Environmental assessment is the process that decision-makers rely on to predict, evaluate, and prevent biophysical, social, and economic impacts of potential project developments. The determination of significance in environmental assessment is central to environmental management in many nations. We reviewed ten recent environmental impact assessments from British Columbia, Canada and systematically reviewed and scored significance determination and the approaches used by assessors, the use of thresholds in significance determination, threshold exceedances, and the outcomes. Findings of significant impacts were exceedingly rare and practitioners used a combination of significance determination approaches, most commonly relying upon reasoned argumentation. Quantitative thresholds were rarely employed, with less than 10% of the valued components evaluated using thresholds. Even where quantitative thresholds for significance were exceeded, in every case practitioners used a variety of rationales to demote negative impacts to non-significance. These reasons include combinations of scale (temporal and spatial) of impacts, an already exceeded baseline, model uncertainty and/or substituting less stringent thresholds. Governments and agencies can better protect resources by requiring clear and defensible significance determinations, by making government-defined thresholds legally enforceable and accountable, and by requiring or encouraging significance determination through inclusive and collaborative approaches.
Keywords: Environmental assessment; Environmental impact assessment; Significance; Significance determination; Thresholds.