4. The European Environment Agency's contribution: Putting information to work

The preceding sections of this report have examined existing mechanisms for providing access to environmental information for the public.

The European Environment Agency has a mandate to put information to work. The data collected - which is a task in the first instance for the authorities in the member states - must be useful to policy-makers, legislators, researchers, managers, the media as well as the public.

The following section will consider the theme of access to environmental information in the context of "putting information to work".

4.1 Identification of areas for improvement in the structures for collecting and presenting information and of effective working models

4.1.1 Moving from a sectoral to anintegrated approach

Environmental regulation to date has often taken a sector-by-sector, compart-ment-by-compartment, one-problem-at-a-time approach. This is the case both for the national level and the EU. Thus, water, air, soil, waste, hazardous substances, land use, etc. have generally been separately regulated.

One unintended consequence of the sectoral approach is a diversity of requirements for environmental data generation, collection, and reporting. Not only may the requirements vary from regulation to regulation but also the intended users and recipients of the information collected may vary. Thus, information may be collected by companies but not transmitted to public authorities; or information may be collected under several different laws and transmitted to the several different government agencies responsible for environmental control under the different laws. As a result, a member of the public wishing to obtain a complete picture of the environmental performance of a particular company or the state of the environment in a particular area may need to hunt down information from several different public authorities, some of which may be national authorities, others of which may be regional or local authorities, or even semi-governmental entities. Under such circumstances, the practical hurdles to access to environmental information become very high indeed. The difficulty is not limited to the individual member of the public; also for governmental authorities, the difficulty in locating and obtaining information from other authorities may interfere with their effectiveness.

In recent years, some first steps have been taken to address these problems. Some countries, among them the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Ireland, have introduced a system of integrated licensing, an approach the EU has adopted with the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) directive18.

Another measure is the introduction of environmental reporting requirements for companies by which a single, consolidated picture of a company's environmental objectives and performance can be obtained (e.g. the EU’s EMAS Regulation). Instruments at national and EU level exist or are under discussion but can be strengthened and expanded in scope if they are to meaningfully respond to the need for more readily available and useful information.

4.1.2 Sampling, monitoring, and reporting requirements

The question of what data should be collected and reported is another important area where improvements can be sought. In developing new legislation or evaluating existing measures, a hard look should be taken at data collection and transmission requirements.

In particular, are environmental actors being asked or, better yet required to measure their activities in such a way that it is possible to determine not just whether such activities are in keeping with all legal requirements but also what the impact of the activities is on the environment? This is a complicated matter and requires first an answer to the question of what do we wish to know.

It is thus worth recommending that far more attention be paid to the inclusion of provisions in laws and regulations which lead to the generation of information which responds to the need for effective monitoring, which gives a clear and reliable picture of the state of the environment, and which works in compatibility with requirements in other laws.

4.1.3 The privatisation of information

Another trend which can be observed is the increasing privatisation of information. This may take place both in connection with the use of negotiated agreements and the privatisation of public functions.

Negotiated agreements are in essence contracts between parties19. Often, the parties are a government authority on the one hand and an industry or industry group on the other hand. In some cases, a semi-governmental or private entity may be established by government in order to perform certain policy functions, including concluding negotiated agreements with industry. Where this is the case, uncertainty can exist whether the information generated by the parties to the agreement is "held by a public authority" and accessible to non-parties, including in particular the public. Provision should therefore be made to clarify under what circumstances the information collected is accessible to the public.

Another development of recent years is the privatisation of public functions. One result has been that commercial rates may be charged for access to information of public interest. This is justified from the point of view of the privatised bodies by their need to cover their own costs. It can however make it impossible in practice for members of the public to afford access to the information. Privatisation also raises the issue of whether a body falls under the coverage of instruments for access to information held by public or quasi-public authorities. This is an area of increasing dispute despite the attempts, for example of the Directive, to address the question. Privatisation can also reduce the availability of national and regional data, e.g. on CO2.

4.2 Practical suggestions for improvements ininformation collection anddistribution systems

The preceding section identified three areas where developments are taking place in the structure of environmental regulation. The positive development in the direction of improved integration threatens to be offset by the segmentation of environmental supervision which privatisation may imply. In between, lies the issue of whether sampling, monitoring and reporting requirements are being effectively employed to generate useful data.

One recommendation that can be made is for more emphasis to be given to information provisions and requirements in the field of environmental management, on the part of both public and private actors. Concretely, it would be useful if the environment ministry or comparable bodies reflected increased priority to these issues by the designation of a senior official - an "information czar" - with responsibility for these matters. Presently, the information function within most ministries is primarily concerned with external relations and not the policy of ensuring that environmental measures generate useful data efficiently and effectively.

At the same time, collection and distribution of information must incorporate the advances that technology has made possible, as discussed in the following section. Thus, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun working to link its data so that people can locate quickly information that a single company reports under various environmental laws20. The EPA's effort is intended to overcome the difficulty caused by information housed in separate data bases, in different places and formats, and subject to different disclosure rules.

4.3 Environmental information in the information society

Only a short time ago, when the drafters of the Directive on freedom of access to environmental information set about their work, they had in mind a world in which information was found in documents and documents were made of paper.

Since the adoption of the Directive in 1990, the world has changed rapidly. Not only have there been advances in the distribution and use of computerisation but electronic communication has become part of everyday life. Responding to a request by pulling open a file cabinet to take out a folder filled with paper increasingly belongs to the past. A request for information may now be sent electronically for data which can also be transmitted electronically back to the requester.

This transformation suggests that transformation may also be necessary for the provisions of the Directive and similar instruments. What, for example, does it mean to "make information available"? The notion of inspection or supplying a copy of a paper document seems strangely out-dated in these days of electronic browsing and Web-sites open to any Internet surfer.

For that matter, what is the meaning of information "held by" public authorities when computerised data collection and storage by regulated bodies can be continuous and instantaneous? Such information may be held by the regulated body and available upon request to a public authority. If a public authority can summon the data up upon command, why should a member of the public not have the same opportunity?

What is an appropriate time limit for a response given the speed of electronic communication? The time limit in the Directive of two months appears almost ludicrous given the developments in "real-time monitoring" and given that electronic transmission of huge volumes of data can occur in seconds or minutes. For example, the French government already publishes daily air and water quality bulletins on-line, demonstrating that the time line from sampling and reporting to public availability can be shortened enormously21.

Electronic communication also adds a new element to the question of charging. Generally, charges are meant to cover copying costs but inspection is free. Isn't electronic browsing the equivalent of inspection? Are fees for on-line connections or entry to a database then appropriate? What fee, if any, should be charged for information made available electronically?
What practical arrangements should be made to provide electronic access to information? The needs of the electronic searcher and user will differ from the traditional requester who walks into an authority's office or submits a request in a letter. The requester may also possess expertise and equipment more sophisticated than that of the authority holding the information. Demands of this sort from the public, however, will increasingly bring pressure on authorities to develop mechanisms to serve the public as it actually is.

These are just a few of the questions which arise in connection with re-thinking access to environmental information in an age of more and more computerised data and electronic communication.

4.4 Via comparability toward sustainability

The difficulty of making use of data gathered in different formats, under different laws, for different purposes, by different agencies and other actors is only compounded when one moves from the national to the international level. Therefore, efforts to make the information from one source comprehensible, and if possible, comparable to that of another source are necessary.

The European Environment Agency has already taken one concrete step toward making it possible to communicate about environmental matters across the divides of language and political systems22. The Agency has created a multi-lingual thesaurus covering more than 2000 environmental subjects in the hope of making key terms more understandable. At European level, a common understanding is an important prerequisite for common actions to protect the environment and move towards sustainability. At national level and below, authorities also need to speak the same language, whether communicating between departments or between different governmental levels. The Agency can perhaps assist with programs directed at statistical offices, ministries, parliaments and others concerned.

4.5 Conclusions

The notion that good information is the basis for good policy-making, implementation and enforcement underlies the mission of the Agency. The Agency can assist by identifying good practices and by publicising them, by bringing attention to the gaps in the systems which need to be closed, and by working together with the authorities at relevant levels to improve the entire trajectory from data collection to information provision.

Improving the structures and practical arrangements for collecting and providing information, practical improvements, and a forward-looking view which takes heed of the revolutionary technological developments in the information field are all important steps which can be taken.

18 O.J. No. L 275, 10.10.96, p. 26.

19 The EEA has recently completed a report on Environmental Agreements, at the request of the European Parliament, ("Environmental Issues Series, No 3," EEA, 1997).

20 See "EPA Prepares Information Reforms", Working Notes on Community Right-to-Know, (U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, Washington, D.C.) (January-February 1996).

21 See "Exchange of Environmental Information Boosted by Growth in On-line Communications", International Environment Reporter (April 17, 1996), pp. 341-342).

22 The overall approach of the EEA to information provision is described in its "Information Strategy" and Work Programme.



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