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Chapter Three: Policy Responses - Global and regional synthesis

Environmental information and education

Ideally, access to governmental information of any kind should be guaranteed through a 'Freedom of Information Act' as exists in the United States. This situation is rare at the national level and entirely absent at the international level. Agenda 21 calls for greater public access to environmental information but, as yet, the level of access differs markedly in different regions and countries.

In some regions, public and government awareness of environmental issues has been high, as indicated by the early appearance of regional treaties, national environmental laws and policies, and the establishment of formal communication and awareness-raising strategies, targeting those directly affected and the general public. Examples include the UNECE Convention on Access to Environmental Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision-making which was approved in June 1998 and opened for signature at the Århus Conference, and several European Union Directives which contain requirements for the disclosure and dissemination of data. NGOs are also involved in improving access to environmental information, for example by providing information on the location of pollution sources, the types of pollutants produced, and contact information to help catalyse local action.

Elsewhere, for example in the former Eastern Bloc countries until the political changes of 1989, information on the state of the environment has been difficult to come by, simply not collected or, when available, frequently altered to present a more favourable picture. In some countries, the provision of information is still characterized by strict regulations, multiple reasons for refusal, and long delays.

There is a growing recognition that national development plans and environmental policies have a better chance of being implemented effectively when supported by an informed, educated and involved public, and a general acceptance of the need for greater openness and transparency. A major problem, however, is the weakness of the information base in many countries. A shortage of reliable data and capability for data analysis undoubtedly hinders policy development, planning and programme implementation.

There is a need not just for more data on environmental issues but for standardizing data collection and storage, and making it accessible to technical and managerial levels. Reports may be located in different bodies between which there is little or no cooperation or exchange, resulting in gaps, duplication and limited utilization of data. This, in turn, hinders policy development, planning, implementation, and follow-up.

Even where adequate data are available, there may be incompatibility between different agencies and different countries. Networking and integration of data for environmental assessment are at a very early stage in some regions. Electronic information systems, networks and cooperation among relevant organizations all need to be strengthened to enable all users to benefit from data at the local, national, regional and international levels.

Attempts are being made to redress this situation. In many areas, national and regional databases have been set up, for example on climate, soils and biodiversity, through the efforts of the UN and other organizations. Better information-exchange networks are gradually evolving but are still constrained by problems of access to modern communication systems. Language barriers also frustrate networking and information exchange.

A number of international agencies are involved in strengthening institutional capacities to manage environmental information and assisting some countries to prepare national and regional state of the environment reports. Cooperative activities include standardizing, collecting, analysing and exchanging scientific data, improving national scientific and technical capabilities and research infrastructure, cooperating with research networks in other regions, providing scientific knowledge to the public and inputs to decision makers, and developing appropriate mechanisms for technology transfer.

While information on environmental issues has increased, particularly since the Earth Summit, the impact of this on decision-making cannot yet be assessed because many information programmes are still at an early phase of implementation.

A number of schemes have been launched, some voluntary and some compulsory, under which companies make public information on their environmental activities, including the degree to which they pollute the environment. For example, under the European Union's Pollutant Release and Transfer Register, information on potentially harmful releases to the air, water and soil, and on waste transport, is collected in a unified national reporting system, ensuring that the community, industry and governments gain greater access to relevant information on environmental pollution. The Indian Government has set up a network to deal with the collection, collation, storage, analysis, exchange and dissemination of environmental data and information (MOEF India 1995). Many governments regularly publish environmental indicator reports, for example on water and air quality, and issue regular environmental information bulletins and other books and pamphlets for wide dissemination.

 Improving environmental education
 

Agenda 21 urges every country to prepare a national strategy for environmental education. Chapter 36, 'Education, Training and Public Awareness', recommends:

*  making education on environment and development available to people of all ages;
*  including environment and development concepts in all educational programmes;
*  involving children in local and regional studies of environmental health;
*  setting up training programmes to help school and university graduates attain sustainable livelihoods;
*  encouraging all sectors of society to train people in environmental management;
*  providing locally recruited and trained environmental technicians to give communities the services they require;
*  working with the media, entertainment and advertising industries to stimulate public debate on the environment;
*  bringing the understanding and experience of indigenous peoples into education and training programmes.

Source: UN 1993

 

Education, from elementary school up to the university, has an important role in providing environmental information and raising awareness (see box) and there has been a substantial expansion in education programmes at all levels. A growing number of countries now include environmental education in school curricula, and specialised programmes at the technical and higher education levels lead to environmental masters degrees and doctorates. Many universities and institutions are running courses and organizing training programmes, seminars and postgraduate studies in various fields of the environment. In some countries, however, environmental education is voluntary and differs from school to school.

There has also been considerable interest in integrating environmental concepts into adult education and literacy programmes, for example using non-formal education centres as sources of environmental education. Consciousness-raising activities include educational campaigns on saving natural resources and reducing waste generation, ecolabelling, and publicity campaigns aimed at promoting recycling and consumption of non-polluting products.

In some areas, NGOs have played a key role in producing print and audio-visual materials for non-formal environmental education in schools and other institutions of learning.


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