Environmental Information

The Creation and Distribution of Environmental Information

by Sean Gordon and Dan Tunstall

The World Resources Institute (WRI) was formed in 1982 as an independent, not-for-profit research and policy institute to help government and private organizations of all types address one of our time's most pressing problems: How can societies meet human needs and nurture economic growth without destroying the natural resources and environmental integrity that make prosperity possible?

Two of WRI's programs focus specifically on providing information to support the policy research and technical assistance that we provide to policy makers: Resource and Environmental Information (REIP) and Natural Resource Information Management (NRIM). As part of their activities, these programs produce two of WRI's major reference documents, which provide good examples of how environmental information is created and distributed.

Started in 1986, the biennial World Resources Report (WRR), managed by REIP, is designed to provide a common, accessible information base for policymakers by presenting global data sets and providing objective analyses of global environmental trends.

WRI builds the information in the World Resources Report by bringing together and analyzing data from a large number of sources, such as the United Nations (UN) Environment Program's Global Environmental Monitoring System (UNEP/GEMS), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Statistical Office (UNSO) and the UNEP-affiliated World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC). The first two-thirds of the reports are generally devoted to chapters analyzing themes such as population, agriculture and biodiversity, along with a few geographically focused chapters (India and China in the latest edition). The final third presents data tables, in theme by country matrices, along with a section on sources and technical notes for each table. Compiling these reports reveals a number of problems with international information data: Deficit: Looking at almost any of these tables will quickly reveal that often data are not available for many countries; Incomparability: Where data exist, each country gathers the data according to its own system, making international comparisons difficult; and Incongruence with natural systems: While most data are compiled on a country-by-country basis, most environmental phenomena are not defined by national boundaries, but rather by factors such as weather, landscape, population and production patterns.

Despite the limitations of country-level environmental information, it is still mainly national governments which hold the power to collect data and set policies which address environmental problems. WRI's Directory of Country Environmental Studies (DCES) reflects this need for national level information in that it is organized geographically by region and then by country. DCES lists the best reports available for each country in an annotated bibliographic format. The compilation itself reveals much about the creation of environmental information worldwide. First of all, most of such reports have been prepared with the sponsorship and encouragement of donor agencies rather than solely through the initiative of developing countries themselves (but it must be noted that such "sponsored" reports are much easier to obtain than internal national level reports, which biases our sample to some extent). Coverage and accessibility vary greatly by country: in the last edition, no reports were found for Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Libya, while donor favorites, such as Thailand and Indonesia, each had 10 or more reports available.

An encouraging development, signaling that more countries are now placing emphasis on the collection and disclosure of environmental information, has come from the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Over 150 nations submitted national reports for the conference, and now the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is following up by surveying countries on their activities to implement the sustainable development plan (Agenda 21) adopted at the so-called Earth Summit. While initial reports to UNCED have varied widely in content, size and structure, the latest UNCSD survey shows an attempt to standardize answers by providing more of a structured format. Numerous other international environmental conventions also generate environmental information by requiring countries to report on their compliance activities. There is usually little enforcement of these reporting requirements, however, and little assessment has been made of the quality and completeness of this information.

Another force driving the creation of global information is advances in technology. Satellites are now taking pictures of the Earth which can be analyzed to reveal changes in such attributes as ocean temperatures, ozone depletion and forest cover. FAO compiled its most recent assessment of global forest cover with typical data from national governments, but then spot-checked regions with satellite imagery to attempt to estimate the accuracy of the reports. And, since satellites do not see political boundaries, these photos allow study of environmental problems without the complication of different national reporting styles.

Analysis of these large sets of spatially oriented data is mostly done with computer software called geographical information systems (GIS). These programs go beyond computer mapping to actually allow users to overlay various attributes and analyze relationships. For example, overlaying EPA toxic waste site locations with Census Bureau demographic data has shown that in the United States these sites have been predominately located in low-income neighborhoods. WRI's NRIM program is now preparing GIS data sets for a number of African countries to help them manage their resources.

Despite technological advancements and the increasing comparability of national reports, assessing international and global trends still involves analyzing vast amounts of information. For this reason, researchers at WRI are working with the international Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) to formulate a set of highly aggregated environmental indicators, similar to economic and social indices. Summarizing environmental data into macro indicators such as resource depletion, composite pollution, ecosystem risk and human welfare impact could greatly help national and international policymakers, as well as the general public, perform the assessment of status and trends needed to set effective policies. Distribution of Environmental Information

Due to the heavy involvement that international donor agencies have had in the generation of environmental information, there has been criticism that more information on the environments in developing countries is available outside of these countries than inside. This tide seems to be changing with the increased involvement of country governments in processes such as those for UNCED.

WRI distributes its reports widely in both developing and developed countries. Over 2000 copies of WRR are sent directly to foreign government officials and others influential in the policy process. Another 2000 copies are distributed in the United States, mainly to the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. A further 3000 are distributed by the UNDP and UNEP, co-sponsors of the report, and the World Bank purchases 5000 copies for its own distribution. For individuals not covered by this high-profile distribution, single copies of the reports are available free of charge for developing country institutions, and regular catalog and bookstore sales generally account for the distribution of another 4000 copies. Distribution of the DCES is similar but on a smaller scale, with a total print run of 5000.

Both of these reports are also available in database diskette form. The WRR diskette includes only the data tables, but traces the time series back as far as they will go and allows searching, combining and analyzing of data sets in a spreadsheet-like format. The latest DCES disk includes all the text of the hard copy report, plus all of the older abstracted studies from the first edition (many of which are not in hard copy due to space considerations). The disk version adds the important capability of being able to extract citations by keyword as well as by country.

With a much larger capacity than disks, CD-ROM has enabled the distribution of some of the largest storehouses of international environmental information. The full texts of 165 country reports for UNCED are now available on a CD, along with the complete text of Agenda 21 and many other of the conference's official documents. USAID was the first bilateral donor to come out with a CD which includes descriptions of all its projects and related agency documentation. The OECD's Development Assistance Committee has followed this lead and produced a disk containing descriptions of development projects from a number of donor agencies in a comparable format. Information for the Future

All of this information being generated by advances in science and technology and by an increasing number of national and international reporting initiatives creates the possibility of information overload. Yet at the same time, new technologies are empowering users to access and process more information than ever before. And new communications technologies are allowing these individual producers to collaborate outside of traditional institutional boundaries. For example, WRI plans to make the DCES available on the Internet, not only so people can access our compilation, but also so users can post what they know about other existing reports and can network among themselves.

Even more problematic than the potential data overload is the gap that exists between the levels of environmental information available in developed countries versus the rest of the world. While the Netherlands is planning to cut back on its extensive environmental monitoring activities in order to streamline the provision of policy relevant information, many other countries do not have the capacity to collect data in basic areas such as water and air quality. Along with working on solutions to these geographical imbalances, the most important advances needed as we move toward a new generation of environmental information for sustainable development will be in our capacities to accomplish the following: design programs and encourage all countries to collect environmental data which are, at the same time, useful for public education, national policy making and the monitoring of global trends needed to provide the basis for international agreements; integrate environmental indicators with more traditional economic and social indicators to make more comprehensive policy decisions; and design analytical and institutional mechanisms to fairly value and distribute the use and regeneration of natural resources over the long time periods which define many ecological processes and our own inter-generational equity.


Sean Gordon is a program analyst and Dan Tunstall is deputy director of the Center for International Development and the Environment (CIDE) at the World Resources Institute. They are the editors of the 1995-6 Directory of Country Environmental Studies.