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Staff writer

No one likes a heavy-handed regulator just like no one likes a bully. And regulation has traditionally been one of government’s main tools to protect the environment.

But advances in information integration are making it possible for the U.S. government to use the regulatory stick less frequently, said James Quinn, a U.S. expert on science and policy on a visit to Tokyo to speak at a symposium and meet with government officials.

Instead, the government can use data banks to set up schemes that help the environment and stimulate the economy simultaneously. “I see this whole thing as beginning a very explosive phase,” said James Quinn, a professor at the University of California’s Department of Science and Policy.

By using information better and increasing its transparency — much of it via the Internet — national and local governments and industry in the United States are finding more and more ways to work together to improve the environment without regulation, said Quinn, a member of the California Biodiversity Council and adviser to the National Biology Information Infrastructure working group.

In one example, governments reduce or stabilize pollution levels by setting a ceiling on, rather than simply regulating, emissions. Emission levels are frozen and businesses in the market can trade, sell or work to reduce their emissions as necessary to stay within the limits. Although this requires consistent monitoring and accurate information, it creates money-making opportunities, empowering businesses to determine the most cost-effective way to reduce pollution, Quinn said.

Quinn thinks Japan might benefit from a similar system. “The government has decided that better information about environmental issues supports better decision-making at all levels,” he said. “So they have promoted efforts to get government information interoperable and ‘swappable’ at all levels and make that available over the Internet for the government, private sector and education.”

Quinn used water quality, one of the hottest topics in California, as an example of what better use of information can help achieve.

“Now it is becoming possible to look at it (the water issue) in a more systematic way — who the users are, where the supplies are coming from, what the threat is to it, where gasoline tanks and abandoned gold mines and grazing operations that affect water quality are,” he added.

With the state’s population of 35 million expected to soar to 50 million by 2015, and all of the water behind dams accounted for, authorities realized something needed to be done, Quinn said.

Using information to calculate the value of the water supplies, “watershed stakeholders,” such as local citizens, farmers, environmental groups and the government, concoct plans to pay riverside landowners accordingly for following good land use practices that increase water volume. The government can also pay farmers for allowing some of the water allocation to be diverted to more desperate urban areas, where it has more economic value.

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