| Bridging the Gap: responding to changes in the environment – from words to action
The Bridging the Gap conferences emerged from the Environment Programme Committee's desire to enrich their work through less formal exchange of ideas and best practices, and to open up discussion outside this policy forum. As this need coincided with similar aspirations of other environment policy-makers and practitioners, the Bridging the Gap conference series was born. The conference is hosted by Member States holding the EU Presidency. The host countries organise and run the conference with the help and support of such institutions as the EU Directorate-Generals for Research and for Environment, the Joint Research Centre and the European Environment Agency. The majority of participants are policy- and decision-makers – both at national and supranational level – NGOs, researchers and academics.
The 2008 Bridging the Gap conference was hosted by the Environmental Agency of Slovenia in Portorož on 14–16 May and attended by over 300 delegates. The three overarching themes discussed at this year's conference were:
- the need for urgent action
- putting the environment at the heart of economic decision-making
- improving communication between scientists, policy-makers, politicians, business and civil society.
In addition, seminars and fora were held on information gathering and sharing, energy and the environment, sustainable consumption and production, adaptation to climate change and biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The need for urgent action
The environment is changing rapidly in many respects, from climate to biodiversity to ecosystems of every type. There is a real sense of urgency for many reasons, including increasing stress on energy resources and food supply (due to increased food prices). In his speech, EU Commissioner for Science & Research, Janez Potočnik, reinforced this need for an urgent response, pointing to the findings of the 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Discussion at the conference advocated the need for a paradigm shift in the thinking that underlies political, economic and social policy development and planning. To achieve this, it is necessary to engage the wider, non-scientific community.
Nonetheless, people in western urban society are starting to reconnect with nature which could help increase awareness of the environment in every sphere of life. This would support stakeholders and their communities, thus building a consensus on the necessity to make sometimes difficult choices for the future and increasing their active participation, ability to act and acceptance of the compromises required to deal with the consequences of environmental change.
Putting the environment at the heart of economic decision-making
In order to enact this theme, the conference found that all stakeholders need to connect with each other, fully exploiting all existing information and expertise, and all the available tools and methods. In addition, Commissioner Potočnik advocated that:
Environmental degradation must be internalised in our economic assessments. When the costs and benefits of different policies are weighed against the costs and benefits of inaction, sometimes we are left with little choice but to accelerate policy development and implementation.
The conference participants suggested that integration and connections across activities and sectors should be improved, including:
- increasing the use of spatial planning;
- taking a leadership role in protecting biodiversity & ecosystems services and promoting them in the development of sectoral policies;
- promoting interdisciplinary research and funding;
- considering climate change solutions and the choice of energy sources in a global context;
- fully including environmental and social criteria in allocating EU structural and cohesion funding;
- going beyond GDP – developing the concept of non-economic value of nature.
In his speech, Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director-General of DG Research, summed up the need for communication by saying: “even the soundest science-based policy initiatives will not succeed without strong support and commitment from every part of society.“ Improving data and information quality, reach and accessibility thus emerged as key issues at the conference, with different sectors varying in the level and accessibility of information available. While progress is being made on the mechanics and technology required for cross-sector access to information, EU initiatives need to be further integrated to deliver timely, targeted information and facilitate the development of services to maximise its use.
In addition, situations where data is limited to a given user community should be tackled as they create gaps between the generating community and a wider user base. If fully adopted and funded, EU initiatives have the potential to bridge these gaps. However, any data-access conflicts need to be resolved at a political level.
Communication between the science community and both the political and the wider civil community need a greater effort on all sides. As such, the conference conclusions recommend how each party could work towards improving communication:
- The science community should learn to deliver its message succinctly and without jargon and presumed knowledge, using the right channels for the intended audience.
- Policy-makers should engage in a deeper dialogue with the scientific community, as well as analyse and take up suggestions developed through such dialogue. Science funding should be viewed as investment rather than expenditure.
- The awareness of the general public on environmental change and required actions should be developed further, in particular through education and training.
- Global communications on the issue of environmental change should be improved. European action depends on its global partners. Europe therefore needs to speak with one voice to its global partners.
In his presentation, Stancic stressed the need for all stakeholders – researchers, policy-makers, civil society and business representatives, and media – in the Bridging the Gap process to take this process to the next level. In this way, everyone, not only those at the conference, but literally every European citizen becomes a stakeholder in safeguarding the environment, and where scientific advances do not stay only within the confines of academia, but are shaping public awareness and improving our lives and our environment.