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About Environmental Information

Environmental information covers a wide range of topics and is broadly defined as:

Elements of the environment:

Air & Atmosphere: The atmosphere is the collection of gases that surround the earth which are retained by the earth’s gravitation, forming its gaseous envelope. The distinction between air and atmosphere suggests that “air” refers to that which we breathe which would include air found within buildings and structures.

Water: This is water in all its forms (vapour, ice, liquid) and is not limited by scale (from oceans to the smallest droplet). It includes water underground or on the surface, water in natural settings (rivers, lakes) and man-made settings (canals, ponds).

Soil:  Soil can be taken to mean the unconsolidated mineral or organic material top layer of the earth’s surface in which plants grow.

Land: Land is the solid (as contrasted to the liquid or gaseous) parts making up the earth’s surface, but may also include land under the surface. “Land” is defined in the Interpretation and Legislative Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 as including buildings and other structures, land covered by water, and any right or interest in or over land. The definition includes natural minerals and deposits such as salt, coal, limestone, slate, iron, etc.

Landscape:  Landscape is defined by the European Landscape Convention 2000 as “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”.

Natural Sites (including wetlands, costal and marine areas): “Natural sites” recognises the importance of protected areas such as:

  • World Heritage Sites
  • Natura 2000 nature conservation sites
  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest
  • National Nature Reserves A site does not need to have been designated to qualify as a “natural site”.

All natural sites that possess a specific value, local significance, special natural or historic value can be taken to be a natural site.

“Natural” does not necessarily mean devoid of human interference, and the protection and/or management of a site will not preclude it from being classified as natural.

Genetically modified organism: UNECE describes genetically modified organisms as “any organism with the exception of human beings that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology”.

Interaction among the elements:  This phrase recognises that no one aspect of the environment can be fully understood in isolation and that the interaction between the elements is just as important as the elements themselves.

Factors with affect the elements of the environment:

Substances: Includes all material/matter, natural or synthetic, for example, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, hormones, antibiotics, oil, particulates, gases, liquids, etc.

Energy: Energy can be expressed in traditional scientific language: thermal, chemical, electrical, kinetic, quantum, electromagnetic, laser, potential, light, and sound, etc. Common usage for the term centres on power generation: oil-fired, coal-fired, gas-fired, nuclear energy and renewable energy (wind power, hydro power, wave/tidal energy, solar energy etc.).

Energy is not restricted to large-scale power plants and electricity generation. It also includes heat (heat, in the form of hot water emitted into a river for example, can have a drastic effect on the plants, animals and fish living in the vicinity), combined heat and power, renewables (including micro-renewables), biomass, fuel-cells, etc. Energy will also include sunlight, geothermal, radio waves, microwaves and radar waves.

Noise: Although noise is itself energy, it is included here separately. Noise may be subjective, localised and transient.

A simple dictionary definition of noise is, “a sound, especially one that is loud, unpleasant, or disturbing”. Noise also includes vibrations (section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990).

Radiation or waste, including radioactive waste: Radioactive materials are used in many situations, settings and industries. Radioactive materials are used in common products ranging from the luminous dials on watches, to smoke detectors. Radioactive waste can be generated by hospitals; the pharmaceutical industry; the oil industry; military establishments; scientific research establishments; industrial radiography equipment manufacture; and, of course, the nuclear power generation industry.

Emissions, discharges and other releases: According to Directive 96/61/EC on integrated pollution prevention and control (the IPPC Directive), “emission” means the direct or indirect release of substances, vibrations, heat or noise from individual or diffuse sources into the air, water or land.

There is no definition of “discharges” in the IPPC Directive. Common usage of the term in this context suggests it may generally be reserved (although not exclusively) for liquid releases into water. Page 5 This approach is supported by the use of “discharge” in water pollution legislation, for example the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011.

Releases: A helpful approach to understanding this term may be found in section 1(10) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which states that a substance is “released” into any environmental medium whenever it is released directly into that medium whether it is released into it within or outside Great Britain. The 1990 Act goes on to say that “release” includes:

  • in relation to air, any emission of the substance into the air
  • in relation to water, any entry (including discharge) of the substance into water
  • in relation to land, any deposit, keeping or disposal of the substance in or on land.

For more information about the definitions of environmental information, please visit the Scottish Information Commissioner's website here.