5 January 2016

Lancaster alumnus, Dr David Stanners, one of the founding staff of the European Environment Agency, explains how it helps improve environmental policy. 

Twenty-five years ago, while working for the European Commission, Dr David Stanners was one of a small group of people tasked with setting up the European Environment Agency and establishing the European environment information and observation network to develop comparable environmental information across Europe.

If you cannot compare information between countries, you cannot work together to tackle environmental problems facing the continent.

“In order to control and deal with these problems, policy makers need to see a European-wide picture, but that just wasn’t possible in the early 1990s,” explains David.

David’s role in helping to set up the Agency arose from his experience in environmental radioactivity, which he first explored as a student at Lancaster University. His PhD investigated how low-level radioactive waste from the nearby Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant ended up in the sediment along the Cumbrian coast. 

A decade later he was monitoring radioactivity across Europe following the Chernobyl nuclear accident. But there was a problem: it was difficult to see what was happening across borders because of different country standards. Jacques Delors, the then European Commission President, said he wanted to see a European map of radioactive pollution from the accident and not a jigsaw puzzle of mismatching country pieces!

The same difficulty was arising with many other environmental problems. European policy makers, were becoming increasingly concerned about environmental issues and wanted better information at European level. So in 1990, the European Community created the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the associated European environment information and observation network (Eionet).

As a member of the small Task Force set up to prepare the new agency, David led the development of the first report on the state of Europe’s environment, Europe’s Environment: The Dobris Assessment 1995. A year later he joined the new EEA in charge of its assessment programme.

“Today we supply policy makers with European-wide environmental information for an improved understanding of environmental problems, and have set up the phenomenal Eionet network - a rich source of information and policy advice - working together and sharing knowledge.”

“I’m proud of the way our work is respected and listened to, influencing the thinking of policy and decision makers, and raising the awareness of the public to environmental issues.”

Successes include the regular indicator reporting mechanisms set up by the Agency to track progress and provide policy feedback on air, water, biodiversity, transport and energy etc; EEA’s work on the precautionary principle,Late Lessons from Early Warnings”, 2002 & 2013, providing important insights into how uncertainty and risk can be better taken into account in policy and decision making; and the EEA’s 5-yearly State and Outlook reports helping to track progress with the EU’s environmental action programmes, influencing among other things the future EU policy framework to 2050.

Today, David’s role as Head of Programme Partnerships & Networks sees him continuing to work to increase and share environmental knowledge across boundaries: between continents, disciplines and across the science-policy interface.

He is currently working on a new initiative to develop the European Environment Academy, foreseen as the knowledge and learning hub of the EEA and Eionet. The aim is to significantly improve the uptake of existing environmental knowhow by practitioners and policy makers and to promote better understanding and action on environment and sustainability issues.

“There is a great need to spread understanding about the central importance of the environment for people’s livelihoods, health and wellbeing. We need to bring environment into the heart of the social sciences, engineering, business and economics. The EEA and Eionet are a unique source of knowledge about improving our management of the environment. We want to build this capacity further and use it for wider development and training in environmental knowhow.”

Lancaster University was one of four UK institutions chosen to launch EEA’s latest 5-yearly report - The European environment: state and outlook 2015.