Using Ecosystem Services to Update the Environmental Assessment Framework

Opportunity Knocks: Using Ecosystem Services to Update the Environmental Assessment Framework

Using Ecosystem Services to Update the Environmental Assessment Framework

Rules of Engagement

Government of Canada requirements to engage with stakeholders during the environmental assessment process may be about to change. Currently, the duty to engage stakeholders is limited to informing stakeholders at key points throughout the assessment process while also allowing them the opportunity to comment once a decision has been made. A criticism of this type of engagement provides limited opportunities for stakeholders to guide the decision-making process. However, this may be about to change as the Government of Canada has launched a review of the federal environmental assessment process. They are hoping the review will restore public trust in the process while also supporting responsible industrial development. Changes to the process are meant to be fair and robust, respect the rights of Indigenous peoples, be based on scientific evidence, and protect the environment.

There is the potential to incorporate ecosystem services into the decision-making process as part of this federal review. Ecosystem services are the benefits for people derived from nature. Based on our experiences, we’ve found that using an ecosystem service lens helps identify the affected stakeholders relevant to an area or project who benefit from ecosystem services in the region.

Efficiency is in the Engagement

The overarching goal of the environmental assessment process is to protect the environment by incorporating environmental factors into decision making. Currently, environmental assessments consider everything from impacts on soil and water to important historic resources. But because stakeholder identification and stakeholder values are not used as key indicators, sometimes projects get noticeably delayed due to pushback after the environmental assessment has been completed. Sometimes this pushback comes from outside of the region, province and even country of the project. This has been a concern for both government and industry. Those involved in environmental assessments are looking for a way to identify the appropriate stakeholders; they are looking for those who benefit from the ecosystem services relevant to a project. Using ecosystem services can help identify who those stakeholders are, and what they value on the landscape. If the assessment process has properly addressed the potential impacts of industrial development and meets stakeholder needs, much less public pushback should occur after approval. Currently, in Alberta, industrial applicants aren’t required to engage with stakeholders before starting an environmental assessment. Which means that stakeholders are not able to fully express their opinions prior to the assessment process kick-off.

If stakeholders are more proactively involved in the planning process, measures could be taken to avoid, mitigate, and compensate for undesired impacts to ecosystem services. Using the 7-Step process developed by Silvacom, Innotech, the Alberta Biodiversity and Monitoring Institute (ABMI), and the Government of Alberta, industrial applicants can identify stakeholder values like safe, secure drinking water, or recreational values like hunting opportunities, and connect biophysical impacts to these ecosystem services. From there, the industrial applicant can take necessary measures to ensure that there are limited negative impacts to stakeholder values. In addition, there is a huge opportunity for the improved stakeholder engagement initiatives to be used to communicate the positive impacts of industrial development which are often unrealized in current environmental assessment processes.

Silvacom has worked with Alberta Innovates to assess the value of incorporating ecosystem services into environmental assessments in Alberta. A recent literature review and consultations with industry, regulators, and policymakers identified several benefits and risks to incorporating ecosystem services in the environmental assessment process.

Why Should Industry Look Forward to an Ecosystem Service Approach?

Improving Stakeholder Identification

Incorporating ecosystem services in the assessment process can help better identify stakeholders by addressing how benefits provided by nature flow to them. It will look past direct effects, and address upstream, downstream, and surrounding project impacts. Alberta already addresses secondary impacts by looking at effects on a local and regional scale, but this type of analysis could be directly tied to specific stakeholder values and can move past administrative boundaries.

Furthermore, by discussing ecosystem services, the proponent can focus the conversation on the benefits of nature and the services provided like, hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, flood mitigation, etc., instead of talking about the biophysical impacts of a project which may be more difficult to understand. Overall, the expected result of incorporating ecosystem services into environmental assessments is the identification of the appropriate and relevant stakeholders, those benefiting from ecosystem services on the landscape, and the ability to ensure stakeholder concerns are addressed.

Avoid and Mitigate Impacts

Incorporating ecosystem services allows industrial applicants to understand the relevant stakeholder values in the region. By identifying the stakeholder values as ecosystem services, the industrial applicants receive an improved ability to avoid and mitigate potential project impacts.

Risk Reduction

There are trade-offs between development and avoidance. If stakeholders help identify sensitive ecosystems then potential operational and social risks are significantly reduced. Environmental assessments are more likely to be met with the approval of Indigenous groups and other local stakeholders if the ecosystem service approach is incorporated.

Are There Barriers?

The benefits we receive from nature have always been available, but we’ve excluded them in environmental assessments. Ecosystem services need to become a familiar concept in order to bridge that gap, and allow governments and industrial applicants the opportunity to identify and engage with stakeholders. If stakeholders and industrial applicants don’t know what ecosystem services are, how can we start discussions and begin reaching out to stakeholders and addressing their concerns appropriately?

Should we even be placing a value on this stuff?

Ecosystem service assessments not only help us understand how changes in the landscape affect human well-being, they can make those links in dollar terms. Monetary values give a scale of importance to goods and services in the marketplace. Some ecosystem services like timber or carbon already have established markets. But what about things like spiritual aesthetic values? Guidance may be needed to help evaluate cultural and spiritual ecosystem services. Proponents are generally comfortable assessing biophysical changes on the landscape but struggle with how to quantify non-use values in a meaningful way. Overall, we expect that looking at the environmental effects of a project using an ecosystem services viewpoint can help industrial applicants and the government better understand some of the trade-offs, risks, and potential benefits.

Data Availability and Standardization

Data availability and a lack of standardized valuation methods may restrict the ease with which an ecosystem service approach to environmental assessment may be adopted. Regulators and proponents need data and methods to consistently assess and track ecosystem service provision. Baseline datasets need to be available so that primary data is not collected on an individual, project by project basis.

Does the cost go up?

Ecosystem service assessments are still perceived as a resource-intensive practice that requires research, data collection, and analysis. This perception could be true if standardized datasets are not available and data collection occurs on a project by project basis. If data was stored and shared at a provincial level, then the cost to assess ecosystem services would be reduced greatly, not to mention that certain ecosystem services like carbon sequestration have a dollar value which could be added as a revenue stream!

We Can Do It

It’s certainly possible to incorporate ecosystem services into the environmental assessment process. It will improve stakeholder engagement by identifying the affected stakeholders, help proponents avoid and mitigate impacts to important stakeholder values, and reduce the risk of future pushback once a project is approved by the regulator. To make the new process work, people need to understand what ecosystem services are and recognize how they affect stakeholders. The opportunity to update our environmental assessment process is now.

You may also be interested in this blog post: Incorporating Ecosystem Services into the Environmental Assessment Process.

For more information on corporate ecosystem services into the environmental assessment process, please contact us at