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Significant environmental achievements in the 1990s, says report

The environmental progress seen in the 1980s for most OECD countries was consolidated and further enhanced during the 1990s, from lower emissions of many air pollutants to better protection of endangered species.

Moreover, the policies that led to these improvements have not in themselves posed significant economic costs, implying total expenditures in the order of only 1-2% of GDP. Nor have they created significant distortions in international trade or had negative effects on employment. On the contrary, environmental policies have often provided incentives for economic restructuring and technological innovation.

A new publication, Environmental Performance Reviews: Achievements in OECD Countries, summarises lessons learned from peer reviews of 29 OECD countries (1), which systematically assess countries' achievements with respect to their environmental domestic objectives and international commitments. It draws broad conclusions on the progress made in OECD countries during the 1990s towards environmental sustainability.

The report highlights in particular that:

• Emissions of acidifying substances to air, particularly those of sulphur oxydes have been reduced significantly.

• Emissions and concentrations of a few major air pollutants such as SO2, CO and lead have declined because of strengthened standards and enforcement applied to major stationary sources and vehicles.

• Economic restructuring (dematerialisation) and changes in the energy mix have further contributed to de-coupling releases of air pollutants from economic growth.

The most pressing pollution problems arising with respect to surface waters have been tackled, mainly through increased waste water treatment, regulation of discharges from large point sources, better implementation of existing legislation, water taxation and integrated water management.

Hazardous and municipal waste management has been improved, thanks to a number of innovative programmes for prevention, collection and recycling of waste.

Most OECD countries have made progress in protecting threatened species by establishing protected habitats, encouraging beneficial changes in land use practices, and adopting new legislation to protect biodiversity.

Despite the efforts made to improve environmental conditions in OECD countries during the 1990s, problems remain in a number of areas, including eutrophication of surface waters and pollution of groundwater, emissions of NOx and small particulates, ground-level ozone concentrations, increasing pressures on nature and biodiversity, soil contamination, etc. To meet national and international environmental commitments, it will be necessary to strengthen the integration of environmental, economic and social concerns in policy design and implementation in the near future, especially in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors. An increased use of market mechanisms will be needed to provide price signals that reflect social and environmental costs, and which are not biased by environmentally damaging subsidies. Environmental policies will need increased emphasis on implementation and enforcement. Openness, accountability and access to information have to be improved, and stakeholder participation further encouraged. In addition, international co-operation needs to be increased even further.

©OECD Observer June 2001 

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