United Nations System-Wide



[This document has been prepared by Earthwatch Coordination to stimulate discussion and to support the strategy development process.]


General framework
Strategic Objectives
Accepted design principles
Principles for funding
Strategic components
Existing strategic processes
Patterns of information flow
Global issues
Geographic levels
User groups
Institutional responsibilities


Any strategy for meeting essential needs for environmental information through observing, assessment and reporting needs to be founded on a general framework of principles and requirements, within which can be nested specific strategic components such as the UN System-wide Earthwatch, the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS) for the earth satellite and in situ data collection communities, and the UNEP Environmental Observing and Assessment Strategy defining its role at the global and regional levels. The strategic framework should also set the stage for the definition of national strategies, both to meet national environmental information needs, and to contribute elements to the global system. It should even identify how local-level activities can fit into the general picture and benefit from the larger scale information systems.

It is particularly important for the strategic framework to encompass in a systems perspective the whole chain of environmental information flow, from observing, monitoring and other data collection, through assessment, modelling and other value-added data processing, to delivery of reports and other information products to priority groups of users, including decision-makers and the general public. This integrated observing, assessment and reporting framework should be developed at nested geographic scales including the global, regional, national and local levels. It should encompass sectoral flows of information to address specific problems like climate change and food security, and integrated overviews that give the big picture of interacting problems and priorities. It should in particular identify how these multiple components which cut through the total mass of information and environmental concerns in different directions can be interrelated and made more coherent and mutually reinforcing, rather than fragmentary and duplicative. By mapping the total information landscape (see below), it should be possible to overlay existing strategies, institutional responsibilities and programmes, and to identify what is lacking to make the system more coherent and effective. This same process will be equally useful for an international organization preparing its global sectoral information strategy, a national government reviewing its national environmental information capacity, or even a city government or local authority determining what information it should generate itself and what will be available from larger-scale information systems.

This framework only provides the general outline of strategies for environmental observing, assessment and reporting, which should be developed further within specific strategies for each institution, network and partnership involved with environmental information. What it does emphasize is the strategic process by which the relevant partners and stakeholders should interact and integrate their efforts for increased coherence and effective delivery.


Environmental information is only meaningful when it is used. The global environmental information of interest to Earthwatch must be focussed on specific uses and user groups, and identified through specific strategic objectives.

High level policy- and decision-makers in international organizations, multilateral financing agencies and national governments need highly-digested and easily assimilated summary information of policy-relevance. It should be up-to-date, even in near-real-time for rapidly-evolving environmental emergencies, and available whenever and wherever required. The equivalent in economic terms is the flow of economic indicators (exchange rates, stock market indices, interest rates, GDP, unemployment rates, etc.) that summarize the state of and trends in the economy. One strategic objective of an environmental information system should be to develop the data collection, assessment, indicator generation and reporting processes necessary to keep policy-makers informed of the global environmental situation, particularly where it threatens human health and well-being and environmental sustainability. Where environmental issues are controversial or uncertain, decision-makers need summaries of the status of, and key points in, the debate, so that they can respond intelligently to public concerns. No output for this target group should exceed four pages, at least partly graphics.

Specific international decision-making processes such as the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the Commission on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council, the governing bodies of specialized agencies, and the Conferences of the Parties of international environmental conventions require more complete environmental information, summarizing the best available scientific data on the issues they are considering, assessed in the most authoritative and representative way possible. These can take the form of major international scientific assessments of specific issues (climate change, biodiversity, forests, freshwater, marine environment, etc.) prepared on a periodic basis, or shorter reports from the secretariat summarizing the scientific conclusions and highlighting policy issues requiring decisions from the body concerned. Since much environmental information is common to more than one issue, and there are many interactions between issues, it makes little sense to have separate data collection and national scientific reporting arrangements for each UN body or convention. Governments are quickly overloaded by such requirements. A second strategic objective of a global environmental information system should be to provide adequate scientific information on the global environment assembled, integrated and organized so that the current status and trends can be summarized for each necessary global report. This will require adequate observational data in time and space, assembled in coherent data sets, assessed through reliable processes, and presented in indicators, maps, graphics, short text summaries, case studies and similar formats, necessary to compile these different targeted reports. The needs for the final environmental information products should drive the whole information system, setting its priorities. Data should not be collected unless it has a clear and well-defined use. If the basic scientific information is already available, national reports can concentrate on policy recommendations and the effectiveness of national responses.

A third strategic objective is to provide the basis for integrated assessments of the global environment, such as UNEP's Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports and decadal State of the World Environment reports. Since the planetary system shows many interactions between different subcomponents and processes, a picture of the whole cannot be gained just by summing the various parts covered in sectoral assessments. Linkages and interactions need to be identified, often with the help of systems models, and trends projected to identify areas requiring international action. Integrated scenarios of possible futures can be developed to help explore the consequences for various choices for policy action. These models and scenarios need to be based as far as possible on reliable and globally-harmonized environmental data sets, which should be one product of the environmental information system.

There is an increasing demand to measure the effectiveness of management actions, defining another strategic objective. Governments and the international community are making major investments in environmental laws and regulations, economic instruments and incentives, scientific research, and international collaboration. Industries, urban governments, the agricultural sector and others are spending large sums on pollution control, waste management, cleaner production, and other environmentally-motivated activities. They all want to know the cost-effectiveness of these investments to help in setting priorities and improving efficiency. An environmental information system should collect data relevant to the effectiveness of environmental management. Ideally this should show up in direct scientific evidence of environmental results, such as improvements in air or water quality, but often it must begin by documenting the measures taken.

A strategic objective that is more procedural but nevertheless essential to effectiveness is to maximize participation in all parts of the environmental information system. Global environmental information does not exist in isolation, but represents only the tip of a pyramid of local, national and regional data collection and assessment efforts. Environmental observing and assessment must be largely a "bottom-up" process, first immediately relevant to and used by those most immediately concerned, then assembled and used for national decision-making, and only ultimately abstracted where relevant for global environmental issues. Participation builds understanding and motivates responsiveness. It can greatly increase the impact and effectiveness of environmental information. It is also essential to mobilizing the necessary financial support. Traditionally only scientists and governments have been involved in environmental information systems, but there is wide scope for bringing in the private sector, non-governmental organizations, even grass-roots groups and the general public, in many aspects of environmental data collection and analysis. Encouraging such participation requires networking, capacity-building, harmonization and quality control, and the feed-back of value added results to encourage the continued flow of data. It brings the information and advisory mechanisms close to the decision-makers at each level, and valorizes all participants in the process. It can be an extremely cost effective way to improve the base of environmental data collection.


An information system of this complexity cannot be planned centrally. Elements of the system are already growing organically in many places and institutions and at many scales. What a strategy can contribute is an overview of the processes and forces at work at a point in time, and guidance for making the evolving system more efficient, focussed and cost-effective. Ultimately, strategic planning should itself become an on-going process for observing the information system and identifying opportunities to be exploited and problems to be resolved to respond to ever-evolving needs for information. It should take place at multiple levels, both geographically and institutionally, and across different functional groups and thematic interests. This continuing strategic planning process is particularly important when the technologies and capacities for collecting and handling information are themselves developing so rapidly.

The key element in an effective environmental observing, assessment and reporting system, made possible by new information technologies, will be building the capacity to network among multiple databases and information sources distributed in many places around the world, and to sift out different kinds of relevant information in forms that can be fed efficiently into various scientific assessment processes and processed information products for decision-makers. This is an area where technology is moving very quickly, making it possible to envisage a distributed yet integrated environmental information network. This will involve adapting and linking together multiple models, search engines, expert systems and other information tools to support assessment and decision-making processes. Such a network can be designed so that everyone benefits from contributing to it. With some catalytic leadership and direction, it should be largely self-maintaining.

The integration of multiple information sources will only work if information can flow freely. A essential complement to the environmental information network will be the promotion of principles of free access to and exchange of environmental information for non-commercial purposes. The principle of the free exchange of information must form the bedrock on which such a system can be built. Without it, inefficiencies and deficiencies will multiply.

In a market system, the perfect working of the market mechanism presupposes complete and accessible information, but there is a strong tendency to want to conceal or manipulate information for market advantage, leading to restricted competition and economic inefficiencies. In the same way, effective environmental management requires complete information available to all stakeholders. An over-commercialization of environmental information that prevents access by many decision-makers, including governments, small and medium enterprises and the poor, who cannot afford commercial charges, will result in bad decisions damaging to the overall environmental interests of society and future generations. Rather than trying to privatize and commercialize environmental information, the central goal should be to provide a level playing field of full and effective information, based on which public officials, private entrepreneurs and the general public can all develop the most environmentally-friendly and sustainable economic and social systems. Entrepreneurial talent and private enterprise should be expressed in exploiting the knowledge that comes from effective environmental information, not in manipulating it. The UN system should be a leader in working for the necessary free flow of information.


The UN/UNEP Meeting on Common/Compatible Systems of Access to Data (1996) and the UN Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development (IACSD) agreed to the following principles that should underlie the design of any UN information system:

Subsidiarity. It is in the nature of the UN system that information is collected for many purposes by innumerable organizational entities and held in many forms and places. This is a strength to build on, since it keeps information close to those who have collected it and who know its uses and limitations. Any information system should keep things decentralized and near to data collectors and users.

Responsibility. Those who collect or originate data should be responsible for its accuracy and appropriateness. The system should not allow data to be cut off from their sources or to collect at secondary locations where they can go out of date. Data should always be accompanied by meta-data, including date, origin and conditions for access, and should not be alterable except by the responsible parties.

Transparency. To the extent possible, information should be freely available for all non-commercial users. All those involved in decision-making processes should have access to the same information with the highest standards of reliability.

Efficiency. Data should only be collected once, by one responsible entity, avoiding unnecessary duplication (apart from that needed for quality control) and simplifying reporting requirements. This will require consultation mechanisms to determine which entities in the system are best placed to collect and assess which kinds of data on behalf of the whole system. Some cost-sharing mechanisms may also be appropriate. The corollary of this is that data, once collected, should be readily and rapidly available to any others who need it.

Economy. Investment in the system should where possible be less than or equivalent to that now made in collecting and processing information manually and in responding individually to the many requests now made.

The Meeting also adopted Principles for a UN-wide Data Access Policy specifically in relation to high-level processed information on sustainable development:

In principle, data collected by and stored within the UN system should be in the public domain, freely available to all users, unless Member States have specifically prohibited open access.

All data should, as far as possible, be accompanied by an acknowledgment of sources and the metadata necessary to ensure quality, timeliness and appropriateness for different uses.

In special cases, data access may be restricted for any of the following reasons:

a. The data are covered by government-defined restrictions based on strategic, security or sovereignty considerations;

b. The data have commercial significance, would reveal trade secrets, are covered by intellectual property rights, or would give illegitimate holders an unfair commercial or trade advantage;

c. The data are normally sold as part of a data commercialization or cost-recovery programme.

Where data are so restricted, they shall be shared with other parts of the UN system for internal use without charge, provided that the specified restrictions accompany and are not separated from the data, and are respected by the users. Such data will not be shared outside the UN system except with official partners in UN-sponsored joint activities, where the partner agrees to be bound by and to respect the same conditions and restrictions. Where charges are normally levied for data, these charges will be waived for reasonable amounts of internal use by UN system partners on the principle of reciprocity, and with the understanding that such data will not be made available to outside users who would normally purchase such data from the original supplier. Restricted data may be used to prepare derivative or combined information products, provided that they are so processed as to protect the interests for which they are restricted, and in such a way that the original data cannot be restored or reconstructed from the derivative product.


Collecting and assessing information on many dimensions of the environment is inherently an expensive activity, even if new technologies and participatory approaches can lead to important costs reductions. How can the investment in an information system generate an adequate return or be funded on a sustainable basis? The economic strategy for an operational Earthwatch system for environmental observing, assessing and reporting is as important as the information strategy.

The general practice with everything from basic research to infrastructure development has been for governments to fund outright, or at least subsidize, initial investments in the general interest. Similarly, assuring the physical security of society through police and military forces is accepted as a continuing public responsibility, as is the collection of basic economic and social information through statistical services. There is no reason why the essential environmental information necessary for environmental security should not also be publicly funded. This does not mean that many uses of environmental information that support profit-making activities cannot be commercialized or sub-contracted to the private sector, nor that revenues from such commercial and specialized value-added activities cannot be used in part to recover some of the costs of the core environmental information services. However, there will always be significant parts of the potential user community for environmental information, including many government services, small enterprises, farmers, fishers, builders, and the general public, who will be unable to pay the full cost of that information, yet whose increased environmental knowledgeability and reduced environmental impact will be of significant benefit to the whole society. An effective funding strategy for an environmental information system should include both publicly-funded core services in the common interest, and a complement of commercial services with value added where the market can bear them.


While data collection may be organized best by environmental component or location (air, water, land, urban areas, etc.), or by technology or method (earth satellite, drifting buoy, radiometer, census questionnaire, etc.), delivery of information products will most often need to focus on specific issues (climate change, food security, water shortage, biodiversity loss, etc.). An information strategy must harmonize these different approaches to each part of the chain of information flow (see the section on the environmental information landscape). It also needs an institutional component, identifying the different actors or stakeholders all along the chain, ranging from research scientists and government services to convention secretariats and private enterprises. The strategic challenge is to fit all these pieces together into a coherent whole. Within this framework there will then be the multiple layers of processes, requirements and institutions at each geographic scale. In fact, many of these components should have their own strategy as a sub-set within the overall strategic framework.

A networking process is needed to link with national and regional environmental information sources and centres, both to collect information needed globally, and to deliver environmental information to users at the national level. The articulation between national governments and global environmental information systems needs to be developed with care, as national governments, both directly and through their participation in international decision-making bodies, are the most important producers and users of environmental information. For information collection, a second set of articulations is through the Global Observing Systems and the Integrated Global Observing Strategy with the space agencies, to tap into the growing number of data sources that are essentially international in character. A third set of data sources are the monitoring agencies and scientific data centres specialized in particular categories of data (crop production, glaciers, rainfall, etc.), or responsible for collecting environmental data at the national level. All need to be drawn on for the environmental information streams necessary for global environmental decision-making. A major effort is needed to encourage the necessary international harmonization and quality control of data where there are not already mechanisms to do this.

Another strategic component involves assembling and presenting multiple kinds of environmental information for decision-making and public information, using the latest in computer, GIS and Internet technologies. This requires building and maintaining the harmonized data sets needed at the global level. There are a variety of existing institutions doing this at both the national and international levels, including some of the UNEP Global Resource Information Database (GRID) centres. The network of partnerships needs to be expanded until it includes all the necessary major nodes, whether accessing significant national data depositories (like GRID-Sioux Falls), providing a regional focus (like GRID-Arendal and UNEP's Environment Assessment Programme for Asia and the Pacific), or specializing in a particular information sector (like the World Conservation Monitoring Centre). These centres should also take the lead in collaborations to assemble globally-consistent data sets, maps and imagery useful for the GEO report and other assessment and reporting processes.

The different environmental assessment processes also need to be placed in a coherent strategic framework. A new set of partnerships should be built with all the major environmental assessment processes, both those in specialized agencies and conventions already included in the UN system-wide Earthwatch, and others outside the UN system. Increased attention should be given to articulation with the scientific community and international research and modelling programmes, part of which is now being done through Earthwatch and the Global Observing Systems, and part through GEO collaborating centres. These partnerships on environmental assessment should eventually reach down to state-of-the-environment processes at the regional and national levels. One aim in this strategic component would be to encourage a regular exchange of experience and best practices. Efforts are also needed to strengthen collaboration and reduce areas of overlap and duplication. The work on indicators is another dimension of assessment. A new capacity for outreach to NGOs and major groups should be added as well.

The design and delivery of environmental information products is another important area of focus. This needs to go beyond the occasional published report to become a continuously updated global environmental information system, linking the many existing information sources while adding international scientific judgement and policy context, and ultimately including a set of global environmental indicators. There also needs to be a capacity to respond rapidly to environmental emergencies with information products to guide decision-making and response. Such a system should be fed by national focal points, data centres, UN partners, scientific collaborators and various assessment processes, with the results given coherence and broad environmental perspective by UNEP. It would require the establishment of a small international "environmental information operations centre" able to monitor the flows of information on a regular basis, to update and refresh global environmental overviews, and to provide early warnings as required.

There is a specific need to catalyze and coordinate all the strategic components of a global environmental information system, that logically falls within the mandate of UNEP and its responsibility for Earthwatch. All the relevant UN organizations and convention secretariats are already involved in Earthwatch coordination, although this needs to be strengthened considerably. There is no reason why this catalytic role could not be extended to the larger partnerships involved in international strategic planning, as is already occurring with the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS). UNEP would be a logical home for secretariat functions in support of the different international strategic processes, and can use its convening power to organize new processes where they are needed.


An overall environmental observation, assessment and reporting strategy cannot be developed in isolation. There are a number of existing strategic processes that are developing major components of a comprehensive strategy, some of which are mentioned below.

UN System-wide Earthwatch

The UNEP Earthwatch Coordination process has always been based on pragmatic elements of strategic planning across the whole UN system. These are available in various Earthwatch documents and reports available on the Earthwatch web site, and are reflected in summary in this overall strategy. The inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party provides a mechanism for joint strategic planning, as well as for implementing the Task Manager functions under Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making of Agenda 21 for the CSD. Earthwatch already represents wide collaboration in UN system efforts to observe, assess and report on the global environment.

Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS)

An IGOS Partnership has been established among the space agencies represented by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), the Global Observing Systems (GCOS, GOOS, GTOS) and their sponsors (FAO, ICSU, IOC, UNEP, UNESCO, WMO), the International Group of Funding Agencies (IGFA), and major global research programmes like WCRP and IGBP, to agree on an Integrated Global Observing Strategy harmonizing data collection from space and in situ. This is leading to greater coherence in the global coordination of environmental data collection. UNEP Earthwatch drafted an umbrella document for the strategy in cooperation with the IGOS partners. UNEP could appropriately help in providing secretariat support for the IGOS process, if the necessary resources could be made available. Each of the Global Observing Systems is itself a strategic planning process for observing the oceans, the land surface, and climate change.

International Scientific Advisory Processes

The recent UNEP Earthwatch report to the CSD on "International scientific advisory processes on environment and sustainable development" has initiated discussion of coordination and more strategic planning among the responsible UN agencies and convention secretariats. This is an important step towards a more coherent approach to assessment processes in general, which needs to be extended and followed up.

Reporting and information delivery

At the global level, there have been informal discussions among some of those responsible for the principal international reports on environment and sustainable development, to ensure complementarity among their reports and avoid duplication. UNEP has also assisted with common methodologies for national State of the Environment reports, and through Infoterra has been developing strategies for national environmental information centres. This is an area where technological changes should make significant improvements possible, and much more strategic thinking should be applied. Earthwatch has tried, within its limited resources, to stimulate more innovative and coordinated use of the Internet and World Wide Web by UN agencies.

The development of indicators of environment and sustainable development is another area of information delivery where there are multiple actors and processes, and a reasonable amount of coordination in which UN DESA and UNEP Earthwatch play significant roles. To date, much of the effort has concerned harmonization of existing activities, although Earthwatch has strategically participated in, linked and encouraged a number of different indicator processes.


The field of environmental information for decision-making can be regarded as a landscape which can be viewed from different perspectives: patterns of information flow, issues, geographic levels, user groups, institutional responsibilities, etc. A summary of these perspectives can help to focus the strategic design of an information system on specific areas of importance.

Patterns of information flow

An information system depends on the flow and transformation of data into information which, when instilled in people, becomes knowledge and, when combined with values, becomes wisdom. Such flow is never only one way, since the data collection and information systems are themselves designed to respond to certain needs, and there is (or should be) regular feedback on their utility and efficiency. However when some links in the chain of information flow are weak or broken, the whole process suffers despite the excellence of other components. One useful exercise in information systems design is to map out the flow diagram of information through the system, evaluating the capacity and effectiveness of each of the elements to perform its function.

In general terms, there is today a phenomenal growth in certain environmental data collection technologies like satellite remote sensing, and unmanned in situ instrument platforms/stations show considerable potential. However the capacity for other in situ observations necessary to understand, interpret and complement the remote data has not kept up, and even regressed in many places. There are great data gaps in developing countries that do not have the necessary personnel, scientific infrastructure and finance. There are also gaps for types of information not amenable to the new technological fixes attractive for business investment. Many satellites collect much less data than they could because the demand is not there. Demand depends on the infrastructure to make use of the data, which has not kept up, either because poorer countries or user groups cannot afford the data, or because the analytical capacity to process and interpret the data has not yet been created.

Assessment capacity is the next major gap. Assessment processes, and related activities like model building, require highly skilled and experienced people, who are often in short supply. These in turn need institutions to employ them for the assessment functions, which may not yet exist. Few governments today feel they can afford to create new institutions or expand existing ones, regardless of the justification. Contracting the assessment function to private enterprise is an alternative, but one with certain disadvantages where public and private interests may conflict. It is thus hard to see how this gap will be closed without a major effort to convince governments that adequate assessment is essential to their environmental security, and thus their vital interests.

Once an assessment has been performed, often involving masses of data and hundreds if not thousands of experts, the result has to be delivered to the many potential users, ranging from heads of state and government, to the general public, and special groups like women or the very poor. Again information technologies are rapidly expanding the potential for communicating environmental information, but we still have much to learn about how to distil and present that information, with indicators, models, expert systems and other tools, in ways that communicate effectively to all the potential users and beneficiaries. The effectiveness of communication depends both on the form it is presented in, and how it is received and understood. Few decision-makers have been trained to understand and use environmental information. When senior decision-makers (and their advisers) were asked, during the review of Earthwatch, about their capacity to absorb information, the response was: no more than four pages, preferably at least half simple graphics. Completing the information delivery process will require as much effort to build the capacity to use the information, as it will on delivery systems themselves.

Global issues

Issues are approached differently and receive different priorities at the global, regional, national and local levels. Since Earthwatch and UNEP have unique functions to perform at the global and regional levels, the following is a selection of issues of greatest importance at those levels.

climate change

One of the major concerns relative to global environmental change is the risk of human-induced climate change, through the anthropogenic production of greenhouse gases and other mechanisms, with significant potential effects on the environment and human health. For instance, the increased rain in Colombia during El Nino events raises the incidence of malaria, and underlines the complex relationship between the oceans, climate, and disease vectors. The Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) develops operational observation programmes to detect climate change, with support from GOOS. Assessment is the responsibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is the major implementation mechanism. For this issue, the basic observation, assessment and response mechanisms are already in place, if not fully operational.

forecasting seasonal to interannual variability

The growing capacity of regional and global observing networks linked to computer models to identify and predict seasonal and interannual variability in weather patterns, rainfall and extreme meteorological events, such as those related to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, are making it possible to anticipate and to take preventive action to reduce the human, social and economic impacts of the related droughts, floods, cyclonic storms. This is one of the best opportunities to demonstrate the relevance and cost-effectiveness of early warning through well-planned and coordinated global observation and assessment programmes, with significant benefits in such areas as food security and human safety reaching even to the rural poor of developing countries. The nature of the interlinked atmospheric, oceanic and terrestrial processes and impacts involved requires coherent planning for precise outputs.


Freshwater is one of the most essential resources for human well-being, for which the quantity and quality available are increasingly becoming limiting factors to development in many regions, requiring more effective early warning. The nature of the hydrological cycle, joining the oceanic, atmospheric and terrestrial compartments, means that a complete understanding of the processes and fluxes necessary to develop, maintain and manage freshwater resources can only come from coordinated observations across all the environmental media, with assessment and reporting at the local, national and regional levels. Since water shortage in one region has follow-on effects around the world, global assessments and responses are also necessary.


The diverse biological resources of the planet have generated and maintain the conditions necessary for all life, and are essential for human survival and progress. Any reduction in the genetic, species and ecosystem diversity that has evolved over millions of years will constrain the possibilities of future generations and could well reduce the carrying capacity of the Earth to support human life. The biosphere includes the terrestrial, oceanic and atmospheric envelopes of the planet, requiring observations and assessments of the status of and trends in biological diversity from deep in soil and rocks and under the ocean bottom all the way to the upper atmosphere. The environmental information system should develop specific outputs relevant to this key aspect of global sustainability, particularly with respect to information needs under the Convention on Biological Diversity.


Desertification and the deterioration of drylands are another area where an international environmental convention has been adopted. Given the natural variability in such areas, interacting with a variety of human activities and impacts, only widespread and long-term as well as locally-responsive observations, assessments and reports can help to improve the scientific understanding of the problem and the possibilities for management action.

persistent organic pollutants, chemical toxicity

The accumulation of various toxic and damaging chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the environment is one of the greatest environmental threats from modern civilization. These chemicals accumulate in and are transmitted through all the environmental media, and any understanding of their amounts, pathways, impacts, degradation processes and sinks requires coordinated observations and assessments on land, in the oceans and atmosphere, and of human activities. More comprehensive monitoring and modelling of chemical behaviours and movements are needed to contribute to an integrated picture of the trends and risks associated with such chemicals. International conventions are now being prepared on toxic chemicals that will certainly create new demands for observations and assessments to monitor chemicals in the environment.


While no decision has yet been taken on the need for a global convention on forests, there is widespread recognition of the global dimensions of forest issues, which are a major theme being addressed by the UN system and the Commission on Sustainable Development. The present 10-year cycle of forest assessment is inadequate to the pressures and changes now affecting forests, as illustrated for instance by the major forest fires in South-East Asia and other regions linked to climate variability. Remote sensing technologies allow more rapid and efficient data collection on forests and vegetation, but ground truthing, assessment and information delivery need to be speeded up to meet new requirements.

land-based activities affecting the marine and aquatic environments

The Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, adopted at Washington in 1995, calls for integrated approaches to address and control terrestrial activities that have their ultimate impact on marine and coastal areas and resources, often through pollutants transported via water-borne or atmospheric pathways. The trend to a relative increase in the population of the coastal zone, exacerbated by the absolute growth in population, is increasing pressure on this fragile environment. Changes on land, in the ocean and in the climate all interact here, requiring integrated observations, assessments and management for sustainable development, as called for in Agenda 21. These should generate indicators designed to signal necessary changes in human activities and to measure the effectiveness of the Global Programme of Action in encouraging and facilitating solutions.

food security

As the human population continues to grow and consumption levels rise, food security is becoming a major worry. The agricultural productive capacity of many areas is impacted by land degradation, land use changes, pests and diseases, the effects of globalization and trade, climate variability and other factors. In world fisheries, so important as a protein source for many people, capacity is stretched to the limit, even where fish stocks have not actually collapsed. The collapse of fish stocks is complicated by the interaction between the effects of overfishing on the one hand and climate variation, which causes fish populations to change or migrate, on the other hand. The increasing development of toxic algal blooms in coastal waters may be driven by increased runoff of nutrients from land and poses a chronic problem to human health through ingestion of contaminated fish and shellfish. This problem becomes acute where coastal aquaculture is being developed to replace collapsing fish stocks as a source of protein. Observations of all the environmental parameters related to food security are becoming critical to prevent or at least anticipate and respond to catastrophic food shortages. This is another critical human issue where the environment information system can plan targeted outputs from their observation networks to respond to an immediate need for reliable information, with respect both to short-term early warning of food crises, and to longer-term trends that may change the food supply and demand situation.

ecosystem productivity

Scientists have recently begun warning that the scale of human activities is now affecting and capturing the benefits of a significant proportion of the total ecosystem productivity of major parts of the planet. Since human impacts tend more often to reduce or degrade natural productivity levels, the risks for global biogeochemical cycles need to be examined carefully, and early warning of any threats to planetary productivity should be provided, commensurate with the natural inertia and time-lags in the systems concerned. Only an integration of elements of all the observing, assessment and reporting systems will make it possible to assemble the necessary global scale overview that would make possible more precise estimates of the risks.

megacity problems

As the proportion of the population crowding into megacities rises, the impact on their surrounding environment grows, and the challenges of meeting their resource requirements and disposing of their wastes while preserving a liveable environment increase. The global environmental information systems need to consider their potential to contribute to the operational data and information requirements on which urban management decisions must be based, and to develop specific information products needed by urban planners and decision-makers.

Geographic levels

Most environmental monitoring is now conducted at the national level, or when undertaken internationally, is executed through national programmes. In general, it is national governments that have the resources necessary to support major data collection programmes. However, there is an increasing recognition that national environmental observing activities can only be effective and efficient when planned and harmonized within international cooperative frameworks and programmes.

Assessment activities and management responses, however, are more evenly distributed between levels. There are many environmental assessment processes mandated and organized at the international and regional levels, generally using national data. All the international conventions depend on such information systems. Even many local level assessments and decisions are based on data collected as part of national programmes.

Since environmental problems do not respect national frontiers, an effective environmental information system should be planned across all geographic levels. Decisions to support and implement national data collection activities need to be take in the broader context of requirements across all these levels.

There is a particular need to assemble and report environmental information at the scale of watersheds and eco-regions. It is these natural geographic and biotic units, unified by common ecosystems, biological communities and transport processes, that are the most appropriate level for many kinds of environmental action, whether it be biodiversity conservation or water pollution control. The same amount of environmental information, as well as economic and social information, will be more meaningful and revealing if reported at these scales and not only by political subdivisions.

One of the particular challenges on building a global environmental information system is to link the different geographic scales of environmental information into a multi-scale system. Global data are often highly generalized, to the point where they are of little use for environmental decisions at the national and local levels. Conversely, detailed local and national data are unmanageable when compiled at the global scale. Ideally, an information system should make it possible to "zoom" between scales, relating large-scale patterns to specific local situations. In fact, there is presently a frightening lack of coherence and correspondence between data sets at different geographic scales that must be addressed if users are to have any confidence in the system.

User groups

An environmental information system must be practical and user oriented. The data generated should be packaged into multiple information products responding to a variety of user needs. Some of this should come from the global level, and much more at subsidiary levels closer to the users. Some of the principal user groups are mentioned below.

national governments

National governments will always be the most important participants in and supporters of environmental information systems, and their needs for information should be a high priority. Within governments there will be a range of information users from technical services and research centres through to decision-makers and school curriculum developers. The specific information needs of each group should be identified and responded to.


The needs of decision-makers, ranging from local government leaders to intergovernmental bodies, are generally for brief summary information with clear indicators and policy implications. More detailed supporting information should be available for technical staff and policy advisers. This type of information output can help to increase the visibility and demonstrate the relevance of the information systems.

convention secretariats, subsidiary mechanisms, and conferences of parties

The international environmental conventions on climate change, ozone, biological diversity and desertification, among others, should become important users of environmental data to monitor the trends in their respective problem areas and to determine whether the measures adopted under the conventions are having the desired effect. However they only become ready to consider the data issue at a particular point in their political development. Strategy processes need to identify the data required for the proper implementation of the conventions and define what the information systems can offer. There are concrete needs for inventories and national reporting to support the decisions of the Conferences of the Parties. The relevant parts of the information system should develop strengthened working relationships with the convention machinery.

international organizations

International organizations require extensive data from environmental observations as a basis for the environmental assessments and reports to intergovernmental bodies that they are mandated to prepare in their different areas of interest. Some they may collect themselves, but much must come from other sources. They also need information to support their own operational, research and development assistance activities, and can help to generate value added information products for their own sectoral constituencies.

The work on developing indicators of sustainable development under the Commission on Sustainable Development and elsewhere will generate a need for new flows of data to calculate the indicators, to which the information system should respond. As indicators are increasingly accepted for decision-making, they will become a major output of the environmental information system.

scientific community

The scientific research community has always been one of the driving forces behind the development of data collection. Increasingly there are needs to research issues requiring data that cannot be collected by the scientists directly. The environmental information system will be called upon to deliver research data at scales and over periods that they cannot easily collect through research programmes, and implement on an operational basis observation systems and methodologies that have proven their value through research programmes. They are the one user group that can use environmental data outputs with minimal processing or interpretation.

private sector

Businesses in the private sector may well be interested in some specific information products. Many companies in the service sector will add value to environmental data and information by converting it into a multiplicity of products and services for the benefit of a wide range of users in the commercial and public sector, as is the case in meteorology today. Businesses are also the one group that may be able to pay full commercial rates for information that can increase their profitability.

non-governmental organizations

The wide range of non-governmental organizations could become useful partners in disseminating the results of environmental information programmes. They can reach strata of society that could not easily be reached directly, and can often help to repackage and add value to information products. They also have the potential to become significant data providers by organizing participatory observation networks of individuals and local groups.

grass-roots users and major groups

Delivery of useful information to developing countries will be an essential service where national and local information resources are under-developed. It should even be possible to deliver graphic products and basic information at the grass-roots level where many resource management decisions are taken. For instance, agricultural users are more interested in variations in seasonality rather than in climate change, and outputs could respond to this immediate need. It might even be possible to encourage a new type of small scale information entrepreneurship, generating locally adapted information products for masses of individual users.

Institutional responsibilities

At the international level, many intergovernmental organizations share responsibilities for aspects of the environment, and the integration of environmental concerns into all aspects of economic development and other human activities should continue to increase. This is precisely why the Nairobi Declaration, the most recent definition of UNEP's role and mandate confirmed by the UN General Assembly, states that UNEP should continue to be the principal United Nations body in the field of the environment and the leading global environmental authority. The first core element that it defined in UNEP's focussed mandate is "to analyse the state of the global environment and assess global and regional environmental trends, provide policy advice, early warning information on environmental threats, and to catalyse and promote international cooperation and action, based on the best scientific and technical capabilities available." UNEP has a unique role to view the global scene from the integrated perspective of the total environment, natural and human, as it relates to sustainable development. UNEP's leadership and coordination role in the UN system-wide Earthwatch was mandated at its founding, confirmed in Agenda 21 and by the General Assembly, and supported by the heads of UN agencies in the ACC. Many of UNEP's other functions also need to be based on a solid foundation of scientific assessments.

UNEP is too small to have more than a catalytic role in this area. UN specialized agencies, other international organizations, the scientific community and international research programmes, Governments, the private sector, NGOs, major groups and the general public all need to participate in one way or another. UNEP can be like the orchestra conductor, deciding on the environmental piece to be played, setting the tempo, and calling the best out of each instrument, so that the resulting performance is harmoniously blended and has maximum impact.

The strategy at the international level should lay out the responsibilities of each partner (such as FAO for food security), and plan the working relationships, information sharing, and collaborative action necessary to meet the information requirements in each key issue area, as well as for the overall picture.

The national level, where much of the implementation should take place, is similar to the international level. Many ministries and departments each have some share of the responsibility, and there are often considerable difficulties in coordinating all this into a coherent whole. Environment ministries or interministerial bodies may have a coordinating or overview function for the whole environment, but often lack the real power and resources to implement this effectively. Getting other ministries involved and committed is essential.

In addition, some critical kinds of environmental change take place slowly over decades or centuries, at very large, if not global scales, and monitoring this requires a long-term commitment to data collection and assessment. Until now, much environmental data has been collected by scientific research programmes funded for short periods to answer specific questions. It is necessary to shift gradually to more operational observing programmes. Yet very few national institutions are mandated to perform long-term functions and to preserve the results indefinitely (museums, archives, libraries and data centres are some of the few exceptions). It may be necessary to create and fund new institutions with a long-term environmental observatory function, or to expand the mandate of some existing institution.

The local level is one of considerable untapped potential to contribute environmental information. Local people are often the best environmental observers for certain phenomena, and the vast accumulation of traditional knowledge of the environment is both a valuable and endangered resource. Local people have a capacity to interpret and directly use satellite imagery, for instance, that is largely unutilized. More participatory monitoring programmes can be cost-effective ways to fill data gaps, while providing immediate feedback of environmental information for local decision-making. There are sufficient successful examples of this in the world to show the effectiveness of such approaches. A further effort is needed to catalyze the partnerships necessary to begin developing this potential.

Local governments, and other sub-national governmental units (province, state, region, county, canton, department) control most decisions about the human habitat and urban development. The UNEP/Habitat information system should specifically identify and target the environmental information requirements of such local institutional structures, so that they can be supported effectively with information flowing from the national and even the international levels.

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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva