The European Environment Agency and CyberSpace
Arendal, Norway, 1 September 1995
UNEP Seminar: The role of the Electronic Highway - In the preparation of Environmental Information for Decision-Making
Executive Director, European Environment Agency
The European Environment Agency and CyberSpace
The agency owes its existence mainly to the vision of one man, Mr Jacques Delors. He was urged, by the 1988 Rhodes European Council, to provide policy-makers with the tools needed to implement the Community's environmental policies. He surprised even the Environment Directorate of the Commission when only some weeks later he announced the setting up of a European measurement and control network. Mr Delors realised that it is through information that the whole of society, especially its most active groups, can become the true guardians of our environmental capital.
The proposal from the Commission, then represented by Carlo Rip Di Meana, to create the Agency was finally adopted by the Council in 1990, but our Regulation only came into force at the end of 1993 when it was agreed to locate the Agency in Copenhagen. We were open to the public one year later.
It was Council Regulation (EEC) 1210/90 which established the Agency and the European Environment Information and Observation Network. They should provide the community and Member States with, and I quote:
"objective, reliable and comparable information at European level enabling them to take the requisite measures to protect the environment, to assess the results of such measures and ensure that the public is properly informed about the state of the environment".
Such information is not confined to just monitoring the state of the environment - the Agency tasks mandated by the Regulation relate not only to monitoring but also to policy analysis (Article 2 and especially paragraph 2(11)). We need to describe the present and foreseeable state of the environment in at least three dimensions: its quality, the pressures from human activity, and its sensitivity to these pressures. Furthermore the information we provide must be, as described in the Regulation, "accessible", so that the public can be "properly informed".
This is a wide remit, and of course "knowledge is power". But many would like the Agency to be even more powerful and to have the power to inspect and impose sanctions, particularly in view of the low level of respect in many countries for Community environmental legislation. For some, like the newspaper "The European", the Agency might be seen as "a watch-dog without teeth". Or as Lord Tordoff remarked recently, we could become "just an information black hole". For others, who are aware of the power of information in our society, the Agency could go to the opposite extreme and become a concealed power centre, a Trojan Horse. I hope we are none of these things. We are a friendly watch-dog with a strong jaw, whose loud unanticipated bark is sufficient to bring trespassers up short.
You may ask what can barking achieve? It clearly must aim to alert, and to stimulate action. The aim of the Agency is not merely to interpret the world, but to co-operate in changing it - and for the better. Information can help do that by:
- providing early warning of impending environmental problems;
- ensuring that the "choosing" is informed choice;
- helping to improve the design of policy instruments;
- monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of regulations and other actions
- empowering the public, NGOs and business to take action;
- spotlighting deficiencies in the data, so that the scientific community can start filling the gaps;
- highlighting the inadequacies at Member State level, so that improvements in both data gathering and enforcement capacities are encouraged;
- disseminating details of good practice, both in data collection and in environmental technology.
The 1994-1999 Multiannual Work Programme of the Agency describes how we will complete these objectives. It is divided into 10 programmes comprising 93 projects covering the tasks assigned to the Agency by the Regulation. It is - but this ambition is needed and is a reflection of the Regulation. Furthermore we are getting on with it and there is no other way if we want to keep a global perspective.
The Agency has been operational at its new premises in central Copenhagen since October 1994. The informatics infrastructure will be fully completed shortly and the staff, consisting of 47 persons assisted by 17 national experts and consultants should be in place by the end of 1995.
The Agency co-operates with the much larger European Environment Information and Observation Network (EIONET) a system formed on the basis of the national monitoring and information systems of the member countries. This arrangement is expected to increase their individual and collective capacities by joining them in the network and by providing facilities for sharing information to solve common problems.
The structure of this powerful and extensive EIONET network, currently made up of 450 information centres known as the Main Component Elements, co-ordinated at national level by a National Focal Point in each member State, was confirmed in October 1994 by the Management Board. The EIONET is now beginning to operate as a real network already providing information in some specific areas (like air quality and air emissions), and should result in co-operation and further improvement at National and European level. Detailed procedures for the exchange of information and mutually supporting activities are being established between the agency and each of the national information systems.
The Information Society
It is said that Europe is rich in data and poor in environmental information. The European Environment Agency is not the first to refer to this apparent contradictory situation, but, given its mandate and role in collecting data, translating this into information and making it available for policy use as well as to the public at large, it is major challenge for the Agency, together with other partners, to help close the gap between data and information.
We are facing important decisions and knowledge is at the root of choice. Significant choices have to be made and in many cases under conditions of uncertainty and before having definitive scientific proof; in all cases we need the best available information to be provided to the policy makers and to the public at large. As the second Netherlands Environment Plan heading mentions the question is "to choose or to lose".
Environmental data sources, both as a result from the scientific work as well as from ongoing monitoring schemes, are abundant, containing detailed measurements, large time series or volumes of descriptive references. It is by no means an overstatement that many of these environmental data sources are underused and insufficiently exposed to a broader audience - many of the data sets are referred to as data mines or as data graveyards, depending upon the user relevance and accessibility. We at the EEA are convinced that many of the data sources can be made relevant and improved by opening and exposing them, and overall by synthesising towards directly relevant information " or as we say by "putting information to work".
We need reliable information that leads to action and this is where the EEA comes in. Its key role is to identify what information is needed and to provide that information, thereby creating a demand model, and to supply information support and guidance or analysis on environmental policies to those who act upon it.
The provision of environmental information is a clear optimisation challenge; to push to establish systems to synthesise existing data and translate into efficient information to both the decision making and participation process. Indeed the information that is needed for both processes is based on synthesis, overviews, trends, scenario's and locators, and not necessarily to access of the basic data. Future efforts are to be oriented towards the development of technical capacities and means to collect, manage and access data and information, but above all to identify relevant needs and to translate the exiting data into effective and useable information, and to assure the reliability and comparability of basic data, the process and products involved. Information has to be developed with a purpose, and if possible of direct use.
The contradiction between data abundance and information scarcity, is becoming even more apparent given that the technological tools to manage, process and analyse data are widely available and steadily improving, while networking is being realised at a global level. The questions that inevitably pop up; how can environmental information be so scarce in the emerging information society? what is the role of Environmental Agencies towards Cyberspace technology? How to take advantage of technological supply push? Is a global environmental network feasible?
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe's environment.
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