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Learning by doing: sustainability assessment in Western Australia

Morrison-Saunders, A. and Pope, J. (2013) Learning by doing: sustainability assessment in Western Australia. In: Bond, A., Morrison-Saunders, A. and Howitt, R., (eds.) Sustainability Assessment Pluralism, Practice and Progress. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, Oxon, UK, pp. 140-166.

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Western Australia covers one third of the Australian continent, is home to only slightly more than 10% of the national population, and accounts for around 44% of Australia’s exports (DFAT, 2010). Its economic strength derives from the exploitation of the state’s rich mineral resources, which include crude oil, natural gas, iron ore, gold, nickel, copper and other metals (DFAT, 2010). Western Australia also has a long and strong tradition of project-based environmental impact assessment (EIA) to which these major extractive projects are subject. For example, in his comparative review of EIA performance for around a dozen jurisdictions worldwide, Wood (1994, p.333) stated that: “Widely perceived as a comprehensive and effective EIA system, Western Australia’s EIA process is of particularly comparative interest”. One strength singled out by Wood (1994) is the independent Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) which administers and reports on EIA to the Minister for Environment.

However the scope of EIA in Western Australia is limited in legislation to mainly consideration of biophysical impacts (Bache et al., 2006). The Environmental Protection Act 1986 (EPAct), under which EIA in Western Australia occurs, contains some sustainability provisions; these were added as s4A in the 2003 amendments to the Act, a time when the State Government was actively pursuing sustainability assessment initiatives as noted in Chapter 7. Specifically s4A of the EPAct specifies that the object of the Act is to protect the environment of the State, having regard to the precautionary principle; intergenerational equity; intragenerational equity; the principle of the conservation of biological diversity and ecological integrity; principles relating to improved valuation, pricing and incentive mechanisms; and the principle of waste minimisation. While the EPA does give some consideration to these principles in its application of EIA, ultimately it has not substantially deviated from its traditional focus on biophysical considerations.

The evolution of sustainability assessment in Western Australia has been characterised by a willingness on the parts of government, proponents and the community to experiment and to adopt a ‘learning by doing’ approach to this emerging decision-aiding tool, underpinned by a commitment to generating better outcomes from development for the community as a whole, as well as to ‘make a case’ for development projects. Early sustainability assessment processes were led by government and integrated with the formal project assessment and approval processes, including EIA, and therefore were examples of external sustainability assessment (see Chapter 7). Increasingly, however, proponents ranging from major corporations to small local governments have embraced and experimented with internal forms of sustainability assessment that guide their internal planning and decision-making processes. In some cases these processes are conducted in the early stages of a project that is subsequently subject to statutory EIA, but in others, particularly at more strategic levels of planning, it is undertaken purely for reasons of good governance.

In this chapter we describe some diverse Western Australian case studies of sustainability assessment, some of which were introduced in Chapter 7, highlighting innovative approaches to sustainability assessment as they have emerged in Western Australia in the absence of any statutory mandate or formal process. We draw primarily upon our experiences as practitioners and researchers in conducting this analysis. We conclude by presenting our findings within the framework for comparing and evaluating sustainability assessment practice established in Chapter 8.

Item Type: Book Chapter
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Environmental Science
Publisher: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group
Copyright: © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group
Publisher's Website:
Notes: Chapter 10
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