Partnering on Research & Information Technology for a sustainable future - a US EPA perspective

6 May 2004

The European Policy Centre hosted two representatives from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at a Breakfast Policy Briefing on 3 May. Alan D. Hecht, Director for Sustainability, Office of Research and Development at the EPA and his colleague William A. Sonntag Jr., Chief of Staff, Office of Environmental Information at the EPA reflected on “Partnering on Research & Information Technology for a sustainable future - a US EPA perspective.” EPC Senior Policy Advisor, John Wyles, chaired the meeting. A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.


Introducing the speakers, chairman John Wyles, underlined the difficult choices policy-makers both in Europe and in the US seemingly had to make between economic competitiveness on the one hand, and environmentally sustainable initiatives on the other. Increasingly, decision-making on both sides of the Atlantic had to devise mechanisms of achieving both goals simultaneously.
The role of the Environmental Protection Agency
Mr. Hecht reflected briefly on the nature of the EPA as a regulatory body, and its recent change in policy approach, which centred on finding means that allowed for a maintenance of high standards, while reducing the overall cost of regulatory activity and the overall burden of regulation. He agreed with the chairman that economic growth objectives were in a state of tension with environmental protection requirements. Looking back at the Rio and Johannesburg Summits, he noted that the international agenda on sustainability had come to the forefront, while the domestic level of implementation had been largely ignored over the past decade. To ensure the achievement of international standards, however, every level of governance, down to the regional and local had to embrace sustainability as a signpost in its policy-making.
The EPA had recently refocused its work in that regard and created a separate department within the research wing of the institution. It was this unit’s professed goal to design sustainable systems and find ways to monitor them. Decision-makers at all levels of government needed adequate tools and risk assessment models on which to base their choices. Programmes to reduce material flow and develop “benign materials”  (e.g. green chemicals) in the process of integrating the economic, social and environmental factors of decision-making were pointing the way ahead.

“The United States are vigorously trying to prove that ‘green’ is competitive,” he said. Thus, in the development of model approaches and tools, the EPA was actively factoring in economics, advances in technology and engineering and putting greater emphasis on the so-called ‘P3s’ – people, prosperity and planet, as part of a grant programme to US universities to encourage research into green energy and chemicals.
Shared information and regulation
Measuring and monitoring systems needed to be updated to ensure the dissemination of the newest and most accurate information and data on a steady basis, as this also increased credibility in public policy, Mr. Hecht said. A holistic approach to sustainability could ensure that competitiveness goals were met simultaneously. Adding to the point on the importance of the integration of information systems, Mr. Sonntag underlined the positive collaboration between the EU and the US, who, through their bi-annual meetings facilitated exchange of best-practice and new research methods and information.

Greater emphasis on ‘eco-informatics’ was now being placed on both sides of the Atlantic, which included the unification of terms and technology exchange mechanisms for environmental factor reporting. He highlighted the joint work between the EPA and the Atlanta-based US Center for Disease Control (CDC), on sharing information on environmental indicators that impacted health. He reminded the audience not to underestimate the impact of developing a shared terminology across different scientific sectors. The US experience with respect to the EPA-CDC collaboration could be widened to include terminology unification across linguistic and geographic divisions. His unit was currently developing a complex ‘thesaurus’ for these scenarios. The management of meta data - essentially data about data - was also important in this regard. Additionally, the creation of ‘knowledge products’ - indicators that allowed for accurate measurement of sustainability and health would lead to much more defined policy approaches. 
The US and Europe had similar requirements with respect to information transfer, as federal organs such as the EPA needed the active collaboration of all 50 states, while the EU had to coordinate closely with its Member States. Mr. Sonntag said that the US had learned  “a lot” from Europe in facilitating this information exchange, while US advances on technology transfer had been helpful to Europeans.

The EPA presentation had confirmed that the US position on the Kyoto Protocol had tended to obscure many other positive aspects of their environmental policies John Wyles said in his closing remarks. He hoped this work might be better communicated internationally in the future.