The rapid growth of development interventions and their associated pollution potential needs to be coupled with a robust environmental governance system to regulate its impacts and ensure its sustainability. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is considered the first step in this direction. EIA is an effective tool in predicting environmental impacts at an early stage of project and exploring means and techniques to reduce adverse impacts.
EIA is a legal instrument for decision-making. However, countries have varied systems in place with respect to the assessment process. In many countries, EIA is also used as a tool to monitor compliance of the commitments made at the inception of the project. The Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE’s) 2022 report Environmental Impact Assessment—Evaluation of Legislations in Countries of Africa and South Asia highlighted this variance effectively. The report comprised assessment of EIA legislation for 11 countries on indicators of project categorization, information collection, compliance mechanism, information transparency and accreditation of EIA consultants. The assessment found inherent weaknesses in legislations of almost all countries. While some countries had comprehensive legislation, others attempted to cover all the aspects but omitted providing details of the required aspects. Though the study does not cover implementation status on the ground, these shortcomings clearly indicate poor implementation. EIA, although an efficient tool, is a preliminary step and does not guarantee the safeguarding of environment from the adverse impacts of the project. An EIA report identifies the negative impacts and suggests corrective measures, but the major challenge is monitoring the compliance of suggested measures.
Additionally, anticipated impacts also tend to differ in terms of severity and duration on the affected environment with the actual implementation of project and may require constant modifications in the suggested mitigation measures. A regular assessment during the operation of the project is important to keep a check on the rising impacts and lacunas in effectiveness of the proposed measures. This is where environmental audit (EA) plays a crucial role.
Environmental audit is a management tool that enables industries to evaluate its environmental performance and improve it on a regular basis, verify the implementation of environmental management tools proposed during the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and ensure effective compliance of governing environmental laws by an industry. It is not a one-time step but an ongoing activity that aims to identify and correct environmental issues that arise during the operation of a project and improve operating and environmental conditions in industries. Simply, it is a process to evaluate the balance of resources such as water, raw materials, fuel with the product generated and waste in terms of water, solid and gaseous emissions.
A thoroughly performed environmental audit allows industries to analyse the ambiguities in the implementation of management plans and take corrective measures. It also helps industries improve the process efficiency by optimizing the usage of resources, increasing production and thereby resulting in monetary benefits. An effective audit also needs historical data to make quantification and analysis representative in nature. To obtain this, the industries should have a selfaudit mechanism whereby an industry itself monitors its own adherence to legal and environmental standards, keeps a record of the performance, and ensures compliance and effective utilization of resources. It is a monitoring system on a voluntary basis to implement a systematic approach to achieve the set environmental objectives and targets.
On the regulatory front, a comprehensive audit report can be helpful for regulatory purposes as it will help assess the compliance status of the industry and understand its environmental performance. Comparing data of two to three years can ascertain whether the performance of an industry is improving or declining. The data mentioned in the audit reports also helps regulators identify any issues pertaining to resource usage and associated environmental impacts. Overall, environmental audit can be used by regulators to take a cognitive approach towards the operating environment of industries and to incorporate new priorities in policies and practices. Considering the fast-growing development and increasing environmental impacts, conducting an environmental audit is no longer an option but a sound precaution and a proactive measure.
Although several benefits are associated with the process of EA, it also presents challenges. Many of these challenges stem from the fact that the process is still evolving in many developing countries. These countries have laws and regulations mandating the requirement of environmental audit, but the quality of data provided in the audit report might be debatable. And though the audit report might be comprehensive, in absence of the relevant information the whole audit exercise becomes futile.
This report aims to highlight crucial information required in an audit report and how that information can be used for regulating the industry. It discusses the EA process of eight African countries and attempts to understand the shortcomings as well as best practices followed by these countries. It also details the procedure to conduct an audit and methodology for reviewing audit reports.