The evolution of state of the environment reporting

Page Last modified 04 Dec 2019
4 min read
A number of experts across Europe have a distinguished record of contributing to State of the Environment (SoE) reporting. We asked two of those experts - Rob Maas, Senior Scientific Advisor at the National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM) and Nico Hoogervorst, Senior Researcher Environmental Policy Analyst at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) - to share their experiences and insights on the evolution of Dutch SoE reporting from 1988 to today.

The Netherlands was one of the first countries to publish a SoE report in 1988. What were the drivers that inspired the publication of this first report?

Rob: The first Dutch SoE report (‘Concern for tomorrow’ or ‘Zorgen voor morgen’ in Dutch) was published in 1988. At that time, environmental issues were gaining attention among the public, the monarchy and the government alike. In addressing those concerns, the government saw the need to develop more coherent and integrated environmental policies that focus on prevention rather than remedy. The RIVM[1] was then mandated to gather the necessary knowledge, analysis and outlook in the form of a SoE report.

What reactions did the first report generate? Were they different to the reactions the ones the subsequent State of the Environment reports received?

The impact of policy evaluations like SOERs depends not only on methodological rigor but also on a relationship of trust with the policy makers whose policies are being evaluated.


Nico Hoogervorst (PBL)

Nico: Initially - and until the early 2000s - the Dutch SoE reports received a lot of attention. However, the economic recession saw budgets for environmental issues cut and the SoE reports received less attention and had a lower impact. More recently, the environment and sustainability are again gaining consideration.   

Rob: There is a clear relationship between economic development and environmental considerations. During periods of strong economic growth, the public and policy rhetoric centres focus on the need to slow down this growth and the focus is instead placed sustainability indicators, such as the impact of economic growth on planetary capacity. In times of recession, however, the approach shifts back to tackling economic growth and environmental issues in parallel, with a decoupling of indicators.

Nico: A more specific reaction from policy makers was the request to reduce the frequency of cost calculations to avoid confusing policy processes with too many (changing) figures, data or sources.

Speaking of impact, how has the SoE report influenced environmental policy-making through the years?

Rob: The first SoE report had a really substantial impact. All of its suggestions were considered by the government and policy makers, for example the reduction of power plants and the introduction of energy or road pricing. After the report came out, citizens began to express more interest in pro-environmental behaviours and industry actors then mirrored those reactions.Today, we are seeing these reactions again, particularly in relation to climate change.

Nico: In the energy and climate fields, we are actually quite successful and our work in those fields was used to set reduction targets for some sectors. What we notice now is that there is a better interaction between policy makers and researchers, with the latter being part of the discussion and policy-making processes. These participatory processes seem to be an alternative to environmental reporting and they are an effective way to support policy development by coherently identifying and navigating through the synergies and trade-offs of the various discussions.

Was there a shift in the process, content and analysis from the earlier to the later SoE reports?

Rob: The early reports took a coherent approach, when analysing topics and issues. Political changes led to specific topic reports, for example on climate change or food. A downside of such reports is that they do not reveal synergies and trade-offs between areas and thus may have less impact.

Nico: An interesting development is the increasingly prominent consideration of climate change. To some extent, climate policy has replaced environmental policy. Another change is the frequency of SoE reports. In the early years, the reports were produced annually but since 2010, they have been produced every second year. They have also merged with two other previously stand-alone reports: the report on spatial policy and the report on progress with natural policy. Similarly, in the nineties, forward-looking analyses were published every four years but these now focus only on specific sectors and are published sporadically. On a positive note, the Climate and Energy Forecast series is published every year. 

Where do you think environmental reporting and related policy development is headed in the future?

Looking back, I saw constant changes in the preferred set of indicators in our reports. I think we should acknowledge that the selection of key indicators is time and place dependent and that we should remain flexible so as to support sustainability debates with a full picture.

Rob Maas (RIVM)

Rob: In the next couple of years, we will continue to focus on climate and energy. We are also interested in the link between sustainability and health, the latter being an important driver of behaviour change. We will, of course, continue to provide knowledge and support wherever there is a need or request.

Nico: At national level, PBL is developing a framework for annual reporting on the state of  circular economy. Following the shift from national to regional and local policy development, we are also looking at supporting cities and local governments to assess their state of the environment. We could then work with them to develop the necessary action frameworks and support them with knowledge and analysis in the field of climate action, health, landscape development and/or other social topics. In terms of outreach, we are exploring the interactive and participatory approach to direct engagement with policy makers and I am curious to see where this approach will take us.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Rob and Nico: If valuable knowledge is to be effectively translated into policy, government representatives must be willing and must provide the opportunity to drive topics and related policy processes forward. Success depends heavily on these representatives and on coherent organisational infrastructure! 


Rob Maas, Senior Scientific Advisor at the National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM)


Nico Hoogervorst, Senior Researcher Environmental Policy Analyst at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL)


[1] At the time, RIVM and PBL functioned as a single institution, with PBL becoming an independent environmental agency in 2006.


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