CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: Comolet, A. 1990. How OECD countries respond to state-of-the-environment reports. International Environmental Affairs 4: 3-17.

How OECD Countries Respond to State-of-the-Environment Reports


Research associate, Institute for European Environmental Policy


A few countries at the Vanguard of environmental policy making came up with the idea of publishing reports on the state of the environment in the 1970s. The Idea has come a long way since then, and an increasing number of nations have followed suit in developing their own reports.

The recent renewed interest in environmental issues and the subsequent debate on sustainable development have brought to the forefront not only the discussion of reports on the state of the environment but also their role in the decision-making process. The creation of environmental agencies, both at the EC level (for example, the European Agency for the Environment)[1] and at the national level (like the French Institute for the Environment)[2] have helped strengthen this tendency. One of their primary missions is to collect and organize statistics relevant to reports on the state of the environment.

Environmental policies seem to be taking a definite turn and changing "scale." In fact, several developments tend to confirm it: "green plans," environmental speeches made by political figures at the highest levels, and a new sensitivity for environmental issues within the international community. At the same time it is obvious that the policy questions of how the environment should be managed are central ones. A new policy can only be viable if adequate instruments exist not just to help decision makers but also to inform the public. Reports on the state of the environment do just that. The discussion goes far beyond the framework of environmental policy, and encompasses the functioning of a pluralistic democracy. The role of the report as an information and evaluation tool in the decision-making process is anything but negligible within this ongoing debate

I. The Publication of a State of the Environment Report: A Notion Accepted in Most OECD Countries

The early 1970s saw the beginnings of environmental action. The creation of the first environmental policies took place along with the establishment of the first administrations responsible for the implementation of these policies. Decision makers felt a real need for a tool to describe the state of the environment from time to time, a tool that would help them set priorities. This is how the reports came about: in 1969 and 1970, respectively, Japan and the United States began publishing a report each year. Most of the other members of the OECD followed suit.[3] Today, most industrialized countries have published at least one report on the state of the environment, and most western countries produce reports. They are not necessarily published on a regular basis, but most of these countries acknowledge a need, in principle, for such publication. In fact, member countries of the OECD approved a recommendation defining this principle in 1979.[4] And inspired by the national reports, some international organizations such as the European Community,[5] OECD,[6] UNEP, and other nongovernmental organizations of international scope--like the World Resources Institute--have started publishing reports themselves.

Of all the countries that answered our questionnaire for this article, only Denmark and Great Britain have not yet published a report on the state of the environment per se.[7] The British "Digest of Environmental Protection and Water Statistics," published by Her Majesty's Stationary Office (HMSO) however, is not too far from such a report.[8] Most of the reports appear annually or biannually. They are also often supplemented by occasional topical or statistical reports (of the compendium type). For example, Italy publishes a report and a statistical compendium alternately every other year. In France the Ministry of the Environment annually publishes a report on environmental economics data, in addition to the report on the environment. The report on the state of the environment is now appearing with regularity in some countries; in others it is only a fledging administrative practice.

II. State-of-the-environment Reports: Contents

Structure of the reports on the State of the Environment

The recommendation of the OECD[9] cited above outlines the contents of the reports on the state of the environment and is defined by the well-known trilogy: state, pressures, and responses. Their objectives are to:

evaluate the state of the environment and describe how it is evolving; identify pressures from human activities and natural ones from the environment; analyze the responses from the institutions trying to improve, protect, and restore the environment, or ultimately the policies and steps implemented by the various socioeconomic agents (public services, companies, households) responsible for the management of the environment or interacting directly or indirectly with it.

Reports on the state of the environment are very different from other publications like compendia, which very often are no more than a list of raw statistics accompanied by a brief commentary. That is, their objective is to analyze and evaluate-on a comprehensive scale. State-of-the-environment reports are analytical and evaluative because the data are seldom easy to understand without interpretation and analysis. A report on the state of the environment has a broad dimension because its goal is to give a comprehensive, tight picture of the very complex entity: the environment and its health.

In reality, apart from the British "Digest of Environmental Protection and Water Statistics," the objective of all these reports is to describe the state of the environment and the pressures made on it. A few actually describe the steps taken to improve its quality (United States, Canada, Japan, France, and Italy).

The OECD recommendation is clear in its principle but nevertheless calls for at least two comments: one on the concert; the other on the methodology. The first asks for a definition of the environment. The commonly understood definition is extensive - and includes the classical categories of the environment: pollution, natural habitats, protected areas, natural resources, risks, lifestyles, and landscapes. These categories identified by the various countries do not necessarily mean the same thing everywhere, and do not include necessarily the same things across cultures. For example, the British architectural national heritage is an inherent part of what it considers the "environment," while in France, architecture is a component of the cultural heritage. Such a discrepancy is not new and it results from the polymorphous and complex notion of "environment."[10] It is hardly an exaggeration to say that there are as many definitions of "environment" as there are states-each one relating to cultural bias, institutional and administrative organization, and the various environmental problems specific to each country. "The environment" often comes under several umbrellas belonging to the various countries' administrations responsible for environmental policy. This politico-administrative approach influences the understanding and the description of the environment. Besides, it is important to point out that the notion of "environment" in the 1990s is not the same as the one in the 1970s. During this 20-year period, its scope has expanded into fields addressing major technological risks and the impact of biotechnologies on the various natural systems. All of these elements make the comparison of the state of the environment difficult, both in space (that is, between countries) and over time.

The choice of evaluation standards is another delicate question associated with the publication of a report on the state of the environment. It is not enough to describe the state of the environment at a given time; it is also necessary to diagnose problems in a way that allows a government to set priorities. This is precisely what constitutes the difference between a descriptive report and an evaluative one; usually reports on the environment try to be both. The Canadian report, however, emerges as a model in this regard: its object is not just to describe the state of the environment, but also to assess the impact of environmental policies both at the national and regional levels.

The definition of standards (both quantitative and qualitative) for the environment has brought to light some differences of opinion among various countries. Luckily these differences tend to disappear, thanks to the standardization efforts made by international organizations like the OECD. On the other hand, it is easy to see that evaluating the state of the environment and reporting the effect of implemented policies are much more difficult tasks. That is, although a reporting and evaluating standard may have been adopted, the report still relies on the assessor's subjectivity. Even if enough statistical information is available to make such an evaluation, not only are the criteria likely to vary tremendously from one country to another, but an international "standard," which would provide a certain amount of consistency to this assessment, does not exist. In short, the assessment--as an art-of the state of the environment is still in its infancy, as is the evaluation of environmental policies. The latter raises a more complex issue because it has a problem in addition to the ones mentioned above. It is difficult to make precise identification of causes and effects relating to the implementation of certain actions (for example, the disbursement of a credit of X million francs) and its impact on the quality of the environment (for example, the improvement of water quality). This identification is rendered difficult by the complex and multidimensional nature of the environment, the synergetic effect between its various components, and the delay reaction the various ecosystems have when a new factor is introduced.

The comments of our international respondents show that, apart from two reports (Italy and Finland), most reports are descriptive. On the other hand, due to the difficulty of the task, only a small number of them aim at accurately assessing the state of the environment--and even fewer at the policies implemented. This latter aspect should be one to develop in the future.

It is important therefore to proceed with caution in comparing the state of the environment of the various countries and to underline the need for "standardization." This task can only be undertaken by an international organization. The OECD particularly comes to mind because of its role as a leader in this field for the past ten years.

A few rapid comments

First let us mention a few facts that environmental specialists know well. If we look at the choice of themes, it is clear that the contents of state-of-the-environment reports have expanded over the years. This expansion parallels the increased responsibilities of the various environmental agencies. At first they usually addressed pollution and nuisances, and nature protection. They gradually started covering new areas: population habits, resource management, and major environments at risk. One could also make a list of themes that never were sufficiently-or in some cases not at all-developed. Some seem to have been covered particularly poorly--like toxic substances, wastes, urban environment, soil quality, noise pollution, non-point-source pollution. Such gaps are generally due to deficient statistical systems and the related fact that policies dealing with these problems are poor. A more in-depth analysis shows that the importance attributed to one sector over another varies by country and depends on national priorities (in other words, on current events), the political relevancy of the problem at the time, and the availability of information.

The availability and quality of the data are indeed often major limiting factors. How information on the environment is gathered is too often a by-product of an administrative process and is hurt largely by its heterogeneity. The information gaps and the inadequacies of the baseline data prejudice the understanding of how the environment is changing. These factors also account for same of incompleteness and inadequacy in particular reports.

The data-processing aspect is also important. It is difficult to maintain complete consistency in the presentation of data because of the complex nature of the environment. The sheer scope of all environmental factors is too great to be broken down by sector and area. Under these circumstances, and lacking a better solution, it is best to adopt a conventional administrative structure for the presentation of such a report. A minimum level of consistency in reporting data over a particular period is indispensable for interpreting environmental changes. The consistency factor still requires some improvement.

And finally, that the data are regionalized is another often-discussed issue. Needless to say, the spatial dimension of environmental phenomena is of the utmost importance; for this reason it is important to describe them in their geographical contexts and to be able to show their discontinuity. That is, natural boundaries like hydrograhic basins and ecotypes are the most relevant elements of an environmental study; therefore we do not need to break down such data according to political or administrative region--at least not in a national report. Of course this does not preclude the possibility of organizing the reports along various subnational levels. For example, German Lander (responsible, among other things, for pollution assessment and control) and the major cities publish their own reports, separate from the national report.[11]

Each of these very important problems can be solved by improving the way statistical information is gathered. Moving on, we now can focus on three other areas for which a solution is also at hand, albeit different from the one mentioned above.

The first is the analysis of the management policies of the environment. Such analysis is not the main goal of the reports, but obviously the third element of the OECD trilogy is too often not adequately covered in these reports. A policy analysis alone could be the object of a report. But failing that, it would be useful to see what the range of authority is, and the decision a government has to make--particularly in the area of regulation. A report could accomplish this by publishing surveys broken down by sectors. Along the same line, it would be useful to see the most relevant information on the activities of the local authorities, industry, and major voluntary organizations.

At a time when environmental issues are taking on an ever-increasing international dimension, it is important to place them in their international (even global) context, the way the Dutch and Canadians do. (The Finns plan to do it, too.) The reasons are simple: because the environment knows no political frontiers; and because policies are decided more and more on the international level. It is becoming less possible for a single country to avoid a reference to the supranational aspect of environmental policy, although it is the role of the international organizations to make such policy official. Such an opening to the international arena is important in the sense that it makes it easier for individual countries to assess the strengths and weaknesses of national politics by comparing theirs with other nations' politics. Admittedly this is a difficult and touchy exercise.

And finally, it would be useful to see more prospective data on the projected changes in the various environments, patterned after the Dutch report. For example, we should be able to look at data relating to major political decisions on the environment (such as those of the EC) and to projects involving major public works (fast trains or highways, for example). The publication of a report on the state of the environment could give governments the opportunity to announce their future policies-even if they aren't yet sure of the details of such policies. In the 1970s the Americans used the report of the Council on Environmental Quality to create the effect of a press release and to unveil (but also to justify) future actions of the government.

III. A Report for What Kind of Public?

The format of the report on the state of the environment varies according to the public for whom it is written and the type of sector it is supposed to serve. There are at least three schools of thought, and therefore three categories of reports: administrative, scientific, and that relating to the general public. Each type of report is defined by a specific kind of information, its language, and its presentation format adapted to the kind of public at which it is aimed. The object of these various reports differs greatly. Strictly speaking, a report on the state of the environment is not able to combine the three functions-even trying to reach every kind of public is not realistic. The best solution consists in defining beforehand the public being targeted (political decision makers, administrators, scientists, or the general public), and then adapting the format of the document to the type of information one is trying to disseminate. This process is unfortunately too seldom followed by those in charge of publishing the reports. Historically, the first reports had essentially an administrative and political orientation (in the strict sense of the word)--the object being to inform parliamentary members. They now increasing tend to inform the general public.

Originally an administrative document, the report on the state of the environment has now become a document aimed at informing the public on actions taken by a government. Besides this major trend, other trends are now appearing: these reports are also being targeted for other groups such as political decision makers, scientists, and environmental managers. But these goals are incompatible, as we have just seen. So the situation looks like this: in most cases, the targeted sector is badly defined and no strategy for the report has been established; as a result the reports--while being primarily destined for the general public--are polyvalent. In essence, they have become hybrid reports aimed partly at the general public, partly at administrators, and partly at scientists.

Is the size of the report important? At first glance, it would seem not to be, but in reality it is. The question goes back to the adequacy of the report format and its targeted public. An exhaustive report is an unwieldy one, but it provides a very complete picture. Such reports are seldom under 200 pages (except for the Portuguese and British reports).

It is useless to try to plan on too large a scale as a way of producing an exhaustive report. The sheer scope of the subject and the many parameters that could be included in a survey or evaluation of the state of the environment are immense Given the growing public interest in environmental matters, and the resulting need for information, it seems that the best solution would be to plan a yearly publication for the general public (and keep it moderately priced)--but also to make it adequate for political decision makers. The format would have to be synthetical (only retaining the most important information), and it would have to give a global picture of the quality of the environment, the pressures it is subjected to, and the policies that have been implemented to manage specific problems.

There are two reasons for publishing an annual report: (1) to have a yearly document comparable to other documents addressing the economic and social fields (for example, the national accounting system and the national budget), and (2) because the environment is constantly changing and it is important to track the changes on an ongoing basis. A yearly document of course would not exclude additional reports on a specific environmental topic. A state-of- the-environment report should also refer the reader to other publications relating to the environment.

Such a report could be supplemented by a more exhaustive scientific survey of the state of the environment, published every five years for specialists. It would provide a reference source and would periodically give an evaluation of the way the state of the environment is progressing. This has been proposed for adoption by all countries and patterns itself after the Norwegian and Canadian reports. Both the annual and the five-year reports should include a summary that would be distributed separately and free of charge. The summary should give an overview of key problems and make a quick outline of not just the most urgent problems, but also the most noteworthy policy successes. And it should conclude with a balance sheet on the environment and a discussion of the steps that have been taken to address problems. Obviously such a conclusion would be a sensitive and tricky piece to write, because it could be viewed as a program for the coming years-or be used as a weapon by those opposing a given policy. And at a time when English is becoming the most widely used language internationally, and English translating or summary will be needed to facilitate international distribution. A summary would also help explain to the international community why each state has taken the steps it has. In Norway, an English translation of the national report has been available since 1989. The German report has included one since 1990. And the distribution of the English version of the Netherlands' official reports constitutes a strong point in Dutch environmental policy.

IV. The Role of the Reports from the Political, Institutional, and Informational Points of View

How the reports on the state of the environment are formulated is crucial because it affects the quality of the information produced (that is to say, how statistically and scientifically reliable they are, as well as how objective they are). The process also influences the documents' political function. Usually it is the role of the various administrative agencies to formulate these reports: the ministries of the environment in Canada, Italy, United Kingdom, and France; the national agencies for environment in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, and Finland; and the bureaus of national statistics in Norway and Sweden. Sometimes this responsibility is shared among several agencies (in Portugal, between the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of the Plan; in Finland with the Environmental Data Centre; and in Norway with the agency responsible for the network dealing with the assessment and control of the pollution). Among the countries studied, the United States is the only one to delegate the publication of the state-of-the-environment report to a specific public agency, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) which is part of the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

Unless they are prepared by really independent agencies, the reports seldom generate critiques. Apart from a few exceptions like the report by Council on Environmental Quality--the Dutch report, due to the relative autonomy of the National Agency for the Environment (RIVM), and the Canadian report of 1986-most of the reports represent more a defense than a real assessment.

The praising report, whose tone is always positive, tries to underline the best actions taken by the government while overlooking the weaknesses of its policy. And so we get only an incomplete and biased picture of the real situation. We can only be assured of the impartiality of the results and analysis offered if the document is published by as independent an agency as possible. The U.S. and Dutch reports are good examples for other countries to follow. It is interesting to note that in six out of the fourteen surveyed OECD countries, review committees have been set up prior to the publication of the report. In general, the composition of these committees is very bureaucratic in nature (an ideal review committee would be pluralistic, including not just representatives of government, but also those of business, industry, and academe). These committees give more credibility to the documents the countries produce and improve the quality of the democratic debate.

The sources of information of the reports on the state of the environment come in great part from the ministries of the environment or the national agency of the environment, where they exist, or--more rarely--from other administrative bodies. Occasionally they are supplemented by data from outside the government: research centers, nongovernmental organizations, and industry. It is essential that these data come from various sources to ensure the objectivity and impartiality of the reports. Besides, the contribution by government bodies other than the environmental agency allows the agency to establish a real dialogue. This extends the discussion of the environmental conditions beyond the publication of the report and is not only beneficial but also facilitates the implementation of the environmental policy.

The various reports on the state of the environment differ most with regard to their political and institutional functions. In some countries (Canada with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, United States with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and Japan, Italy, and Portugal), the publication of such a report is required by law.[12] Many reports contain prefaces by political figures, ministers of the environment, or directors of national agencies, thereby conferring an additional official seal to the publication.

In a smaller number of countries, the report plays a real, political role. The contents of the report may be discussed at the parliamentary level. Only Canada, Japan, Italy, and Portugal debate the contents of the report in parliamentary sessions. This process goes even further in Japan where the presentation of the report on the state of the environment opens the way for a parliamentary discussion about the environmental problems facing the country. Japan's process is an important element in political decision making. In the Netherlands, Portugal, and Japan, the report is discussed within the cabinet. And only in one country is it the object of a public debate--namely, the United States. If discussion of the report appears to be too formal, still it constitutes an interesting principle from an institutional point of view.

The state-of-the-environment report is used in the discussion of the environment budget only in the Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal--and for important political decisions only in Canada, where it assesses current policies. In the Netherlands, it is used for potential plans that might affect the environment, and in Portugal for the definition of a national investment plan.

In short, there is a line between the countries where the report on the state of the environment does not play a part in the decision-making process--such as Sweden, Germany, and France--and those where the report plays--at least formally--an important part in the decision-making process. These observations are distorted by the fact that some countries publish--independent of the report on the environment--documents that are more evaluative and political for decision makers. In Germany, besides the report on the environment (Daten zur Umwelt) distributed by the National Agency of the Environment (UBA)--the report is descriptive and geared to the general public--there is an assessment report of German environmental policy. This Umweltbericht is distributed by the Ministry of the Environment (BMU) which is responsible for developing the main line of policy including regulation, information, economics, and research). The parliament and the government use this document to discuss new political trends (those relevant to the budget, and programs for the environment, for example).

Regarding the role these reports play with the media, the situation is more uniform: except in Switzerland, Portugal, and France, a press conference precedes the publication of the reports. And in every country except the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, and Japan, a press release announces the publication of the report.

Some countries have opted for broad distribution of their reports (Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany, for example); and others produce only a shorter document (Denmark, the United States, Sweden, Portugal, and the United Kingdom). The distribution process is varied. Most bodies generating the document directly sell it or make it available through bookstores.

Most of the report writers make every effort to abandon politico-administrative jargon in the hopes of attracting a larger audience. A broad distribution reflects an active policy of information dissemination (internal as well as external) and can only enhance the environmental management image. This is the reason that it would be useful to have a more polished presentation of the reports and to delegate their publication to text editors. Unfortunately, the reports on the state of the environment are systematically distributed to the central administrations and seldom to regional and local administrations and other socioeconomic partners. The countries that do volunteer their reports to these important lower levels are Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, and Norway.

Last but not least, the question of financing reports on the state of the environment is crucial because of their interrelationship with politics, institutions, and information dissemination. Needless to say, without funding, these reports would not play any role at all or--at best--just a marginal one. Out of the fourteen countries analyzed, only two countries--Canada and the Netherlands- devote the equivalent of more than $2 million (10 million francs) to the publication of their documents. Four other countries devote between about $200,000 and $400,000 (1 and 2 million francs): Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Finland. As for France, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, they devote less than $200,000 (1 million francs) to this activity. The disparities are enormous, as one can see. These figures should, however, be interpreted very cautiously, because usually no budget money is allocated for these reports; the figures mentioned here are only indications. The staff in charge of producing these reports also varies. However, apart from Canada and the Netherlands, the teams responsible for the publication of these reports number fewer than five people. This paucity indicates the place occupied by this report in each country.


The fact that the role of these documents is often badly defined is the most striking fact of the analysis of the state-of-the-environment reports in the OECD countries. In most cases the documents are very administrative in their orientation and scarcely do more than praise existing policies. But in most of the front-runner countries (Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, and the United States), they are real information and assessment tools to help decision makers and to enlighten public opinion on the real state of the environment. It is apparent that this second model is the one to be developed in the future, for all the OECD countries.

(see table 1, table 2, and table 3.)


1. See Regulation EEC No. 1210/90 of the Council of May 7, 1990, relating to the creation of the European Agency for the Environment and the European network of information for the environment (JO of EC No. 120/1, May 11, 1990). Article 2, vi, stipulates that the Agency "will ensure a broad distribution of environmental information. Besides the Agency will publish a report on the State of the Environment every 3 years."

2. See L. Chabason and J. Theys, "Plan national pour l'environnement" (preliminary report for the final report), June 1990.

3. In Europe, Berlin (the Health Department) was the first in 1972 to set the example.

4. Recommendation of May 8, 1979, C(79) 114. See "OECD and the Environment," Paris: OECD, 1986.

5. The EC has published two reports on the state of the environment: the first one in 1979, the second in 1985. The next publication is planned for 1991.

6. OECD has published 3 reports on the state of the environment in 1979, 1985 and 1991 (see "State of the Environment," OECD, Paris, 1991).

7. Namely Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United States, Sweden, what was in early 1990 West Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Japan, United Kingdom, Finland, Norway, and France.

8. However, following a recommendation of the white paper, publication of the first report on the state of the environment is planned for the fall of 1992.

9. Recommendation of May 8, 1979, C(79) 114.

10. See Arnaud Comolet, "L'environnement au risque d'une definition," Annales de Geographic, forthcoming.

11. Moreover, the national report is no more than a compilation of the Lander report.

12. In general it is the subject of an environmental law.