Environmental information and public participation

Speech Published 13 Nov 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency. The role of information in an age of climate change – An international conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the Aarhus convention, Aarhus, November 13 2008.

The public needs to be properly informed and empowered to participate in political debates at all levels, as well being empowered to change their own way of living.

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, EEA Executive Director

2O years ago, when the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change was first set up, climate change was the realm of scientists and statisticians, and still at the periphery of the public consciousness.

Today it is the most pressing environmental question the world has faced; we are now beginning to appreciate the enormity of the challenge ahead; and climate change sits at the top of the political agenda.

The Aarhus Convention, based as it is on public involvement and access to environmental information, is a cornerstone in our ability to respond to this challenge.

When we consider the strategic challenges we face it becomes clear that fundamental changes are needed to the way we live.

In order to bring about these changes, the public needs to be properly informed and empowered to participate in political debates at all levels, as well being empowered to change their own way of living.

I believe that if we are to tackle climate change we need to move beyond conventional systems of data collection and management. It is no longer sufficient to develop passive lists or reports to ‘inform’ citizens. We need to engage with the woman on the street, in the field, in the river or on the mountain and ask how they can ‘inform’ us.


The organisation I direct - the European Environment Agency - has a key role in ensuring the EU and its citizens can make the changes our environment needs.

We are required to support sustainable development and help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment, through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information.

Key climate change trends

This Autumn, and as part of this process of delivering quality assured independent information, the EEA released two reports on climate change in Europe; an indicator report on climate change impacts and a report on Kyoto emission projections.

Indicator report

The first report, based on 40 indicators and produced in conjunction with the Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the World Health Organisation Europe, gives us further evidence on climate change trends in Europe. The trends, which complement those of the IPCC in 2007, are unequivocal; climate change is a reality which we need to address urgently:

  • We have observed increases in the number of hot and cold extremes, and the intensity and variability of precipitation extremes.
  • We have rapid melting of European glaciers and sea ice - having recently returned from Greenland I can testify to this.
  • A significant change in the fluvial system and distribution across North and South Europe. But flooding and drought will both increase! And,
  • Sea level rise.

EEA country report – in line for Kyoto, but only just!

(Slide – from report showing trends)

The report, "Greenhouse gas emission trends and projections in Europe 2008" evaluates historic emissions from 1990–2006. It also looks at projections of future emissions during the Kyoto Protocol commitment period, compared to the joint commitment by the 15 old EU member states to a reduction of 8% by 2008-2012 from 1990 levels.

The EU-15 as a whole should meet its joint Kyoto commitment, and the newer EU member states should meet their individual commitments.

Overall emissions are projected to continue decreasing. But the 20 % reduction target for 2020, endorsed by European leaders in 2007, will remain out of reach if the EU energy and climate change package proposed in January 2008, is not approved in full by heads of state and governments next month.

Climate change challenges – what can we do?

Our reports add further evidence that climate change is happening and we can’t completely avoid the effects.

Even if we achieve the EU target of limiting a global temperature increase to 2 °C by 2050, there will always be residual impacts. To assess the impacts, information is not only needed on the current climate, but also on projected climate change for the next 100 years.

Our reports have highlighted that with respect to vulnerability and adaptation, data needs are far less clear: policy targets are much more difficult to define and less well established and measures have only recently started to be implemented. 

Climate change vulnerability and adaptation calculations are also insufficiently embedded in the policy areas that will be most affected, such as biodiversity and nature protection, agriculture and forestry, energy, tourism, health etc

There is a pressing need for new data and for improvement of currently available data. In particular we need to harness data at a more local and regional level to build an accurate picture of future impacts.

We can only find and use this data if we involve citizens directly with the information process. In this regard the Aarhus convention, and the UNFCCC New Delhi agreement, is essential to processes being developed by the EEA.

New ways of working

Too often information is made available as lists of figures or spreadsheets that only experts can interpret. Imagine if all the data that underpins our evening weather forecasts, or how Google and Microsoft work were presented in this way… you think they would continue to be as popular?

To encourage and benefit from participation we need to present our information in a way everyone can understand.

Of course the EU can’t do this at the appropriate spatial level alone, neither can national or local authorities - as environments are different from field to field and stream to stream. This is why I am convinced that the approach taken by the EEA, to bring together all levels of spatial information; local to global, is the right approach.

The European Union – with the full engagement of the European Environment Agency - is developing several new systems to take these ideas forward: Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS), the global observatory for environmental change and the climate change simulator. I will highlight these further in turn.

  1. Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) and the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS)

Slide - GMES

GMES, which was formally adopted yesterday by the European Commission, will use satellites and other sensors: on the ground, floating in the water or flying through the air, to monitor our natural environment. The information provided through the GMES initiative will help us understand better how, and in what ways, our planet may be changing, why this is happening, and how this might influence our daily lives.

Slide - SEIS

The Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) is a collaborative initiative of the EU and the EEA with the aim of moving away from paper-based reporting, to a system where information is managed as close as possible to its source and is made easily available to users in an open and transparent way.

This approach will integrate all existing information flows related to EU environmental policies and legislation as well as voluntary reporting.

Based on technologies such as the internet and satellite systems it will make environmental information more readily available and easier to understand for policy makers and the public.

Overall, the aim of SEIS and GMES is to improve environmental information in response to new pressures, such as responding to climate change, meeting increasing expectations from citizens and the growing interdependence of social, economic and environmental factors.

  1. A global citizens observatory for environmental change

Slide - GOEC and Bathing water –

Even when we can increase the co-ordination and timeliness of complex data, it highlights the need for even better ‘real time’ information which is simplified and accessible to all.

To tackle this issue the EEA recently launched an online portal, with the working title of the Global citizens Observatory for Environmental Change, which will enable European environmental information to be gathered and presented in a single location.

The Observatory will provide an easily accessible and understandable resource for governments, policymakers and citizens to access data in real time. It will provide this information on all environmental media – from the global perspective to the view from the street – at levels of detail previously unseen in environmental information.

Water Watch, which provides information on bathing water quality, is one illustration of this process. It was launched by the EEA in conjunction with Microsoft this summer. With almost 265,000 visits in the first three weeks of August, it illustrates that the public want user friendly environmental information.

Crucially, the Observatory allows every one of us a role in the information process through prioritising two way communication. Often the best information comes from those who are closest to it, and it is important we harness this local knowledge if we are to tackle climate change adequately. In this instance people are encouraged to give their own opinion on the quality of the beach and water, to supplement the official information.

  1. MIT

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, supported in part by the EEA, is currently developing a new tool called the Climate Change Simulator, which will be tested with key environmental decision-makers at the end of November in Copenhagen. I am hopeful that it will also be presented in the margins of the climate change COP-14 talks in Poznan in December.

Slide – MIT simulator

It illustrates what climate scenarios will develop within the next 100 years in response to decisions political leaders make about cutting greenhouse emissions. If the world cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 20 – 30 – or 80%, what will the resulting impacts of climate change be? The simulator provides some of the answers.

Importantly, it will be available to everyone, and isn’t only for super computers and technicians. That means each one of us can use the same data that governments use to simulate what change could occur in your country.

From personal experience running this simulator I have noticed that people have been convinced with its operability and output. It gives immediate feedback, which is essential when we want heads of state and ministers to see the consequences of their actions. It gives them, and importantly the public, an insight into the scale of change that is needed.

Concluding remarks

The Bali conference on climate change last December started a process towards a future global agreement on the arrangements for mitigation and adaptation in the coming years.

I’m sure we all hope this will be successfully completed in Copenhagen in 2009, and that it will not only bring governments closer together on what needs to be done in the future, but also create a clear link to actions that need to be taken by citizens around the world.

The 10 years since the signing of the Aarhus Convention have in many ways already been a success. The Convention has paved the way for a strengthened participation in environmental protection. With this mind we are developing tools which can bridge the gap between the citizen – researcher – and decision maker, but we must not stop there.

We are committed to helping the Aarhus Convention succeed. That means in particular contributing to the development and management of services that meet our needs and empower users.

At the global level we need to share our understanding to the benefit of policy-makers and citizens; we will work to promote the free exchange of the information necessary for this.

Aarhus led the way in establishing the public as an essential user of environmental information. We know our environment is influenced by massive global and national factors, but it is also affected by the daily actions, no matter how small, of each and every European citizen.

If we are to bring about real improvement and reverse the climate change trends, we need to find new ways to inform and involve citizens and empower them in something that is critical to our shared future.

Together, the initiatives I have referred to today can lead the way for the next 10 years


Annex 1

Day 1: Thursday 13 November – “Environmental Information and Public Participation

The conference will address synergies across the first two ‘pillars’ of the Aarhus Convention  - access to information and public participation - and examine the broader implications of these interactions for an advanced implementation of Article 6 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the “New Delhi Work Programme”; 

 ‘(…) cooperate in, promote, facilitate, develop and implement public awareness programmes on climate change and its effects (…), facilitate public access to information on climate change and its effects, and to promote public participation in addressing climate change and its effects and in developing adequate responses (…)’ 

Decision 11/CP.8, Annex, Art.14


The conference will focus in particular on the role of public access to environmental science-based information and public participation in decision-making on issues related to climate policy as provided under regulatory instruments facilitated by the Aarhus Convention that are crucial to local, regional and global success of the UNFCCC.

Key topics of the conference are:

  • The importance of scientific based environmental information and findings as a basis for public awareness as well as for political awareness of climate issues;
  • Access to environmental information that can provide synergy between mitigation measures and adaptation needs;
  • The importance of public participation as an integrated part of decision-making on adaptation and mitigation policies; and
  • Public participation as a means by which political and social values and tradeoffs are incorporated into political decisions on climate related issues



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