BREAKING NEW GROUND ON CONSERVATION-CONSCIOUS DEVELOPMENTS

Dominic Henry (dominch@ewt.org.za) and Ian Little (ianl@ewt.org.za), EWT

In the early stages of considering a proposed development, whether it’s a small farm dam or a large coal mine, the prospective developer needs to assess (usually through a specialist consultant) what the impacts of that proposed development might be on the environment through an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In a biodiversity-rich country like South Africa, developments for housing, agriculture and industry are often planned and constructed in areas where threatened or endemic wildlife occur. Many threatened and sensitive species  are present only in certain seasons or are naturally adapted to disguise themselves, thus easily missed during EIAs. To ensure these species, and other nationally important assets such as heritage features, are not overlooked when deciding if a proposed development can proceed, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE) has developed a national web‐based Environmental Screening Tool. The screening tool assists a developer to screen their proposed site and its surroundings for environmental sensitivities based on thousands of datasets that highlight the presence of species of concern.

The screening tool includes mapped datasets that capture a broad range of environmental sensitivities, including cultural, archaeological, aerospace, agricultural, terrestrial, and aquatic biodiversity. These datasets are integrated across the entire country. The datasets on plant and animal species of conservation concern (threatened and restricted range endemics) were provided by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and BirdLife South Africa. The terrestrial plant and animal biodiversity layers were first published onto the screening tool in December 2019, but there have been several refinements and updates of the layers since then. The layers currently comprise species occurrence and distribution modelling data of 425 animal species from five animal groups (16 amphibians, 40 birds, 131 butterflies, 40 mammals, 18 reptiles, 121 spiders, and 60 species of other invertebrates) and 4,633 plant species.

With the availability of all these spatial datasets, a developer can now avoid areas containing sensitive species early in the development process by changing where a development footprint is placed to avoid disturbing these species’ habitats. Domitilla Raimondo from SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme explains that before the availability of these data, many rare and threatened species, especially those from biodiverse groups, such as plants and invertebrates, were completely missed during EIAs. South Africa’s species diversity is so incredibly rich that it is impossible for any EIA specialist to know what should be at a particular site. The screening tool now guides specialists on what species to look for. It also allows all stakeholders, including members of the public, interested and affected parties, and officials responsible for issuing land-use decisions, to access information on the species present at a particular site.

At the initiation phase of a development process, the screening tool also identifies any specific legislated exclusions, restrictions, or prohibitions and informs what type of specialist must be contracted to conduct the EIA or specialist studies. As an accompaniment to the screening tool, further legislation has been enacted to standardise and guide how practitioners assess and report potential impacts of developments on animal and plant species (referred to as the Terrestrial Plant Species and Terrestrial Animal Species protocols). These protocols, published in October 2020, aim to provide the minimum information requirements for species specialist studies, thereby standardising species-level aspects of EIAs and the reporting of potential impacts from proposed developments on species of conservation concern (SCC). These protocols now aid with objective decision making during environmental authorisation.

The screening tool is open access. We encourage those passionate about protecting nature to use it and get to know the special species that occur in your vicinity, and use this data to submit comments on any developments planned. The screening tool can be found here.

An example of the potential of the tool for South Africa’s biodiversity, people, and economy.

The importance of this tool is particularly relevant at a time when development in rural landscapes is escalating, illustrated by the rapid expansion of renewable energy developments across the country in South Africa’s effort to reduce emissions and implement SA’s Integrated Resource Plan to reduce its coal fleet and focus on renewable energy.

According to a Daily Maverick article published on 29 September 2021, “South Africa’s revised carbon emission targets range between 350 to 420 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2-eq). The country’s lower target range of 350Mt CO2-eq is compatible with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target, placing South Africa ahead of the curve and possibly making it a global leader in the climate crisis fight.” This might, however, be optimistic given that South Africa is currently the 12th biggest carbon emitter in the world and 350Mt CO2-eq is the lower end of the target scale, but either way, there is going to be an expansion of alternative energy development and these new developments will have lasting negative impacts to our natural heritage if they are placed in areas of environmental sensitivity.

Dr Dominic Henry, from the Endangered Wildlife Trust, who has worked alongside DFFE, SANBI, and Birdlife South Africa to develop the screening tool, has this to say: “The screening tool is a ground-breaking and game-changing tool for the early recognition of environmental sensitivities in the face of rapid and extensive development across South Africa, this tool will prevent the oversight and resultant destruction of threatened species, priority habitats and cultural heritage.”

This work and the development of the Species Environmental Assessment Guideline were undertaken as part of SANBI’s Biodiversity and Land Use Project with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The Rand Merchant Foundation provided funding for Endangered Wildlife Trust’s contributions to the project.