Data: ins and outs
The MEPI project - Measuring the Environmental Performance of Industry, first reported in IEM February 2000 - has been completed: a robust, quantitative and comparable measure of the environmental performance of firms from a wide range of sectors using nothing but publicly available information. The cost? E0.5m plus two-and-a-half years solid work. The benefits to industry, policy- makers and investors? Immeasurable.
The project has been co-ordinated by Dr Frans Berkhout, head of the Environment Programme at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex. Together with colleagues at Sussex and Brighton University, and consulting with experts from industry, Dr Berkhout set up MEPI two-and-a-half years ago after winning European Commission funding under the Fourth Framework Programme (Environment and Climate).
The principle objectives of the scheme were to develop quantitative indicators for the environmental performance of manufacturing firms by collecting environmental and financial data in six sectors: electricity generation, pulp and paper production, fertiliser production, book and magazine printing, textile finishing and computer manufacture. The ultimate goal was to apply the indicators and so deepen the understanding of the causes of change in industrial environmental performance.
Six European countries contributed to the study: the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Germany and Italy. Data was gathered from four main sources: Corporate Environmental Reports (CERs); Eco-Management and Audit Schemes (EMAS), which are voluntary mass balance statements produced in Germany and Austria; the National Pollution Inventory, being pollution registers in the UK and Holland; and surveys of different companies. The latter method was by far the most difficult.
"Obtaining data from companies, rather than registers, was much harder than we first imagined because many do not collect data, especially firms involved in the printing or textile industries." Dr Berkhout admits: "Data collection is not currently mandatory but we are hoping that current demands for transparency will provide the incentives companies need."
Free for all
Since IEM last reported on MEPI (STATES..., IEM February 2000), the project has come a long way. The website is up, the publicity is done and people have started to use this valuable service. It is currently free but the idea is to eventually make it self-sustaining by introducing a subscription charge.
Previous concerns on the quality and quantity of the data have been resolved. In fact, Dr Berkhout claims that he was surprised by the amount of data they managed to collect: "We aimed to cover as many variables as possible, thinking some wouldn't be available, and ended up with too many."
But there were problems. "Data was patchy in some countries and sectors," he goes on. "It was very important to record whether the variables, such as carbon dioxide emissions or units of electricity produced, had been measured or just estimated. Standardising the variables across very different formats was challenging, but we overcame it by defining a unit for each variable and converting them." The data was then 'cleaned', which consisted of identifying outliers and removing mistakes made in error, after contacting the company in question. Financial indicators also had to be converted to a common currency, the Euro, to allow the data to be comparable across Europe.
"The really big problem," says Berkhout, "is that because the data sources provide information which is two to three years old, our information is out of date. In an ideal situation, companies would provide up-to-the-minute reports which we would number crunch and make available as soon as possible."
Berkhout realised early-on how important it was to direct the project at its potential users because "we need to respond to their interests." Such users range from policy makers to pension fund investors to consultancies needing information on their clients. "Feedback so far has been impressive", Dr Berkhout adds.
Riding on the success of MEPI, another project is being planned. The BIEPI (Benchmarking and Improving Environmental Performance in Industry) expands the current MEPI framework by including a wider range of sectors and concentrating especially on firms manufacturing environmentally burdensome products.
Berkhout explains: "This means that firms whose activities do not directly generate pollution will be judged on the impacts their products have on the environment. These include goods such as cars or consumables which through their use cause significant pollution."
Interestingly, the computer sector ranks high on the list of industries whose products are environmentally-unfriendly because, while the manufacture and assembly of parts is virtually pollution-free, their day-to-day running uses a large amount of electricity.
Not only that, but the project also aims to record the social performance of companies, an indicator which is rarely published but an increasingly important issue.
The project will at first be restricted to the UK but the idea is to extend it to other European countries once the UK version is up and running.