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Environmental reports greatly underestimate wildlife impacts

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are a key part of the planning process for new developments, but according to new research from the University of East Anglia, they may be hugely underestimating the effect that these developments have on wildlife. 

The study, published in the journal Animal Conservation, shows that these assessments often fail to take into account how birds and other animals move around between different sites, leading to a drastic underestimation of the number of animals impacted by new developments.

The research team has been studying Black-tailed Godwits across Europe for over 30 years and found that any species that moves around is likely to be under-represented by EIAs. The impact of a planned tidal barrage across the Wash estuary in the UK, for example, could be much worse than predicted for wild birds and England’s largest common seal colony.

“Environmental Impact Assessments are carried out when developments are planned for sites where wildlife is protected. But the methods used to produce these reports seldom consider how species move around between different sites. This can drastically underestimate the number of animals impacted, and this is particularly relevant for species that are very mobile, like birds,” said Professor Jenny Gill from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences.

The researchers conducted a case study of the Tagus Estuary in Portugal, where a new airport is planned. The Environmental Impact Assessment for the airport estimated that less than six percent of the Black-tailed Godwit population would be affected by the plans. 

However, by tracking the movements of individual Godwits to and from the affected area, the researchers found that over 68 percent of the Godwits in the estuary would actually be exposed to disturbance from airplanes.

“Many of these Godwits spend the winter on the Tagus Estuary,” said Dr. José Alves, a researcher at the University of Aveiro and visiting academic at UEA’s School of Biological Sciences. “So we used local sightings of color-ringed birds to calculate how many of them use sites that are projected to be affected by airplanes. We were then able to predict the airport’s impact on future Godwit movements across the whole estuary.”

The researchers have been studying individual Black-tailed Godwits for three decades by fitting them with uniquely identifiable combinations of colored leg-rings. With the help of a network of birdwatchers across Europe, they have recorded the whereabouts of individual Godwits throughout the birds’ lives. 

The method used to calculate the footprint of environmental impact could be applied to assess many other proposed developments in the UK, particularly those affecting waterbirds and coastal habitats where tracking data is available.

“Eight environmental NGOs together with Client Earth have already taken the Portuguese government to court to contest the approval of this airport development. We hope our findings will help strengthen the case by showing the magnitude of the impacts, which substantially surpass those quantified in the developer’s Environmental Impact Assessment,” said Dr. Alves.

The research highlights the need for EIAs to consider the movement of wildlife between different sites to provide a more accurate assessment of the environmental impact of new developments. This could help prevent the underestimation of the number of animals impacted and ensure that the necessary steps are taken to protect wildlife and their habitats.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are important because they provide an assessment of the potential environmental effects of proposed projects and developments. These reports aim to identify and evaluate the potential impacts of a project on the natural and human environment, and to identify ways to mitigate or avoid negative impacts.

EIAs are often required by law and are typically part of the permitting process for a proposed development. This means that developers must prepare an EIA before they can proceed with their project, and the EIA must be reviewed and approved by government agencies responsible for environmental protection.

By providing a detailed assessment of the potential impacts of a project, EIAs can help decision-makers and the public understand the trade-offs involved in proposed developments. They can also help identify ways to reduce or mitigate potential negative impacts, and to explore alternative options that may have fewer negative effects on the environment.

Overall, EIAs play an important role in ensuring that environmental concerns are taken into account in decision-making about proposed developments, and can help ensure that new developments are planned and implemented in a way that minimizes harm to the environment and to the communities that depend on it.


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