Environmental Information and Public Awareness. Challenges and Opportunities. The Role of the EEA

Speech Published 08 Dec 1997 Last modified 16 Oct 2014
Speech statement by Domingo JIMENEZ BELTRAN






Thessaloniki, Greece

8-12 December 1997



Issues Forum 4

"Shifting to Sustainable Lifestyles: Changing consumption and production patterns"


"Environmental Information and Public Awareness. Challenges and Opportunities. The Role of the EEA."


Note: The opinions expressed by the speaker are of a personal nature and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EEA, the European Commission or any other Community Institute.

Ladies and Gentlemen


I would like to start with a phrase from the Harvard Professor John Kennedy "There is always a race between education and (environmental) catastrophes". This is not meant to be alarmist, but to put into context the fact that to be effective, information must cover public awareness, lifelong learning and education as a whole and that applied well to environment where we are facing big challenges, as shown these days by the Kyoto Conference on climate Change, where the readiness and therefore awareness of people ("Perception precedes action", Aristotle) is vital for facing the required big changes in production and consumption patterns; perception that goes beyond factual information ("Facts are facts but perception is reality", A Einstein).

My task here today is to say a few words about environmental information and public awareness, also outlining in what the European Environment Agency is doing in this field. As you may know the EEA was established by the Community (while open to non-EU countries) to deliver the best available information to serve and improve the decision making and public participating process.

I would also like to introduce you, via a manifesto, to some areas of action where our efforts will be concentrated upon and which should further develop the cause of environmental education and information in Europe to speed up the process of sustainable development.

But before describing our plans, let me give you an overview of some European developments in the field of information and information dissemination as a whole which the Agency must consider in order to develop mutually supportive actions or to assure sustainable cooperation or best results at lowest cost.

Across Europe, a great deal of time and effort have been devoted to developing the potential the society brings to all of us. On its "Learning in the Information Society" action plan for 1996-1998, the European Commission, through the co-chairpersons of the plan, Commissioners Martin Bangemann and Edith Cresson, state that:


"As our society becomes increasingly based on knowledge and communication, Europeans must, from an early age, learn how to use new information and communication tools. Their future, and jobs in particular, are at stake"

Learning in the Information Society - Action plan for a European
Initiative (1996-98), European Commission, Brussels

This observation, prompted the Commission to prepare an action plan on this very issue, in line with the request from the European Council in Florence to "use all available means to accelerate the entry of schools in the information society". And that means in the very first place that educators must be constantly informed and updated on what is going on, and the EEA should especially address this group of agents.

An additional sign of the relevance of this theme was seen in the white paper "Teaching and Learning: towards Information Society", launched last year as part of the European year of Lifelong Learning. The document states quite clearly that tomorrow’s society will be a society in which each individual builds up his or her own qualifications, being, in other words, a learning society.

Other examples of progress seen in this area are:

i the publication of the Commission’s "People First - the New Steps", which defines the action needed for developing the social dimension of the Information Society, in which employment creation and equal opportunities, two matters of great importance to Europe today, are described;
ii The set-up of a European Education Partnership, with many business and economic agents to offer concrete action for specific needs of schools, also in respect of environmental education and teaching.

And perhaps a recent development which might be of direct interest to those attending this conference is the decision, taken by the Commission, to set-up the "European Foundation for Multi-media", grouping private and public organisations, as well as educational institutions and member states of the EU, to combine action with a view to developing internationally compatible multi-media materials which, among others, may serve the purpose of facilitating environmental learning.


Some Challenges

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Those are just a few of the initiatives we can take advantages of in the Information Society. But the use of information technologies is not without its problems. Above all if we want to use fully its potential without falling into unsustainable trends. As could be the case if it becomes supply driven and it increases inequities also in the area of information.

  1. Availability of equipment
  2. The availability of hardware and software across European nations, especially in schools, is now uneven. As outlined in recent studies such as the EuroSymbioses survey undertaken by the R鳥au Id饠in Belgium and a few weeks ago, in the final report of the MEET project (Multi-Media, Environmental Education and Training), Europe is still divided with respect to the provision of hardware and software.

    At the same time we have to avoid that the tool, the informatics and telematics, do not become the goal, so this need of more even access to the tools has to be matched to capacities to put them to use to proper/efficient education programmes.

  3. The use of information
  4. As important as providing information, especially on the environment, a task which the EEA tries to fulfil, is the willingness and the interest to use it. We therefore need to further disseminate the benefits of the information we are providing, so as to encourage people to use it more and more.

    I believe that, provided a balance is found between the capacity to acquire information and the interest to actively seek it, we shall be moving forward in making use of up-to-date information as part of the routine in our lives.

Central to all developments listed in this paper so far, is the fact that the dream of making environmental information available to all, thus contributing towards a more sustainable Europe, is a vision which is becoming closer and closer to reality. In the field of environmental information and public awareness, the EEA is performing several tasks:

  1. it pools and disseminates information and know-how across Europe, working in close cooperation with the national information systems forming the European Information and Observation Network (EIONET) including EEA Topic Centres (putting and building up expertise capacities, and national institutes);
  2. it publishes specific and periodical reports on the state and trends on the environment in Europe, at European level like the "Dobris Report" or at EU level; the first 3 year assessments were published in 1995, and further assessments will be done periodically;
  3. it develops alternative scenarios and prospective analyses of the socio-economic developments and related interactions and impacts with the environment to reconduct related programmes and measures and to guide progress towards sustainability;
  4. it fosters capacity building for environmental monitoring, assessment and reporting at EU and MS level by means of developing agreed standards, guidelines and related technical reports;
  5. it acts as the node of an extended network for the exchange and dissemination of environmental information; in this context the Agency is becoming a/the Reference Centre;
  6. it develops and implements a publication and communication plan, hopefully with higher support in the future from Member States, providing references and/or guiding information on the various products it develops on a wide range of environmental issues. All that to assure that the public has access to the Best Available Environmental Information. This includes also the development of so call derivative products including some targeted to educators. Here the need to produce versions in the different European languages is not yet fulfilled.

Recently, the Agency, together with WWF, has produced an educational package entitled "Europe’s Environment" based on the DOBRIS report, which was reviewed at the European Environmental Education Fair held in L?g, Germany, last September. The package, which consists of a guide, a CD-ROM and a diskette, has been receiving favourable reviews from teachers and students in various countries and is pending translation to other languages.

This is just an example of how our big reports, most of them, can also be converted to "educational tools".

This list of activities, which is by no means exhaustive, offers an overview of some of the work we do and illustrate our commitment to putting information to work.

The Agency intends to make an impact on the current situation concerning public information and awareness, decision making and sustainable environmental management through provision of products and services.

Environmental data, properly interpreted and converted to accurate and accessible information, must be universally disseminated to a wide public to increase the current level of public knowledge and enable Europe’s population to equitably make informed choices and participate in the democratic decision-making process as the most relevant action to change prodcution and consumption patterns.

Similarly, policy makers must be provided with the means, including scientific evidence, to take effective decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty, relying on the precautionary principle without incurring excessive or unanticipated cost. These goals can be reached provided the "best available information" is used within carefully conceived, win-win or no regret, strategies, based on reliable models, which make the consequences of inaction clear.

The potential and challenges posed by the Information Society and the emergency of new technologies are certainly taken seriously at the European Environment Agency. There is obviously a limit in relation to what an environment agency can do with the information it hosts, especially taking into account the complexity inherent to environmental themes, but also the need of the different stakeholders and public at large above all in relation to languages. However it is our belief that no efforts should be spared to make such information widely available , to various groups, so as to increase its "added value" dimension. In this context, the various opportunities provided by the Information Society means that there is now a window of opportunity that should not be missed.

This is why the rest of the text is presented like a manifesto to speed up, via the Information Society, the facing of the challenges to change our production and consumption patterns and turn them into opportunities.

This manifesto thus proposed four theses, which represent some of the concrete ways of capitalising on the current technical advances of information technology, so as to maximise the possibilities of using this rapidly growing capacities for the dissemination of environmental information. They are at the same time some of the areas where the EEA will be dedicating a great deal of time and efforts in the coming years, as part of its Multiannual Work Programme which is now being developed for the period 1998-2002.

 Thesis 1 - Increasing the possibility of access to environmental information

It serves no purpose to have the best possible environmental information, an uncompromising goal of the EEA, if those who are supposed to be on the receiving end are unable to access it. On the basis of the need to deal with such a pressing need, the EEA intends to take action in two main fronts. First, it shall perform a critical appraisal of the current ways environmental information is gathered, stored and distributed in Member States. This will enable us to identify the "who" and "what", and at the same time guide us in proposing realistic (the "how") of moving forward in cooperation with Member States. To this end we shall work hand in hand with national environmental administration agencies and with organisations including NGOs in the broad sense and even private business active in the field of information dissemination. Second, we intend to establish a cooperation link with institutions concerned with information dissemination in Europe such as the "Green Spider", established by DG XI, and the Information Society Project Office in Luxembourg (ISPO), in order to jointly establish, test and implement approaches aimed at facilitating the access of Europeans to information on the environment. The ISPO is in fact undertaking a Europeanwide survey titled ESIS (European Survey on the Information Society), through which an inventory of the projects currently carried out in the field of information society will be produced. It has already become clear from the provisional data gathered in the survey that the sectors with the least projects are transport and the environment. This needs to be addressed.

These 2 - Expanding the context in which environmental information is being used.

Although it is in principle broad in aims and applications, the use of environmental information is unfortunately confined to some groups and small circles, such as specialised public agencies, scientists or academics, and active groups like NGOs. There is nothing wrong with it, but in my mind, data on the environment could and indeed should be used for various other purposes such as in education (formal and non-formal teaching) and professional training and of course, at length by the diverse agents or "doers" like, municipalities, businesses and more and more by consumers and citizens in general.

There is no reason for not using the most recent data on items such as air pollution or water quality but above all about available techniques and management tools provided also by the Agency with and through the EIONET (European Environmental Observation and Information Network) and its topic centres, as a basis for classroom discussions, and as case studies for training programmes including vocational ones or as part of research studies.

(Let me mention here a possible project with other EU agencies).

The Agency, which produces many topic and technical reports, already makes some of them available in electronic format. To enhance its capability for information dissemination, it is working on an organisational model that invites other governmental and non-governmental organisations, both at the European and national level, foundations and firms to make use of the information provided by the Agency, according to their interest areas and requirements.

Thesis 3 - Connecting people and organisations

In an attempt to streamline its networking, the Agency is now working on a concept aimed at ensuring a broader awareness about its work and products and services. The Internet is already playing a key role on this and our web site is visited by more than 200.000 people every month. Even if our page is at an early stage, we shall not rest on our achievements of the past. For the near future, the Agency plans to enlarge its network, further involving people and institutions and socioeconomic agents (ENVIROWINDOWS) working in the environmental field, including UN agencies such as UNEP (with which we already have extensive cooperation) and UNESCO using a revised homepage and CDs as a means of contact and information dissemination.

In this context, it is important to connect the experiences gathered in the field of environmental education through tools like the "European Environmental Education Newsletter" for the EEA‘s development of the Information Reference Centre. This should facilitate educators’ access to BAI to, acting as a kind of "one stop shopping place" or a first door to environmental information. This experience could be adapted to include data dissemination per print, but mostly via e-mail and the World Wide Web.

We are already starting with some basic work at home: the EEA is establishing an intra-agency model for environmental information which could be extended at Member States level, providing for a "seamless" information system to link up its activities in the fields of environmental monitoring, information and awareness, through a scenario called ENVISION, whose main elements are: networking, - a monitoring and reporting system, - a reference centre, - and proper connections to policy making. All that to "know more", "to know better and for all" on the environment and above all providing "to do better", and all that at the lowest possible cost by "networking" even in financial terms.

Thesis 4 - Establishing strategic partnerships on environmental education and communication

It can be noticed in the context of the all previous theses of this manifesto, that the Agency does not intend to work alone in pursuing the above tasks, we are basically a network administration. We are putting a system in place whereby partnerships and MOUs with similar minded organisations, including those with Europeanwide and national remits are now being discussed. Such strategic partnerships, whose establishment is and will be made on the basis of well-designed and concrete cooperation plans, should bring in financial, human, technical and intellectual resources together, which combined may enable EEA and the partners themselves, to concretise actions which they alone could only dream about.

These initiatives, which are intertwined, are aimed at ensuring the Agency fulfils its mission and, at the same time, provide added value to other developments seen in the environmental field in Europe today, taking full advantage of the technological possibilities available and integrating our work with the Information Society. Education and communication are central to our work and we shall try to ensure that the best available information the Agency produces is used as widely as possible.

 Ladies and Gentlemen,

The main objective of using the Information Society and the advantages associated with it, is the need to push forward the frontier of traditional communication and traditional information dissemination. The impressive speed with which technology advances nowadays enables animation, audio and other media and software to be jointly combined, making information dissemination effective (for those providing it) and fun (for those using it).

What we really need is innovative and "intelligent" use of the information. By intelligent I mean that the new technologies in the fields of communication and telematics offer a unique occasion for using the enormous potential of in terms of the gathering, processing, storage and dissemination of information, also on environmental issues. In addition, such new technologies, for example, the use of remote sensing by satellites, are constantly being used in new applications and the environment is a growing priority. However, while using it fully we have to avoid to be supply driven; the Demand Side Management approach has also to provide for efficient use of the available capacities in the field of environmental information and education.

As stated by the European Parliament, concerned with the essentially economic aspects of the debate held by the Conference of the G7 Ministers about the information society, the main question now is how to adjust the need for - intelligent - environmental information, with the existing capacities and limitations, so as to establish a balanced system where the offers meet the demands.

In the road towards a European strategy for environmental information, which now exists under the format of a working plan, all these items need to be taken into account. The EEA is taking part in one of the 10 projects initiated at global level under the G7 initiative and intends, under project number 6 of the package for the Information Society (Environment, and Natural Resources Management), to establish the tools (GELOS) providing for a Virtual Global Environmental Library that should also contribute more and more towards the development of the infra-structure of the European Network of Environmental Observation and Environmental Information, and related information and education programmes.

In the long term, with the development of such operational strategies and its sustained use, the Agency intends to provide a solid basis in the development and execution of future environmental policies and to the process of sustainable development and the required changes in production and consumption patterns. The progressive incorporation of educational packages, to this informative process, could without doubts benefit from the outcomes of this Conference.

In the long-term, the instant accessibility of environmental information via the World Wide Web will progressively complement and to a large extent replace printing. Although it will not be possible (nor it is fully necessary) to replace printed information, those in need of up-to-date data will find in the internet a helpful tool. The EEA is conscious of this reality and, through the steps outlined in this manifesto and through cooperation with organisations sharing similar ideas such as UNESCO, UNEP and our partners in the member states, it shall try to provide its contribution to the vision of making environmental information accessible to anyone, anywhere in Europe. This is the way I see we can provide our contribution to further develop education for sustainability, and therefore directly contributing towards a more sustainable society, where still higher life quality and for all is provided by less imputs and outputs, is just a matter of increased (factor X) efficiency. And this is the purpose effective environmental information should serve via adequate continued education, learning and training programmes.


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