The Sofia Initiative on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
“SEA was a very useful experience in the elaboration of the Czech National Development Plan. Its benefits went beyond its original purpose of ensuring full consideration of sustainable development during the planning process. SEA helped us to improve the openness of the entire programming process and established a bridge between the planning team and the public. This turned out to be a very positive feature that we later very much appreciated.”
— Tomas Nejdl, Ministry of Regional Development, Czech Republic
By undertaking this project as part of the activities of the Environmental Action Programme (EAP) Task Force, the REC established itself at the forefront of the strategic environmental assessment (SEA) of proposed plans, programmes and policies in the CEE region. The purpose of SEA is to encourage environmentally sound and sustainable development by providing information to strategic decision makers. The project’s aims were to analyse and document the environmental effects of proposed strategic actions; identify alternatives and measures to mitigate significant adverse effects; and ensure that the relevant findings were considered and integrated in regional decision-making processes.
Starting in 1999, SEA systems were established in a growing number of countries. The main driving forces behind this achievement were the European Directive on SEA and the SEA Protocol to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context.
The Sofia EIA Initiative, led by Croatia, facilitated regional exchanges of experience of SEA among CEE countries. As a result of the project, principles for effective SEA application were identified, tested in practice and widely reported throughout the CEE region. Since then, SEA has become an important tool for integrated planning for sustainable development.
As a first step, priorities were defined for the development of national SEA systems in CEE countries. A regional programme was also undertaken to support the inclusion of SEA in planning for the future use of EU Structural Funds in EU accession countries. Pilot SEA projects for these programming documents were carried out in the Czech Republic (National Development Plan and Sectoral Operational Programme for Tourism); Poland (National Development Plan); Estonia (SEA of the National Development Plan); Hungary (Regional Operational Programme); and Slovenia (National Development Plan). Additional assistance was provided to the Czech Republic for several pilot SEA projects and for the development of guidelines for SEA application in regional development planning.
The REC was involved in several activities during the project implementation period:
- The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)/REC regional workshop on the SEA of regional development plans in CEE (Slovenia, 2001) provided recommendations for future pilot SEA projects for regional development plans in CEE countries and newly independent states.
- The REC participated in the SEA of the Strategy for Regional Development of the Czech Republic (1999–2000).
- The REC designed an SEA methodology for the first Regional Operational Programme for the South-West of the Czech Republic (1999–2000).
- The REC led a national expert group to design the official methodology of the Czech Ministry of Environment for the SEA of regional development strategies.
- The REC participated in the SEA of the National Development Plan of Poland (2001–2002).
- The REC supported the SEA of the National Development Plan of Estonia (2001–2002). This project included three in-country workshops to review lessons learned.
- The REC supported the SEA of the Regional Operational Programme for the Hungarian Agency for Regional Development (2001–2002). This project also included three in-country workshops to review lessons learned.
The publication of the manual SEA Training Module for South-East Europe was the result of the experiences gathered within the Sofia Initiative on EIA. It consisted of a series of overheads for use as a framework for the development of country-specific SEA guidance materials, training courses and demonstration projects. The training module complemented and supported ongoing East–East cooperation among CEE experts in the area of SEA.
Good SEA practices in the CEE region indicated that more interactive participation techniques — such as workshops, conferences and roundtables — could be organised to provide effective stakeholder input from the beginning of the SEA and planning process.
Strategic environmental assessment remains an evolving instrument for sustainable development. The principles and guidelines developed in CEE have clearly shown the potential for the application of SEA in other parts of the world. Close cooperation has since been established with possible partner organisations in South Africa, Russia, Japan and other countries.