The process of environmental impact assessment (EIA) was introduced for the first time in the United States in 1969 under the National Environmental Policy Act for all major federal activities. Since then, there has been an everwidening acceptance, particularly by the industrialised nations of the world, of the view that environmental effects likely to be caused by a proposed development are material considerations within any planning decision-making process. The influence of the US federal measures led to the rapid incorporation of EIA into state and local statutes across that country and then by the government of Canada in 1973. Many other developed countries followed including, Australia at commonwealth level (1974), Japan (1984) and New Zealand (1991). Although a number of its member countries, such as France and Ireland, had embraced EIAs as early as 1976, followed by the Netherlands (1981), the Council of Environmental Ministers of the European Communities did not adopt a Directive on EIAs for certain types of development until 1985. Their implementation became mandatory in 1988 (Montz and Dixon 1993; Sanchez 1993; Geraghty 1996). As for developing countries, while many of the 121 sovereign states that might be so categorised had, by the 1990s, at least considered EIA legislation, only nineteen had put in place the necessary administrative, institutional and procedural frameworks for the implementation of EIA systems, only six of which were successfully operational (Ebisemiju 1993).
Sometimes there is a single well-defined catalyst for action in the decision to adopt EIA, as was the situation in Austria in the mid-1980s when Hainburg, the proposed site of a hydro-electric power plant on the Danube, became a symbol of environmental and citizens’ activism (Davy 1995). Elsewhere, the process has been more incremental, especially where member states of a federation are concerned. This was certainly the case in Australia (Wood 1993). But always the concept of EIA has evolved in response to real needs, and wherever it is used it is in real-world situations. It is not an intellectual exercise practised by academics, nor is EIA designed to provide a passive record of environmental change. Its sole objective is that of making available environmental information on which informed decision making may take place in relation to projects both public and private (Beattie 1995).
EIA has had a number of definitions in the last three decades, many of which are founded on the objectives and experience of their authors, whether they be institutions, government agencies or individual researchers conducting an examination of the practice of EIA, and whether they be located in the developed or developing countries (Sankoh 1996). However, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1992 accepted a simple definition of EIA from an authoritative source (Clark et al. 1980) that has widespread currency (Table 17.1). The UNDP has also usefully summarised what it sees as the common key activities involved in the prepar-