Executive Director, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen
This special discussion during a very full meeting of the UNEP Governing Council and Global Ministerial Environment Forum is a measure of the importance we all attach to environmental information for decision making. I am honoured to have been invited by Dr. Klaus Topfer to speak to you on my practical experiences in this area.
The environment belongs to everyone and is the responsibility of everyone. Information is one of our most fundamental resources for environmental protection. It is the basis for awareness, education, understanding, empowerment and participation. It influences the values, attitudes and behaviours necessary to solve environmental problems and sustain natural resources. Information on the environment should have the widest possible availability.
The 1990s will be remembered for intense activity at international level in the area of environmental information. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development set a high aspiration for informed citizen participation in environmental issues. Good foundations are now in place to make this aspiration a global reality in the present decade. In 1998, the UNECE agreed the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision Making and Access to Justice on Environmental Matters. We now have a set of common regional practical provisions enabling every person to assert his or her right to live in a good environment, and observe his or her duty to protect and improve that environment. These are provisions with potential for global application.
I support and encourage initiatives by UNEP through its regional offices to gain support for implementation of the Aarhus provisions on as wide a basis as possible.
Ireland has signed the Aarhus Convention. We are preparing for ratification in cooperation with our European Community partners. It gave me great pleasure, therefore, to host the UNEP Infoterra 2000 Global Conference on Access to Environmental Information in Dublin last September. The Conference adopted the Dublin Declaration with a welcome focus on the practical aspects of making information more readily available to the public, decisionmakers and other stakeholders. It includes
· the launching of revitalised national networks of users and suppliers of information;
· the identification of national portal Websites to support the proposed global environmental portal UNEP. Net and
· the establishment of more traditional public access centres.
Ireland’s experience in giving practical effect to Principle 10 of Agenda 21
Over the past decade Ireland has consciously expanded both statutory and voluntary access to information. Indeed, for nearly four decades, full public access and participation have been features of the decisionmaking processes for development control.
The Irish planning system continues to be one of the most open in Europe. At each level, whether it is the formulation of a plan for an entire city or an application to build just one house, public notice must be given and any individual may submit views or objections on the proposal. There is also widespread consultation with local interest groups to ensure a co-operative and integrated approach to local land use planning.
During an Irish Presidency of the European Community in 1990, a Community Directive established the general principle that information relating to the environment must be made available on request to any person without that person having to prove an interest.
In 1993, Ireland established a new Environmental Protection Agency with many information obligations, including the establishment of an environmental quality database with public access, and public access to all EPA environmental monitoring.
In 1997 a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act widened the right of access to all information held by public authorities in the interests of transparency and good governance.
Ireland has a high quality environment. We have placed a high emphasis on maintaining that quality while developing to meet our economic and social needs. To manage growth in a way that respects the environment and uses it in a sustainable way, citizens, communities and corporations must also play their part.
As a new and voluntary initiative, the Government established ENFO – Ireland’s free high street environmental information service - in 1990. ENFO was designed to be a source of easily accessible, appealing and authoritative information to bring home to adults and children the concept of individual responsibility for protection of the environment. The new service immediately set about tailoring its information and the means of access to meet the different levels of demand.
Initially, the most pressing public need was for low cost simple fact sheets on topical environmental issues, national or international, which were receiving increasing attention in the media. A query answering service and video viewing and lending scheme quickly followed. These measures were supplemented by exhibitions on environmental themes. Because of the centre’s high street location these are very accessible to both the casual visitor and organised groups. From the start, ENFO exhibitions have been designed for ease of travel and accessibility to voluntary community and environmental groups countrywide. They are made available through the public library service and other public or private exhibition facilities.
These low cost hard copies of literature and services continue to be the most important means for access by schools, community groups and the general public, despite the subsequent development of more modern electronic facilities.
More sophisticated facilities and services were required by non-governmental organisations campaigning on behalf of the environment, industry and the commercial sector, third level students and researchers, consultants and decisionmakers in public and the private sector. A comprehensively stocked reference library was built up. This now includes hard copies of UNEP and the European Environment Agency publications, 300,000 technical reports of the US Environmental Protection Agency and other indexes to technical databases.
Proposed developments with potentially significant impacts on the environment undergo a statutory environmental impact assessment. The access which ENFO provides to micro fiche and hard copies of the more than 1,300 Environmental Impact Statements prepared in Ireland is highly prized. It is widely agreed that this ENFO service has a positive effect on the quality of the statements and promotes best practice.
ENFO continues to adapt and target its public information services to key decision makers in consultation and partnership with users, including NGOs and local authorities. Over the past year, an increasing emphasis has also been placed on sustainable lifestyle materials. User-friendly basic information guides for shoppers, householders and motorists have been published. These complement a sustained national environment awareness campaign to encourage individuals to make simple lifestyle choices for the environment.
The success of ENFO in facilitating public access to environmental information is largely due to
· closely matching services to the various levels of need required;
· the high street location of its drop in and exhibition centre;
· the development of partnership arrangements with the voluntary and sectoral interests; and
· the provision of its services without charge.
ENFO has acted as the National Focal Point for UNEP Infoterra and has already put in place the much strengthened consortium structures envisaged by the Dublin Declaration
Assistance to developing countries
Shortly after its establishment, ENFO participated in the Southern African Sub-Regional Infoterra Network SASIN. Under the partnership which included the US EPA and UNEP, the SASIN website hosted by ENFO was developed. Through our bilateral aid programme we were able to assist the construction of an Environmental Awareness Centre at Masianokeng High School in Lesotho in 1994. This acts as a Regional Training Centre, providing staff training on database development and input.
More recently Ireland announced specific target dates for increasing its Official Development Aid to meet the UN target of 0.7% of GNP on ODA. This commitment involves a fourfold increase of 1999 levels of ODA by 2007. We are committed to an interim target of 0.45% of GNP by the end of 2002. We are now reviewing the development assistance programme to see where best these additional resources may be allocated, and we attach importance to projects in the environmental protection and sustainable development areas.
Since the Dublin Conference last September, my Department and ENFO have been working in close association with officials of UNEP Infoterra and relevant authorities in a number of selected African countries to develop practical proposals for building on the work carried out during the 1990s. Sympathetic consideration is now being given to the allocation of additional funds for this purpose from this year on. These funds would be in addition to the extra funding Ireland is providing to UNEP in 2001.
In conclusion, we think that ENFO is a successful model for easy public access to reliable and objective environmental information in a range of formats. We would very much like, through an appropriate funding mechanism and in consultation with UNEP, to assist the replication of that model in developing countries. They have a priceless and irreplaceable environmental heritage. We hope that into the future, ENFO expertise and systems will continue to be available to them. In that way, in partnership, we can contribute to expanding the range and quality of global environmental information, and assist in making it available to those who most need it and can use it to best effect.