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Information, a Tool for Change
Wakako Hironaka
Minister of State
Director-General of the Environment Agency
Minister in charge of Global Environmental Problems
JAPAN


1. Environmental problems and information in Japan

Japan experienced severe air and water pollution caused by industrial production in the 1960s and 1970s. The most effective measures to deal with that kind of relatively simple form of pollution from specific sources are legal regulations, and as a basis for introducing such regulations Japan needed to monitor the state of the environment and sources of pollution. Because of this, Japan swiftly developed automated monitoring networks on air pollution. These information networks contributed greatly to the effective implementation of environmental quality standards, effluent standards and the system of total emission control whose purpose was to regulate the total amount of pollutants in certain areas. This enabled Japan to make a remarkable improvement in the environment, which had been almost unheard of in the world. For example, while Japan has achieved an economic growth rate of 122 per cent over the past two decades, SOX emissions decreased by 82 per cent. This has been recognised as the best performance among OECD countries in the OECD environmental performance review of Japan, which was issued last November.

However, although Japan has succeeded in reducing the pollution originating from the industrial sector, it has yet to see more improvements in such areas as the air pollution caused by automobiles and the water pollution caused by household sewage. Regulatory measures aimed at large-scale pollution sources are not effective in order to deal with these problems, and there is a need for social infrastructure development, sound city planning as well as voluntary co-operation of individual citizens. This requires the Government to obtain more information on the environment than before and to make it broadly available to the general public.

Furthermore, in order to cope with new types of environmental problems represented by global environmental problems, it is necessary to transform all kinds of human activities into environmentally friendly ones. It is also necessary for all actors of the society to make efforts for environmental conservation. In dealing with global environmental problems, whose scale is extremely large both geographically and in terms of time, efforts to form a social consensus are particularly important. Information concerning the state of the environment, the environmental load and effects of human activities and necessary measures should be gathered and shared by all.

The development of an effective information system is a basic precondition for the success of any reform. In today's environmental problems in particular, it is necessary to reflect global viewpoints in people's daily activities, and we should attach top priority to the development of an effective information system which assures access to information.

From this point of view, I would like to underline the importance of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration, which states, "Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision making processes."

Based on such recognition, the recently promulgated Basic Environment Law has an article which stipulates that the State shall make efforts to appropriately provide necessary information on environmental conservation, including the state of the environment. Here I would like to spend a little time to explain to you about Japan's Basic Environment Law, which was established last November to realign the former system of environmental laws to meet today's requirements which reflect changes of environmental problems and international developments surrounding environmental issues.

The outline of the Basic Law is as follows.

Firstly, it articulates basic principles on environmental conservation as well as the responsibilities of the State, local governments, corporations and individual citizens. Secondly, it creates a new framework for environmental policy such as guidelines for policy formulation and the Basic Environment Plan. Thirdly, instead of the former system which centered on regulatory measures, it creates a system in which a variety of policy measures can be appropriately utilised according to the characteristics of specific environmental problems. These policy measures include environmental impact assessment, economic measures, promotion of use of products contributing to reduction of environmental load, construction of facilities and other projects for environmental conservation, promotion of voluntary activities by private organizations as well as international cooperation for environmental conservation.

The Basic Environment Law is intended to provide a basis for all of Japan's environment related laws, government policies and private activities, and as such the Basic Law ran be described as the Environmental Constitution of Japan, as it were.

The fact that an article is included in this Basic law concerning the provision of environment-related information shows that the Japanese government is fully aware of the positive role information can play in establishing sustainable production and consumption patterns.

2. Concrete activities in Japan

In the past, efforts have been made in Japan relating to the collection and provision of information. For example, since 1968 the Government has been publishing environmental white paper every year, clarifying to the public the state of the environment as well as policy measures. The white paper is presented in a similar format every year, making it possible to compare the state of the environment and policy measures on year-to-year basis. In part one, which is an overview, the paper explains the Government's analysis of environmental issues and its basic stance on the direction of policy measures, providing an effective tool for building consensus among Japanese people.

In the field of monitoring the state of the environment, if I take the example of the air, Japan is equipped with more than 1600 stations supporting very sophisticated monitoring activities throughout Japan. In the management of natural resources, too, the National Survey on the Natural Environment (the Green Census) has been carried out since 1973 based on the Nature Conservation Law and this helped to clarify the state of Japan's natural resources with great precision.

I would like to explain about the Green Census a little more. As I have already mentioned, this survey is carried out according to the Nature Conservation Law which was established in 1972. This survey is conducted almost every five years to assess the nation's natural environment including vegetation, fauna and flora, geographical and geological features. The results of the survey are published in the forms of 1/50000-scale vegetation map of Japan, general maps and reports, and are used as a database. They have also been used by the Government in drawing up various kinds of national policies for Japan such as the National Land Use Plan, the Comprehensive National Development Plan, the Natural Parks Plan, etc. The Green Census is also internationally appreciated, and the OECD environmental review report has made reference to the survey as providing a firm basis for national nature conservation strategy.

I hope that Japan's experience in this field can contribute to the enhancement of the role of environmental information in the international community through various exchanges.

I would now like to turn to attempts in Japan to promote the environmental conservation activities of enterprises and individuals as well as activities to change production and consumption patterns. For example, we are witnessing attempts which aim to encourage individuals to pay due environmental consideration in everyday life, through such measures as the Eco-mark (environmental labelling) System and publications about environmentally friendly ways of life. Also there are attempts which try to encourage enterprises to pay due environmental consideration in their activities, such as the announcement by the Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) of the Global Environment Charter for Business Activities.

Behind these activities exists the recognition that, in order to promote the voluntary environmental conservation activities of individuals and enterprises, easy access to information which can meet diverse needs which arise from various social activities should be assured. In the various opinion surveys conducted by the Government, a large number of the respondents including NGOs say that lack of information is the most basic problem for them to participate actively in environmental conservation activities.

In Japan, activities by enterprises, NGOs, etc. for environmental conservation tended to lag behind those of the governmental sector. This realization is currently motivating us to undertake activities which I have already touched upon. At the same time, we are eager to learn the experience of other countries which are more advanced than us in the provision of information as well as in the partnership between the government and private environmental conservation activities

3. Future Perspectives

Needless to say, in order to cope with today's environmental problems, we need to develop a good system of scientific information including monitoring and simulations on a global scale. At the same time, such information should be shared by other countries. Also all actors of the society including enterprises, NGOs and individuals should be given access to information so that their behaviour can be modified by the commonly shared recognition on environmental conservation.

For that purpose, we need to consider a wide range of questions such as; what is the best way to process information?, or how should the social system be structured to provide the processed information? Undoubtedly it is desirable to make good use of state-of-the-art information processing technology represented by computer technology which is progressing rapidly right now.

In this regard, this year, the Environment Agency of Japan will begin to develop a computer network information system in order to provide the public with environment-related information. This is one of the concrete responses to the provision of the Basic Environment Law, which has clarified the responsibility of the State to provide information.

This project is designed to enable all actors of the society to obtain the necessary environmental information easily, promptly and cheaply, taking advantage of the merits of computer networks, ie. mass processing of information and dual communication of information.

Today it is strongly desired that information networks concerning environmental information be shared by the whole world. From such a point of view, I am currently looking with great interest at the activities of the Earth Council, which has set up its headquarters in Costa Rica and started its activities last year at the initiative of Mr. Maurice Strong. I hear that it is aiming for the establishment and promotion of the sustainable development ethic world-wide, the development of information networks and provision of information for citizens and NGOs and making proposals for dispute settlement concerning the environment and development. It is my wish to develop our own policies in good coordination with such international efforts.

I understand that the US is currently promoting the NII (National Information Infrastructure) initiative which is intended to expand the country's information base dramatically. I hear that the environment is expected to be a central part of such system, and the ambitious projects are being launched in the environmental field. I hope that these efforts will transcend national borders, leading the development of a global information system concerning the environment. For our part, Japan is determined to make best efforts to that end.

Also I believe that I can personally play a role in ensuring that information and communications change people's way of life and business activities so that they can be in harmony with the environment. To achieve this goal, I would like to express by support for the dissemination of the following systems in order to reduce environmental loads.

-transport-substitution telecommunications systems (TV conferences, tele-commuting, etc.)
-telecommunication systems conducive to energy and resource conservation (the integrated telecommunication system for the maintenance of buildings, the electronic information exchange system, etc.,)
-environment monitoring telecommunication systems

The Environment Agency is planning, in cooperation with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, to study the necessary measures to promote these telecommunication systems.

Finally I would like to make some suggestions with a view to future international relations which integrate environment and development.

The first relates to the development of global environment observation information networks as international public goods and the strengthening of international efforts to develop high level human resources concerning environment and development. The second is the development of new environmental social capital as well as that of environment-related industries as an economic frontier of the 21st century. Particularly important among them is the development of industries for environmental information, environmental education, environmental consulting as well as the infrastructure for communication. The third is the creation of a new paradigm for a socio-economic system which is in harmony with the global environment. This includes, among other things, the greening of economic policies, measures to nurture "green enterprises", such as environmental auditing, and assistance to the green consumer movement. It is also important to strengthen institutions which assist NGO activities and volunteer activities.

I would like to conclude my speech by expressing the hope that this symposium will further accelerate international co-operation for the development of an information system which will be instrumental in establishing sustainable production and consumption patterns.

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