need power from “the grid.” This is a fantastic alternative to electricity, in that the cost of installing the solar unit pays for itself in a few months and the only electricity that the home will need will be for the AC.
Of course, implementing the consultant’s recommendations means money. As a rule of thumb, an environmentally-friendly building costs about 20% more than traditional building methods. I know that these high upfront costs are recovered over time, but there’s nothing that binds me to the consultant’s recommendations. If I think that my wallet can’t carry the burden, I may discard the EIA report altogether.
This is where the PEPA steps in. The law requires EIA reports to be submitted to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) for evaluation. The EPA, being the independent environmental regulator mandated by statute, has the power and authority to bind me to the consultant’s recommendations. It can tell me that, despite my protests and slim budget, I must carry out those recommendations which, in its opinion, are reasonable or which are in accordance with a pre-existing policy. Once the State — that is, the EPA — makes such a determination, any omission on my part is punishable.
In this way, the PEPA and the procedure of the EIA report should make the construction of homes more environmentally friendly. Certainly, it should make the proponents of any projects likely to cause adverse environmental effect take stock of the damage they will cause to the environment. The growth in the awareness of the importance of this procedure is only beginning to sink in. Till a few years ago — I think 2004 — only 60-odd EIAs had ever been submitted to the Federal and Provincial EPAs. This year alone, till the writing of this article, well over 70 EIA reports have been submitted to the EPA in Punjab alone.
But merely filing EIA reports is not enough. Project proponents who are required to file EIAs — perish the thought of a voluntarily submitted EIA — often think of the process as merely another bureaucratic hurdle. Worse, they mistakenly believe that an EIA is like a No-Objection-Certificate to be filed before and approved by the EPA.
The moment an EIA report is thought of as a pre-condition for the approval of a project, it assumes a binary, that is, two-dimensional, character: the project is either approved or it isn’t. The recommendations of the EIA report fall in importance to the fact of approval and the entire purpose of the report — to recommend environmentally-friendly alternatives to projects — is lost. EIA approval is then thought of as project approval, which it isn’t, as the law doesn’t give the EPA the mandate to become the final arbiter of projects. If that were the case, then EIA approval would stand in the way of business and commerce.
Sadly, these misconceptions exist and environmental regulation is thought of as an impediment to development. Government officer after government officer I have met routinely refers to EIAs as the necessary document for the approval of a project. This misconception is also shared by many environmental activists and project proponents who do not fully understand the purpose of our law. This is a great tragedy, as we are daily losing opportunities to grasp the evil spectre of global warming and climate change and to step forward on the path of sustainable development.
As a final thought: Given the massive urban expansion we are going to see in Pakistan over the next decade, every one of the new homes to be built will be constructed without a single environmentally-friendly building code, bye-law or regulation. With the liberal consumer-leasing policy, these homes will all be electricity dependant. Given that Pakistan is facing a severe energy crisis, to let these developments continue without even a nod towards better building practices is a crime we are committing against ourselves.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx. net.pk
Source: The News, 21/4/2008