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on the environment

You are here: Home / Media / Speeches / Environmental information and public involvement

Environmental information and public involvement

Presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of EEA, at the TESS workshop, London, on 15 September 2009

A key element in understanding and responding to biodiversity loss will be making full use of available resources capable of gathering accurate local information. And the public arguably represents the largest untapped monitoring resource out there.

Prof. Jacqueline McGlade

Ladies and gentlemen

With COP15 approaching, climate change dominates the international agenda. Events in December will show whether public opinion has reached a decisive tipping point in that field — whether growing international awareness of the urgent need for a shift to low carbon economies at last translates into far reaching global action.

Contrastingly, public awareness of the reality of biodiversity loss and its grave consequences is much less advanced, and the political pressure for global action is correspondingly weaker.

Biodiversity is often perceived as a luxury: preserving species might be very desirable, losing them might be tragic but ultimately it seems a price worth paying if it allows humans to raise their incomes.

The reality, of course, is that accepting the loss of biodiversity doesn’t facilitate economic development, it undermines it.

The message that must be understood much more widely and reflected in policy at all levels is that biodiversity represents an indispensible element of the ecosystems that sustain our economies and societies.

We have made some progress in protecting biodiversity but not enough

This is not to say that we haven’t made some significant steps in Europe. The Natura 2000 network continues to grow. In addition, heads of Government in 2002 made an important statement with the ambitious aim of stopping biodiversity loss by 2010. Nonetheless, we continue on an unsustainable path. We are failing to meet our targets.

Equally worryingly we lack necessary information

Equally troublingly, significant gaps exist in our knowledge regarding the status and trends of biodiversity and their interaction with our social and economic wellbeing.

This ignorance in turn limits our ability to demonstrate the fundamental value of biodiversity, design appropriate targets and policies, and generate broad public support for action.

As I will explain in more detail, engaging the public — both as the source of information and as an audience — will be crucial to overcome these deficiencies.

The EEA has helped understanding of biodiversity status and trends through the SEBI 2010 process

Let us start, however, by looking at where we stand today.

The European Environment Agency supports sustainable development and helps achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment by gathering, interpreting and disseminating timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information

[SLIDE 2]

In the area of biodiversity, a key EEA initiative is the Streamlining European 2010 Biodiversity Indicators (SEBI 2010) process. In this context, EEA has developed a set of coherent indicators that can convey complex biodiversity phenomena and trends.

The pan-European SEBI 2010 process aims to ensure that the EU, governments, business and citizens know the status of our biodiversity, and are thus empowered to take sound decisions.

[SLIDE 3]

Despite ambitious policy targets and some positive steps, the status and trends are worrying…

Troublingly, our first assessment based on the 2010 indicators revealed that despite some progress, we continue to lose biodiversity. It confirmed what Commissioner Dimas acknowledged earlier this year: the European 2010 target will not be met.

  • Around 40–85 % of habitats and 40–70 % of species of European interest have an unfavourable conservation status. Grasslands and wetlands across Europe are particularly at risk.

[SLIDE 4]

  • Overexploitation of marine fisheries remains a threat to marine ecosystems, with some 45 % of assessed European stocks falling outside safe biological limits.
  • Invasive alien species remain a threat, increasingly so in marine systems.
  • Urban sprawl and abandonment of agricultural land put pressure on natural and semi-natural areas. Forest fragmentation is another key threat and has increased since 1990.

…although there are some positive developments

This is disappointing. But we also have to recognise what we have put in place to attain the European 2010 target, which currently sets the global standard in the process towards sustainable use of natural resources and a healthy environment.

[SLIDE 5]

Substantial progress has been made in protecting habitats. Some 17 % of EU land area is now included in the Natura 2000 network and 16 % protected under national schemes across 39 countries.

[SLIDE 6]

Our report illustrates that some progress has been made towards halting the loss of biodiversity – for example common birds are no longer in decline - but overall the status and trends are not yet favourable. The overall risk of species extinction for wildlife in Europe has increased.

Legislation on atmospheric emissions, freshwater quality and waste water treatment has reduced the pressure on biodiversity. Specific measures have also relieved agriculture-related pressures, although further efforts are required.

Water quality has generally improved in fresh waters.

SEBI thus presents a mixed message regarding biodiversity trends but a clear statement of the value of gathering and presenting information

So the message from the SEBI 2010 outcomes so far is that despite ambitious targets and some useful policy innovations, we are not yet doing enough.

Equally, however, the process itself highlights two important messages:

First, the value of gathering coherent, comparable information from across the EU — in terms of its capacity to inform and motivate the public, and to guide policy formulation;

Second, the big gaps in our ability to collect and disseminate information.

[SLIDE 7]

The public represents a huge untapped monitoring resource

A key element in understanding and responding to biodiversity loss will be making full use of available resources capable of gathering accurate local information. And the public arguably represents the largest untapped monitoring resource out there.

EEA and its partners are therefore taking steps and seeking new opportunities to engage the public.

EEA benefits from the contributions of indigenous people in the Arctic

[SLIDE 8]

In the Arctic, for instance, indigenous people form part of the EEA's global observation network, providing evidence of the real change taking place to complement our observational data and models.

We know already that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe. Yet outside the territories, little is understood of the true cost to indigenous people of retreating ice or the impact of seasonal change on hunting. We need to rectify this if we are to make the right decisions.

It is no longer sufficient to develop passive lists or reports to ‘inform’ citizens of changes in our environment. We need to engage with citizens and ask how they can inform us. Obtaining and using local knowledge will help us empower citizens, and will also give us a better indication of what we need to do to be truly sustainable.

Other key potential resources include hunters…

[SLIDE 9]

Other groups, notably users of the countryside, offer significant resources. It is estimated, for instance, that there are some 7 million hunters in Europe, capable of providing localised information and already well organised in national associations.

Moreover, recording game bag statistics is a widely accepted practice.

The main challenge, therefore, is harmonising and coordinating the data collection. Encouragingly, there is already buy-in from the hunting and conservation communities, for instance the 2004 agreement between Birdlife International and the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE), by which both organisations agreed that:
‘rational assessment of effects and measures, including those to be adopted in legislation and other rules on hunting, must be based on the best available and reliable data … The collection of hunting bag statistics, along with their scientific interpretation and proper use, is necessary.’

The launch of the ARTEMIS European Hunting Bag Data Collection Programme under the Commission’s Sustainable Hunting Initiative in 2006 offers great chance to understand what data is currently available and where there are gaps, and create a harmonised, centralised and accessible resource that can feed it into other processes.

…farmers (and other stewards of the countryside)

[SLIDE 11]

As the custodians of large areas of the countryside, farmers represent another crucial source of biodiversity information. Here the challenges lie in creating the right incentives for farmers to contribute to accurate and comparable data across the EU.

It may be possible to gather some data on a voluntary basis through farmers collectives, particularly as understanding grows of the importance of biodiversity in sustaining agricultural productivity and livelihoods.

In the short term, however, stronger incentives will probably be needed to encourage farmers and other rural inhabitants to gather biodiversity data. With careful design, it may be possible to integrate data collection into the Common Agricultural Policy, perhaps through the ‘Leader approach’ to diversified rural development.

…and other constituencies such as  the research community.

Another key source of information, currently not used to the full, is the research community. And here too, the key lies in creating the right incentives for individuals to share their data.

Having invested in generating raw data, academics currently stand to gain little from making it freely available to fellow researchers because of the difficulty tracking it and winning accreditation. In this area, as in many others, technological innovation potentially offers solutions in the form of data tagging.

Among the ten key conclusions agreed at an international conference on environmental monitoring hosted by EEA in May this year, one was the need to develop data tagging procedures and standards for citation tracking and securing international agreement for their use in the peer-reviewed literature.

Another valuable action to improve the accessibility of data from publicly funded projects, which is often very hard to access after the project has concluded. This perverse situation should be addressed by revising EU rules.

But public involvement doesn’t just generate data but also ownership, understanding and empowerment

The examples given so far have presented opportunities for collecting data from a variety of groups. But it’s important to stress that public involvement in supplying data isn’t just valuable because of the information generated.

A substantial part of its worth lies in the way that it creates a sense of ownership, deepens public understanding of the issues and adds to acceptance of the data’s validity.

Creating dialogue is the key to enhancing engagement

[SLIDE 11]

The goal is arguably, therefore, to engage the public in two-way communication, rather than just perceiving them as the source of data or the target for information.

Evidently, the support and involvement of the public are crucial — both to stimulate individual actions to protect biodiversity and to empower citizens to demand policy actions to fulfil that goal.

But the challenge is considerable. A Eurobarometer survey indicates that two-thirds of EU citizens do not know the meaning of the word ‘biodiversity’, or understand the main threats to biodiversity.

[SLIDE 12]

Of course, the problem isn’t limited to the issue of biodiversity. A 2008 Eurobarometer survey revealed that 42% of EU citizens feel poorly informed about environmental issues we all realise that we must do better.

[SLIDE 13]

Perhaps an even greater concern, considering the vast amount of data and information published, is the low level of ‘trust’ citizens have towards their National governments and the European Union.

Together, these figures are a serious concern.

One key means of addressing this will be making use of the opportunities presented by the internet, GIS and other new technologies to collect and transmit localised, real-time data in ways that everyone can understand.

EEA’s activities under SEIS provide an idea of the possibilities

To realise this goal, EEA is working with the European Union, developing new systems such as the Shared Environmental Information System. The initiative will guide Europe's collection and dissemination of environmental information over the coming years.

[SLIDE 14]

The EEA's recently launched online portal, which is called the Global Citizen's Environmental Observatory, will enable European environmental information to be gathered and presented in a single location.

The Observatory will give governments, policymakers and citizens easy access to clear, comprehensible data in real time.
It will provide information on all environmental media - from the global perspective to the view from the street - at levels of detail previously unseen.

Examples  include Ozone Web…

[SLIDE 15, 16]

The near-real time ozone monitoring website is providing an hourly update of ground level ozone concentrations across Europe, allowing the user to dig down into the information – even to the individual monitoring station and the local data providers.

In addition a pilot study to use the near real-time ozone data for summer reporting was also successfully demonstrated with DG Environment in 2008, and could potentially replace the current summer ozone reporting obligations.

Not only do we see an interest from citizens wanting to know more about their local air quality, but it will definitely contribute to improved information on large scale pollution events which can be useful to policy makers and governments.

But more can be achieved by making the information more relevant to the user. In this context and in addition to Ozone web the EEA has also been involved in developing Water watch.

...and Water Watch

[SLIDE 17, 18]

Water Watch, which provides information on bathing water quality, represents an illustration of the services to come.
Launched by the EEA and Microsoft last year, it was visited almost 265,000 times in the first three weeks of August; a clear indication of public demand for user-friendly environmental information.

Crucially, the Observatory will afford every one of us a role in the information process by prioritising two-way communication.

In the case of Water Watch, local people are encouraged to give their opinion on the quality of the beach and water, thereby supplementing and validating official information.

Presenting different types of information – from monitoring stations, local knowledge and academic analysis – will inform and empower the public, and guide policy design

Looking ahead, the EEA, in close co-operation with the European Commission and EU member states, will continue to prepare a detailed implementation plan for SEIS with the aim of building an increasingly robust and diverse resource for citizens and policymakers alike.

[SLIDE 19]

When EU bodies review members' compliance with environmental standards, they will increasingly refer to national websites where everyone can access the relevant data, rather than relying on confidential submissions.

Meanwhile, data collected pursuant to regulatory obligations will be integrated with information from voluntary and professional groups as well as from empowered citizens.

This result will be a more up-to-date, complete and nuanced picture of the state of Europe's environment and its relationship with social and economic wellbeing. Because it is the result of a dialogue between multiple stakeholders, its authenticity and accuracy will be more widely accepted.

And this will in turn empower citizens to engage actively in improving their own environment and to demand the enactment and implementation of well-designed policies to support that goal.

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