Environmental Impact Assessments and the Treaty on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction

By Iosif Sorokin

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a procedure for evaluating the likely impact of a proposed activity on the environment. EIAs typically require a detailed analysis of the environmental impact of a proposed action, careful consideration of alternatives to the proposed action, and discussion of measures which could mitigate potential environmental harms. This is facilitated by gathering input from scientists, policymakers, and civil society to help identify activities that may cause harm to the environment. Public participation is also usually a crucial part of EIAs, including the opportunity for members of the public to comment on a proposed action and receive responses to their questions, and ultimately to review the final record reporting the results of the EIA. The overall objective of an EIA is to ensure that environmental considerations are explicitly addressed and incorporated into the decision making process prior to undertaking an action that may significantly affect the environment.


EIAs in International Law

EIAs have become tremendously important tools for environmental management across the globe. More than one hundred nations have domestic statutes that require consideration and assessment of the environmental impacts of domestic development activities to some degree. International treaties, customs, and decisions by international courts also require EIAs for activities that may cause environmental impacts across borders. The most definitive statement of this obligation came in the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Pulp Mills Case (Argentina v. Uruguay) where the court confirmed that “it may now be considered a requirement under general international law to undertake an environmental impact assessment where there is a risk that the proposed industrial activity may have a significant adverse impact in a transboundary context, in particular, on a shared resource.”

However, the international law is unsettled as to whether a similar requirement under customary international law exists to perform an EIA for proposed activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction, such as the high seas. Article 206 of the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) states that it is a requirement under the Convention that nations assess the potential effects of activities under their jurisdiction or control—including areas beyond national jurisdiction but subject to their control—that may cause “significant and harmful changes to the marine environment.” The Article states a fair amount of leeway in determining the significance of the harm (there must be “reasonable grounds” for believing that a project may harm the environment) and the degree to which they are required to respond (as far as practicable). The requirement to perform an EIA in Article 206 of the LOSC is binding for all 167 states that have joined the treaty. However, some nations have not yet ratified the treaty, including the United States. Article 206 may only apply to all nations if it is an accurate statement of customary international law, which many provisions of the LOSC are understood to be.


The Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction Treaty Negotiations

Although still at the negotiation phase, the anticipated treaty on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) would, if completed, have major implications for the requirement to perform EIAs in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The primary goal of the negotiations relating to EIAs is to operationalize the obligation in Article 206 of the LOSC. Included in this goal is the development of a global default framework to cover emerging activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including marine tourism, floating installations, and seismic testing. This global framework would also include thresholds for new activities that would require an EIA. Another significant objective being negotiated is how to address the cumulative impact of human activities in EIAs. This includes a discussion of the need for cross-sectoral assessments of conflicting activities such as fishing, seabed mining, and the laying of submarine cables.

Arguably the most groundbreaking aim being considered in BBNJ negotiations is how to give content to the obligation to perform an EIA for activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction. This would include guidelines for how to conduct an EIA and standards against which the outcome of the EIA and the final decision to authorize an activity would be tested. Many prior agreements, including the LOSC, include the obligation to perform EIAs for activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction, but none spell out the content of this obligation or give details for how to conduct satisfactory EIAs. Giving content to the EIA obligation through the BBNJ treaty would be a significant achievement that would accomplish much more than merely recognizing the obligation as a part of international law.

The development of a binding BBNJ agreement is a lengthy process, as negotiations have been ongoing since 2004. It is unclear what a final agreement will look like. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed resolution 69/292 calling for the development of a legally binding UNCLOS implementing agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of BBNJ. To help prepare the draft text of that agreement and make recommendations to the UNGA on the substantive issues covered by the agreement, the UNGA established a Preparatory Committee for the development of a BBNJ agreement.

The Preparatory Committee is expected to report back to the UNGA by the end of 2017. However, it is uncertain when an actual agreement would be concluded because there may still be substantive disagreement even at the time of the deadline, which would necessitate additional debate within the UNGA. Also unclear is how long it would take to implement the agreement if and when it is reached, as well as whether all countries would sign onto the agreement. Thus, in the meantime, it may be more practical to rely on other means besides an overarching international agreement to compel nations to perform EIAs for activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction.