Strategic Environmental Assessment
: Its Potential Adoption and Use in Corporate Strategic Planning and Decision-Making

  • Stephen J. Bonnell

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is a systematic process for assessing and evaluating the potential environmental effects of proposed policies, plans and programmes (PPPs) and their alternatives, in order to identify and address such issues at the early (pre-project) stages of strategic planning and decision-making. Although SEA is a key aspect of current and evolving environmental assessment theory and practice, the primary focus thus far has been on its statutory application to public-sector planning initiatives. Despite previous comments that SEA should also be applicable and of interest to corporations, there has been very little evidence or investigation of its potential voluntary adoption and application in this context. Important questions therefore remain about what might motivate or deter a corporation from deciding to use SEA, and if so, the particular timing or stage of planning at which it is to be applied, the environmental issues upon which it would focus, and the SEA approach and methods to be used.

    This study has therefore been designed and conducted to investigate corporate decision-making about whether, why, when and how to voluntarily adopt and apply SEA. Due to a lack of previous research on this topic, and the overall inapplicability and inadequacy of other existing theory and knowledge to it, the study has adopted a qualitative and inductive (exploratory) approach. The research methods involved a series of semi-structured interviews and subsequent focus group sessions with strategic planning personnel within electricity utilities in Canada, in order to identify and seek to understand their views and decisions about the possible voluntarily adoption and application of SEA.

    The results of the study indicate that a variety of factors are considered by corporations in decision-making about the potential use of SEA. This includes issues related to: 1) The type and level of environmental uncertainty and risk that is perceived to be associated with the company’s overall strategic planning initiatives (PPPs); 2) The particular reasons for it perceiving a need to proactively address environmental risks at the strategic level as opposed to at later stages of planning or during PPP implementation; 3) The specific rationale for, and objectives and desired outcomes of, any such SEA use by the corporation; and 4) the perceived applicability of SEA to the corporation’s planning and business activities, and its likely effectiveness in achieving the above referenced objectives and outcomes. A number of internal and external contextual factors were also found to be influential in corporate views about whether SEA is considered to be necessary, possible, applicable and likely effective, including the perceived benefits, costs, risks and challenges associated with its use. As a key outcome of the study, these research findings are used in the development and discussion of a conceptual framework that identifies the occurrence, influence and interrelationships of these factors and the manner and order in which they are recognized and considered in corporate decisions about SEA and its use. A summary of the main results of the study, including the resulting conceptual framework, was subsequently provided to all interviewees and focus group participants and is included as an appendix to the thesis.

    In addition to providing an opportunity to generate new knowledge in relation to this previously uninvestigated subject, this research has also provided an interesting and unique context through which to investigate and evaluate longstanding and more recent and evolving theoretical perspectives about SEA, as reflected in the current literature. The study’s results highlight a number of new and important dimensions of how SEA is viewed and potentially used in certain contexts, including issues related to its perceived purpose and objectives, approaches, and potential and desired outcomes, which are presented and evaluated herein in order to contribute to the further advancement of SEA theory.
    Date of Award2016
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorBarbara Illsley (Supervisor), Anthony Jackson (Supervisor) & Vincent Onyango (Supervisor)

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