skip to main content
OSTI.GOV title logo U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Scientific and Technical Information

Title: A review of uncertainty research in impact assessment

Abstract

This paper examines uncertainty research in Impact Assessment (IA) and the focus of attention of the IA scholarly literature. We do so by first exploring ‘outside’ the IA literature, identifying three main themes of uncertainty research, and then apply these themes to examine the focus of scholarly research on uncertainty ‘inside’ IA. Based on a search of the database Scopus, we identified 134 journal papers published between 1970 and 2013 that address uncertainty in IA, 75% of which were published since 2005. We found that 90% of IA research addressing uncertainty focused on uncertainty in the practice of IA, including uncertainty in impact predictions, models and managing environmental impacts. Notwithstanding early guidance on uncertainty treatment in IA from the 1980s, we found no common, underlying conceptual framework that was guiding research on uncertainty in IA practice. Considerably less attention, only 9% of papers, focused on uncertainty communication, disclosure and decision-making under uncertain conditions, the majority of which focused on the need to disclose uncertainties as opposed to providing guidance on how to do so and effectively use that information to inform decisions. Finally, research focused on theory building for explaining human behavior with respect to uncertainty avoidance constituted only 1%more » of the IA published literature. We suggest the need for further conceptual framework development for researchers focused on identifying and addressing uncertainty in IA practice; the need for guidance on how best to communicate uncertainties in practice, versus criticizing practitioners for not doing so; research that explores how best to interpret and use disclosures about uncertainty when making decisions about project approvals, and the implications of doing so; and academic theory building and exploring the utility of existing theories to better understand and explain uncertainty avoidance behavior in IA. - Highlights: • We identified three main themes of uncertainty research in 134 papers from the scholarly literature. • The majority of research has focused on better methods for managing uncertainty in predictions. • Uncertainty disclosure is demanded of practitioners, but there is little guidance on how to do so. • There is limited theoretical explanation as to why uncertainty is avoided or not disclosed. • Conceptual, practical and theoretical guidance are required for IA uncertainty consideration.« less

Authors:
 [1];  [2];  [1];  [3];  [4]
  1. Department of Geography and Planning, University of Saskatchewan, 117 Science Place, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 5A5 (Canada)
  2. Department of Geography and Planning, School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, 117 Science Place, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan S7N 5A5 (Canada)
  3. Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve W., Suite 1255, Montreal, Quebec H3G 1M8 (Canada)
  4. (Canada)
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
22447508
Resource Type:
Journal Article
Resource Relation:
Journal Name: Environmental Impact Assessment Review; Journal Volume: 50; Other Information: Copyright (c) 2014 Elsevier Science B.V., Amsterdam, The Netherlands, All rights reserved.; Country of input: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
54 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES; COMMUNICATIONS; DECISION MAKING; DEMAND; ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS; ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

Citation Formats

Leung, Wanda, E-mail: wanda.leung@usask.ca, Noble, Bram, E-mail: b.noble@usask.ca, Gunn, Jill, E-mail: jill.gunn@usask.ca, Jaeger, Jochen A.G., E-mail: jochen.jaeger@concordia.ca, and Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke W., AD-502, Montreal, Quebec H4B 1R6. A review of uncertainty research in impact assessment. United States: N. p., 2015. Web. doi:10.1016/J.EIAR.2014.09.005.
Leung, Wanda, E-mail: wanda.leung@usask.ca, Noble, Bram, E-mail: b.noble@usask.ca, Gunn, Jill, E-mail: jill.gunn@usask.ca, Jaeger, Jochen A.G., E-mail: jochen.jaeger@concordia.ca, & Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke W., AD-502, Montreal, Quebec H4B 1R6. A review of uncertainty research in impact assessment. United States. doi:10.1016/J.EIAR.2014.09.005.
Leung, Wanda, E-mail: wanda.leung@usask.ca, Noble, Bram, E-mail: b.noble@usask.ca, Gunn, Jill, E-mail: jill.gunn@usask.ca, Jaeger, Jochen A.G., E-mail: jochen.jaeger@concordia.ca, and Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke W., AD-502, Montreal, Quebec H4B 1R6. 2015. "A review of uncertainty research in impact assessment". United States. doi:10.1016/J.EIAR.2014.09.005.
@article{osti_22447508,
title = {A review of uncertainty research in impact assessment},
author = {Leung, Wanda, E-mail: wanda.leung@usask.ca and Noble, Bram, E-mail: b.noble@usask.ca and Gunn, Jill, E-mail: jill.gunn@usask.ca and Jaeger, Jochen A.G., E-mail: jochen.jaeger@concordia.ca and Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, Concordia University, 7141 Sherbrooke W., AD-502, Montreal, Quebec H4B 1R6},
abstractNote = {This paper examines uncertainty research in Impact Assessment (IA) and the focus of attention of the IA scholarly literature. We do so by first exploring ‘outside’ the IA literature, identifying three main themes of uncertainty research, and then apply these themes to examine the focus of scholarly research on uncertainty ‘inside’ IA. Based on a search of the database Scopus, we identified 134 journal papers published between 1970 and 2013 that address uncertainty in IA, 75% of which were published since 2005. We found that 90% of IA research addressing uncertainty focused on uncertainty in the practice of IA, including uncertainty in impact predictions, models and managing environmental impacts. Notwithstanding early guidance on uncertainty treatment in IA from the 1980s, we found no common, underlying conceptual framework that was guiding research on uncertainty in IA practice. Considerably less attention, only 9% of papers, focused on uncertainty communication, disclosure and decision-making under uncertain conditions, the majority of which focused on the need to disclose uncertainties as opposed to providing guidance on how to do so and effectively use that information to inform decisions. Finally, research focused on theory building for explaining human behavior with respect to uncertainty avoidance constituted only 1% of the IA published literature. We suggest the need for further conceptual framework development for researchers focused on identifying and addressing uncertainty in IA practice; the need for guidance on how best to communicate uncertainties in practice, versus criticizing practitioners for not doing so; research that explores how best to interpret and use disclosures about uncertainty when making decisions about project approvals, and the implications of doing so; and academic theory building and exploring the utility of existing theories to better understand and explain uncertainty avoidance behavior in IA. - Highlights: • We identified three main themes of uncertainty research in 134 papers from the scholarly literature. • The majority of research has focused on better methods for managing uncertainty in predictions. • Uncertainty disclosure is demanded of practitioners, but there is little guidance on how to do so. • There is limited theoretical explanation as to why uncertainty is avoided or not disclosed. • Conceptual, practical and theoretical guidance are required for IA uncertainty consideration.},
doi = {10.1016/J.EIAR.2014.09.005},
journal = {Environmental Impact Assessment Review},
number = ,
volume = 50,
place = {United States},
year = 2015,
month = 1
}
  • No abstract prepared.
  • In environmental life-cycle assessments (LCA), fate and exposure factors account for the general fate and exposure properties of chemicals under generic environmental conditions by means of 'evaluative' multi-media fate and exposure box models. To assess the effect of using different generic environmental conditions, fate and exposure factors of chemicals emitted under typical conditions of (1) Western Europe, (2) Australia and (3) the United States of America were compared with the multi-media fate and exposure box model USES-LCA. Comparing the results of the three evaluative environments, it was found that the uncertainty in fate and exposure factors for ecosystems and humansmore » due to choice of an evaluative environment, as represented by the ratio of the 97.5th and 50th percentile, is between a factor 2 and 10. Particularly, fate and exposure factors of emissions causing effects in fresh water ecosystems and effects on human health have relatively high uncertainty. This uncertainty i s mainly caused by the continental difference in the average soil erosion rate, the dimensions of the fresh water and agricultural soil compartment, and the fraction of drinking water coming from ground water.« less
  • For an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to effectively contribute to decision-making, it must include one crucial step: the estimation of the uncertainty factors affecting the impact evaluation and of their effect on the evaluation results. Knowledge of the uncertainties better orients the strategy of the decision-makers and underlines the most critical data or methodological steps of the procedure. Accounting for uncertainty factors is particularly relevant when dealing with ecological impacts, whose forecasts are typically affected by a high degree of simplification. By means of a case study dealing with the evaluation of road alternatives, this paper explores and discusses themore » main uncertainties that are related to the typical stages of a biodiversity impact assessment: uncertainty in the data that are used, in the methodologies that are applied, and in the value judgments provided by the experts. Subsequently, the effects of such uncertainty factors are tracked back to the result of the evaluation, i.e., to the relative performance of the project alternatives under consideration. This allows to test the sensitivity of the results, and consequently to provide a more informative ranking of the alternatives. The papers concludes by discussing the added-value for decision-making provided by uncertainty analysis within EIA.« less
  • An attempt is made to identify the strengths and weaknesses of individual methods and techniques which can be incorporated into environmental impact assessment procedures. Methods and techniques developed and used on several continents are analyzed for the role they could play if combined with others in an adaptive approach. The review does not attempt to evaluate procedures as complete systems for environmental impact analysis, but seeks to highlight the unique contributions of each method and technique. Several methods and techniques not previously reviewed in the environmental impact assessment literature are included, as in an extensive bibliography. 59 references, 11 figures.
  • The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative aims at putting life cycle thinking into practice and at improving the supporting tools for this process through better data and indicators. The initiative has thus launched three programs with associated working groups (see http://www.uneptie.org/pc/sustain/lcinitiative/). The Task Force on Toxic Impacts was established under the Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) program to establish recommended practice and guidance for use in human toxicity, ecosystem toxicity, and related categories with direct effects on human health and ecosystem health. The workshop consisted of three elements. (A) presentations summarizing (1) the goals of the LCIAmore » Task Force (2) historical approaches to exposure and toxic impacts in LCIA (3) current alternative proposals for addressing human health impacts. Viewgraphs from two of these presentations are provided in Appendix B to this report. (B) Discussion among a panel of experts about the scientific defensibility of these historical and proposed approaches in the context of the goals of the LCIA Task Force 3 on toxicity impacts. (C) Development of the recommendations to the LCIA program and working group for optimum short- and long-term strategies for addressing human health impacts in LCA.« less