Scoping: Lessons from environmental impact assessment

By Peter R. Mulvihill

Peter R. Mulvihill (biography)

What can we learn about the role and importance of scoping in the context of environmental impact assessment?

“Closed” versus “open” scoping

I am intrigued by the highly variable approaches to scoping practice in environmental impact assessment and the considerable range between “closed” approaches and more ambitious and open exercises. Closed approaches to scoping tend to narrow the range of questions, possibilities and alternatives that may be considered in environmental impact assessment, while limiting or precluding meaningful public input. Of course, the possibility of more open scoping is sometimes precluded beforehand by narrow terms of reference determined by regulators.

When scoping is not done well, it inevitably compromises subsequent steps in the process. When I teach environmental impact assessment courses, I always preface my comments by noting that almost everything about environmental impact assessment is controversial. Needless to say, the role of scoping in environmental impact assessment is contentious.

It should be noted that, in the academic literature pertaining to environmental assessment and management, scoping remains a somewhat fringe or obscure topic. For the most part, it is taken for granted and left largely unexamined.

A little history

Environmental impact assessment began formally in the late 1960’s in the United States and gradually spread internationally. In the first decade of environmental impact assessment practice, unfocused exercises were common, resulting in “everything under the sun” being studied, often inconclusively. Voluminous environmental impact assessment reports would be submitted to befuddled decision makers who were none the wiser about the probable impacts of development. Scoping was introduced to focus impact studies on key issues.

Overall, in practice the predominant effect of scoping since then has been to narrow and restrict environmental impact assessment. But meanwhile, consciousness of the ecological crisis has broadened, and a sensibility revolving around sustainability, intergenerational equity and longer term futures has become entrenched amongst researchers and the broader public. Scoping practice, therefore, held (and still holds) the possibility of addressing the tension between smaller and bigger picture thinking and hopefully fostering the latter.

Ideally, scoping can re-define narrow conceptions of problems and opportunities. Clearly, this can only happen when it is conducted with an openness to input from a broad range of stakeholders.

Scoping in practice

In practice, we usually need to consider many questions when confronting the impacts of human activities, from the smallest to the biggest picture. In doing so, we are usually constrained by generic problems facing environmental managers:

  • ecological complexity,
  • narrow spatial and temporal boundary setting,
  • irreducible uncertainty, and
  • large gaps in baseline ecological knowledge.

Unmanaged cumulative impacts (local, regional or transboundary) often increase exponentially in largely unnoticed ways until they breach system thresholds, and by then it may be too late to respond. Never has the precautionary principle been more apropos.

And yet, it is striking to note the prevalence and persistence of smaller picture and shorter term thinking in environmental planning and management. An aversion to bigger picture and longer term thinking is deeply ingrained in many systems:

  • city planners mostly work on official community plans that typically focus on short and medium term concerns;
  • national and provincial government planning revolves around annual budgets and electoral horizons;
  • corporations usually make five year plans.

For many, the long term future is imponderable, the esoteric preoccupation of futurists.

Future developments

Beyond the mainstream, there have always been experimental approaches that seek to address bigger pictures and longer term futures. Some of the best examples can be seen in scenario development exercises that explore plausible 30-40 year futures with the objective of informing present day decisions and sustainability strategies.

A basic premise of explorative scenario development involves considering a range of plausible futures (both desirable and undesirable), then re-considering our present-day policies and practices – to what extent might they be appropriate in steering us toward better futures? Practitioners of the art of scenario development are well versed in counter-intuitive techniques that stimulate creative exploration. They embrace uncertainty, complexity, weak signals, wild cards and surprise, and they have a deep appreciation of the limits to prediction. Arguably, this is exactly the sensibility that is most needed today as we struggle to avoid unsustainable futures at local, regional and global scales.

In this context – the imperative to address bigger pictures and longer term futures – scoping is integral. When conducted early enough and openly enough, scoping can gather broad input from different perspectives, sometimes re-framing questions and opportunities.

I see all these things – scoping, explorative scenario development, deep sustainability and long term futures – as profoundly interrelated. The more we venture beyond conventional approaches, the more insights will emerge.

I will conclude by posing two questions. What has been the experience of other readers of this blog with scoping in environmental impact assessment or other fields? And, are there any novel, alternative or experimental approaches to scoping that others have come across that may be effective in addressing bigger picture, longer-term, deep sustainability challenges?

To find out more:
Mulvihill, P. R. and Baker, D. C. (2001). Ambitious and Restrictive Scoping: Case Studies from Northern Canada. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 21, 4: 363-384.

Mulvihill, P. R. (2003). Expanding the Scoping Community. Environmental Impact Assessment Review,  23: 39-49.

Mulvihill, P. R. and Kramkowski, V. (2010). Extending the Influence of Scenario Development in Sustainability Planning and Strategy. Sustainability, 2: 2449-2466.

Biography: Peter R. Mulvihill is Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada. His research interests include environmental assessment, planning and management, scoping, scenario development and environmental thought. His new book, with co-author S. Harris Ali, has just been published by Routledge – Earthscan: “Environmental Management: Critical Thinking and Emerging Directions”.

18 thoughts on “Scoping: Lessons from environmental impact assessment”

  1. I’m looking at it from the point of view of a public planning discourse platform facilitating wide public participation. (Just in the process of putting a series of blogposts on the role of evaluation in planning discourse up for discussion on my blog). There, it would seem that a concern would have to be acknowledged (and put into the list of aspects to consider for the decision if somebody raises is as an issue. All participants can then decide how much weight to assign to it in a systematic evaluation framework; which may be a function of what data and evidence is available to demonstrate its potential effect. So the decision to include or exclude would be made by discourse participants, not just the analysis team.

  2. * Comments: scoping as essential part of the overall evaluation process. Mistake: trying to fix scoping in a specific ‘phase’ of a study? It is important to be clear about what is addressed / measured in an analysis study. It needs to be embedded in an evaluative framework that shows how much of a difference it would make in a decision based on evaluation results if the assumptions made were significantly different:
    “Ok, let’s acknowledge that there might be a need to look at a phenomenon outside of our scope proposal: we assume the input / causal influence would be x; if x were larger or smaller (which we don’t know and don’t propose to study — it would cost about $y and time more than we have budgeted) it might change the decision towards Z…”

  3. I find your link between scoping and scenarios intriguing.
    It reminds of me of an article that explicitly views scenarios as frames enabling sharing and debate (Berkhout et al. 2014). It then makes a lot of sense to use scenarios as part of an (open) scoping process, exploring what might need to be included in more detailed analysis.
    Given the additional cost it introduces, that kind of approach is obviously for cases where drawing an in/out line on the whiteboard is not sufficient, notably where there is lack of consensus about what potential long term impacts might be relevant.
    Have I correctly understood the interrelationship you are referring to, or have I missed something?

    Berkhout, Frans, Bart van den Hurk, Janette Bessembinder, Joop de Boer, Bram Bregman, and Michiel van Drunen. 2013. “Framing Climate Uncertainty: Socio-Economic and Climate Scenarios in Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessments.” Regional Environmental Change 14 (3). Springer Berlin Heidelberg: 879–93. doi:10.1007/s10113-013-0519-2.

    • I am starting to see what the problem is and I don’t think that clarifying scope is really the root of such matters. The underlying challenge is to work out what decisions are to be made from the analysis and what must be included in the analysis to inform those decisions to the satisfaction of the decision makers.

      It’s easy to slip into a normative mode and a moral argument, depending on the nature of the subject being analysed, but we don’t carry out complicated analyses for the good of our collective souls. They are a tool with which to make decisions and plan for the future.

      If a policy is adopted to ignore a particular facet of the system being considered, I would see that as either the decision makers’ discretion or a political act, either of which is perfectly respectable. Any deficiency in accountability or introduction of moral hazard associated with this is a deeper seated matter, also open to us to explore but not so much about scope as about what the relevant governance system can or chooses to accept and, ultimately, what we, as individuals, citizens, tax payers and other roles are willing to accept.

      • Maybe we’re thinking about different problem contexts? In an integrated assessment setting, the intention is to be as holistic as possible and the instinct is to sweep everything in. Unfortunately, that simply does not work.
        For example, most analyses draw a line far before assessing to what extent increasing drinking water storage in a city in Australia will affect starvation in Africa (e.g. -> increased competition for water -> increased local agricultural prices -> increased global food prices)
        Ignoring a particular facet of the system is a necessity in every analysis, not just a policy to be adopted. I agree that it is a normative decision with associated moral issues, which is why defining the system boundary is such a central part of scoping as I understand it.

        • There is always a matter of where effects become immaterial or at least lost in the noise. That is part of any form of analysis, otherwise each analysis would grow uncontrollably. I thought the argument was about factors that could have a material effect but may be excluded as a matter of policy.

          • In my opinion, calling it immaterial is just a way of depoliticising the issue. If there is chain of cause and effect, no matter how small, it is actually causing a change to the system.
            – If you put small impacts together, you might get a material cumulative effect (e.g. farm dam impact on flow).
            – If you change the context, the small impact might make a difference, e.g. effect of urban water consumption on agriculture might become substantial during drought.
            – What is considered immaterial at one scale may not be at another, e.g. compulsory acquisition of 1 person’s land; loss of 0.1% of a wetland area.
            Justifying scoping by referring to it as immaterial is a useful technique in many cases, but the underlying problem is still a normative one.

            • Posted on behalf of Peter Mulvihill: Indeed, there is no shortage of evidence to support Joseph’s point. The checkered history of environmental impact assessment includes innumerable examples of issues and potential impacts that were discounted, dismissed or not considered at early stages, and eventually turn out to be significant. This amounts to a syndrome in environmental assessment and management. So, at the scoping stage, attention should be paid to factors that may seem peripheral or low probability or insignificant; this links with scenario concepts such as weak signals and wild cards.

              • I can’t argue with that but the link between drinking water in Australia and Africa seemed a bit hard to take seriously and I have seen a lot of time wasted on analysing matters that were actually negligible. Part of an analyst’s role is to find a way to provide meaningful information in a timely fashion, always in the context of the decision that is to be informed by the analysis. There is no doubt a connection between CO2 emissions in all countries and the availability of fresh water in many places around the globe though.

                I don’t really think about it much as it is second nature now but my standard practice is to: add detail progressively until we reach a point at which it no longer affects the decision the analysis is to inform; encourage an open exploratory approach to identify possible components of the analysis, usually with a qualitative screening process first and item by item quantitative analysis where necessary before embarking on a holistic quantitative analysis; and, revisit the problem formulation as circumstances change or after the passage of significant periods of time.

    • Posted on behalf of Peter Mulvihill: Yes, that is the kind of link I see; the Berkhout et al work is very much related.

      One of the underlying constraints, I believe, is the tendency to think of processes separately (for example integrated assessment and environmental impact assessment). While it is true that these processes typically have different mandates, to some extent it is useful to think of hybrid approaches that can address problems in different ways.

  4. I think this may be a specialised use of this term ‘scoping’. The need to be clear about the scope of an engineering or technology project, for instance, would not be questioned by those involved with planning and execution. I am not clear why it would be in doubt.

    • I’ll be interested in Peter’s answer. I wonder if some of the difference in usage reflects differences between consultants and researchers. Consultants are looking for clear parameters for what they are being asked to do. Researchers are exploring what might be useful and valid. Certainly from the perspective of a researcher interested in complex real-world problems, I think of scoping as getting all the possibilities on the table. I couple this with boundary setting to determine what will be most relevant, useful and feasible and what will then be done.

      I’ve written about this in and in more detail in Bammer, G. 2013 ‘Scoping public health problems’ In Guest, C.; Ricciardi, W.; Kawachi, I.; Lang, I. (eds) Oxford Handbook of Public Health Practice, Third edition. Oxford University Press, 2-10.

      One of the things that resonated in Peter’s blog post is “scoping remains a somewhat fringe or obscure topic. For the most part, it is taken for granted and left largely unexamined.” I think this is true beyond environmental impact assessment.

      I’d also be interested in how this ‘sits’ with you, Stephen, and with other readers.

      • reply to Steve Grey, posted on behalf of Peter Mulvihill, who currently has very limited internet access:
        I am referring only to scoping in Environmental Impact Assessment and related applications, where it is the subject of considerable ongoing debate and variability. If scoping is more straightforward in other contexts that sounds good, but in Environmental Impact Assessment very little is uncontested.

        • I wouldn’t say it is straightforward. When facilitating major risk assessments, I often have to lead people quite firmly to spell out what is in scope and, equally important for clarity, what is out of scope. They are pleased to have someone do this but it does not seem to be a natural human behaviour. It will be locked down by the time contracts are signed for implementation but can be a bit loose in the concept stage of a project.

          Having said that, and recognising that I might still not have grasped what this is about, I can’t imagine why anyone would not pursue scope definition quite hard. How can you plan and manage a study or have any faith in its findings if you believe that you might be incorporating matters that are extraneous and omitting matters that could be material? Any ambiguity or uncertainty about the boundaries of the exercise will lay it open to sniping by people who want to discredit the findings.

          Defining the scope and controlling any changes to it very carefully is one of the most basic disciplines of project work. It seems to me that it is a valuable part of preparing for any work, whether it is called a project or not.

          • Thanks Steve. I think we agree that it’s important. I’d be interested to know more about how you go about defining the scope – is there a set of questions that you use or some other method?

            • In my work, it is usually a matter of physical elements of a job and tasks or activities that are to be undertaken: Do we need to include upgrading the access road for the new development or is that going to be carried out by the people running the existing operation? Are we including the work of getting the plant up to full production or just getting it through initial commissioning?

              I just draw a line down the middle of a whiteboard, write IN on the left and OUT on the right and get people to tell me what needs to be mentioned on each side. There will often be disagreements and it is useful to have them resolved. In my line of work, it’s not much more complicated than that.

              • Posted on behalf of Peter Mulvihill: In Canada we often see mega-project proposals, very political, where everything is up for grabs. Terms of reference and scope may end up in court challenges. Proponents may try to split projects (arguing that the mine or hydroelectric project is separate from new highway infrastructure; ENGOs [Environmental Non-governmental Organizations] may contend the opposite). Climate change effects may or may not be assessed. Consideration of social impacts may be limited to direct causal, or expanded to indirect and long term. Spatial and temporal boundaries may be contested. The consideration of cumulative effects may be highly contentious. The scoping exercise, because it takes place early in the Environmental Impact Assessment process, may be caught in the middle of controversy over very fundamental questions.

                • The Canadian experience sounds as though there is a layer missing, one that defines the decision to be made and what it must take into account, which I guess is what the original question was getting at. Sorry I didn’t pick that up at first.

                  There have been occasions in Australia where major environmental approvals have been over turned because the minister responsible failed to consider (which might just mean hear or read) certain items of information. One recent example is this . All that happened following the decision was that the minister read the relevant documents and then reissued the approval. It held things up for about 6-8 weeks and created a lot of adverse comment about “green tape” and vexatious interventions by people whom the right wing of politics regard as having no right to be heard as they are not directly involved but rather seeking to protect the environment as a whole.

                  I regard this as a poor implementation of the process on one hand and, for those who felt it was all a sham, evidence that the process and the regulations surrounding it are poorly framed.

                  This is all political, which we can still address, but nothing to do with the integrity of any studies or analysis. Matters might be brought to a head by highlighting the inefficiency of a poor process. If the politics is imprecise, one will have to be political to make sense of it.

                  Defining what we regard as a sensible scope, which for me would mean taking account of anything with a material bearing on the outcome, might have moral weight behind it but if the regulations mean the final decision is going to overlook aspects of the analysis it’s not going to have much effect. If we don’t like that, we need to tackle the politicians and the lobbyists. The only alternative is a mass mobilisation of popular objections.


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