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EEA: improved access to information is a driving force for environmental improvement

Copenhagen, 6 June 1997

 

EEA: improved access to information is a driving force for environmental improvement

Today, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published an Experts’ Corner Report on Public Access to Environmental Information in Europe

The report, written by Ralph Hallo (Stichting Natuur en Milieu, NL), an expert in the field, with a foreword by Ken Collins, MEP, Chairman of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, describes the issues at stake in the current debate about improved access to environmental information & public participation in environmental decision-making in both the European Union and the UN ECE-framework.

Quote Ken Collins, MEP: "This report on public access to environmental information has come at a particularly timely moment, namely the beginnings of the review of Directive 90/313/EEC on freedom of access to information on the environment. Since the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, nationals of Member States have had citizenship of the Union; although this confers at present very limited rights and duties, it is the germ of a future in which the citizen can look to the Union as a real polity. In conjunction with moves towards greater transparency and accountability in Union decision-making, the EU is in the process of becoming closer to its citizens: a process which all democrats should support and help to continue. A major factor in this drive for accountability and real citizenship is access to information. Citizens must be informed about policy making in order to make reasoned decisions about it. This is particularly important in the field of environmental policy, which is both at the heart of taking mankind into the new millennium and an essential part of the Union’s policy competence. My Committee has been vociferous in its advocacy of extended public access to environmental information for many years, and expects the Union to make substantial progress in this matter".

The report offers an overview of the principal instruments for providing the public with access to environmental information. It covers the 15 EU Member States, as well as the situation in countries of the European Economic Area and Central and Eastern Europe.

Directive 90/313/EEC on freedom of access to environmental information, which has been in effect since 1993, is the most significant law concerning public access to environmental information. It establishes a general right of any person to environmental information held by public (and quasi-public) authorities subject to specified exceptions. The Directive represents a dramatic change for most Member States, introducing openness where secrecy was the rule. Four years of experience have shown, however, that the process of change is a gradual one and that continued progress, both in terms of the quantity and the quality of the information available, is still desirable.

The report covers in particular the developments at EU level and the UN ECE efforts to elaborate a draft-Convention on Access to Environmental Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision-Making. This draft-Convention will be on the agenda of the next Pan-European Environment Ministers’ Conference, scheduled to take place in Århus, Denmark, in June 1998.

Ralph Hallo, author of the report said: "The real challenge is not just putting the terms of the Directive and similar legal instruments to use, but the real challenge lies in anticipating and adjusting to future demands and technological innovation. The paper paradigm of Directive 90/313/EEC appears increasingly in need of adaptation to the realities of today’s world of modems and megabytes. Monitoring, retrieval and transmission of data can take place with a precision and rapidity not commonly known even a few years ago. This is also the challenge for the EEA: to help the parties concerned - governments, researchers, industry, environmental organisations and citizens - to develop effective systems of data collection, storage, retrieval, transmission and availability while working with a multitude of diverse systems (and languages) so that the data that enters the system can emerge as useful information".

Domingo Jiménez-Beltrán, EEA’s Executive Director, said: "The European Environment Agency is already trying to meet this challenge in many ways. We are helping Member States - at their request - to build up their environmental data collection systems, we are compiling a Catalogue of Data Sources on the environment in order to rapidly become the "one-stop-shop" for environmental information in Europe, and we are working together with the G7 countries to build a virtual global environmental information mall. Simultaneously, we are actively providing access for the public to all Agency publications and databases through our web-site, which currently receives more than 200,000 visits/month. The Agency will shortly be looking with the Commission services and Member States’ administrations at the possibilities of improving public access to environmental information through more extensive use of the World Wide Web. In the Agency, we have learned from experience that this is the easiest, fastest and most cost-efficient way of providing access to environmental information to the public at large. Improving access to environmental information will lead to more informed citizens, who will ask for stricter environmental standards. It will also lead to improved enforcement of environmental standards, as public pressure for better enforcement of environmental laws will grow. Thus, environmental information will become more and more the driving force for environmental improvement in Europe and beyond".

The Experts’ Corner Report on Public Access to Environmental Information is available free of charge from the European Environment Agency (EEA). It can also be accessed at the EEA’s homepage at: http://www.eea.europa.eu.



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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100