Significant environmental advancements in OECD countries in 1990s

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have made significant environmental progress during the 1990s, from lowering emissions of many air pollutants, to better protection of endangered species, says the OECD.

Furthermore, says a new report, Environmental Performance Reviews: Achievements of OECD Countries, the policies that have lead to these improvements have not posed significant economic costs, with total expenditures in the order of only 1-2% of GDP. Neither have they created significant distortions in international trade or had negative effects on employment, instead often providing incentives for economic restructuring and technological innovation.

The report concludes that:

  • emissions of acidifying substances to air, particularly those of sulphur oxides have been reduced significantly;
  • emissions and concentrations of a few major air pollutants such as carbon monoxide 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 emissions 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; and
  • 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.

However, problems still remain in a number of areas in the 29 nations, says the report, including the eutrophication of surface waters, pollution of groundwater, emissions of oxides of nitrogen and small particulates, ground-level ozone concentrations, increasing pressures on nature and biodiversity, and soil contamination. A strengthening of the integration of environmental, economic and social concerns in policy design and implementation is needed in the near future, says the OECD, especially in the energy, transport and agriculture sectors. An increased use of market mechanisms is needed, which can produce prices that reflect social and environmental costs, and which are not biased by environmentally damaging subsidies. Environmental policies need increased emphasis on implementation and enforcement, with an improvement in openness, access to information and accountability, and stakeholder involvement further encouraged.

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