United Nations System-Wide

Earthwatch Working Party 1
Geneva, 1-2 June 1994
Working Paper UNEP/EWWP1/WP1



The concept of Earthwatch has been understood over the 22 years since the Stockholm Conference as requiring global monitoring leading to compilations of data and comprehensive assessments of the state of the environment and its resources, generally published after some delay in weighty reports. While there may still be a place for this kind of authoritative reporting, there are probably few decision-makers who have the time to read the 800+ pages of "The World Environment 1972-1992" or to wade through the tables of the Environmental Data Report, to mention only two Earthwatch products from UNEP. There is also a need articulated in Agenda 21 to look beyond environmental assessment to the integrated information needed for decision-making for sustainable development. Earthwatch thus needs to be brought up to date, and to do this an in-depth study of Earthwatch was proposed at the last UNEP Governing Council.

The term "Earthwatch" has been applied both to monitoring and assessment activities in the UN system and to the monitoring, assessment and reporting part of UNEP's work programme. To reduce confusion in the future, we propose that the term be restricted to the UN system-wide Earthwatch, to which all agencies, including UNEP will make significant contributions within their mandates. UNEP will implement this change in its 1996-97 work programme.

The changing context

The rapid evolution of information technologies is transforming the potential to collect, assess and communicate masses of information. The development of information "super-highways" may be driven at present largely by economic and commercial interests in the stimulation of investments in high technology industries and in the expansion of entertainment and advertising. However it is also creating new potential to provide information for decision-making to leaders, and even to the public of consumers, voters and stakeholders. The capacity to collect environmental data is also increasing exponentially through techniques such as remote sensing and automated monitoring stations, but the ability to analyze, interpret and distil the policy-relevant implications from these data still lags behind. Plans for the future development of Earthwatch must anticipate the potential of these technologies and identify new assessment mechanisms, products and outputs that will meet real needs.

New methods for modelling and mapping and for expert systems are making it easier to combine many different data flows, to model and project their interactions, and to produce indicators for communicating the results. It is thus feasible to envisage timely comprehensive assessments of environment and sustainable development trends and early warnings of their implications for human society. For instance, weather and climate information can beexamined for their impacts on trade in agricultural commodities. The global status of forest or energy resources can be tracked for their anticipated economic, social and environmental impacts, improving at the same time the transparency of international markets.

This possibility of projecting trends of both supply and demand in time and space, and all their possible interactions, can be developed to provide early warnings at various time scales. In addition to weather and natural disasters, near-real-time warning systems may be needed for UV radiation from ozone depletion, major chemical/nuclear accidents, and air pollution in urban areas. Warning on a monthly scale is already provided for food shortages (FAO), epidemiology (WHO) and new flows of refugees (DHA), and may also be needed for water supply and for climate impacts on agriculture (i.e. El Niño phenomena). Long-term warnings at the scale of years are being explored for climate change and should be considered in the framework of Earthwatch for major regional or global deficits in natural resources, energy and water supplies, global budgets for wastes, hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials, and short-falls in housing, infrastructure, education, employment and cash incomes as they relate to sustainable development.

One major criticism of Earthwatch has been its alleged orientation towards issues of concern to industrialized countries (climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity) rather than those that are high priority in poorer countries (food and water supply, living and working conditions of the poor, land resource degradation) or those that are causing many global environmental problems but might threaten powerful interests (unsustainable high-consumption lifestyles of the rich, energy production and use, wastes and toxic chemical accumulation, etc.). The UN General Assembly has called for Earthwatch to be "a more efficient instrument for environmental sensing and assessment of all elements influencing the global environment in order to ensure a balanced approach in serving, in particular, the needs of developing countries." (GA 48/192) This is an area where the United Nations system has a comparative advantage and a special responsibility to develop objective and transparent information and assessments not dominated by any national, commercial or partisan interests and to make the benefits available to all countries through technology transfer and capacity building. To do this it will be necessary to bring together competence across the UN system in environment and natural resources, science and industry, telecommunications and trade, economic development and investment, human resources and special groups.

With some creative thinking and careful planning, it should be possible to design a renewed and more effective UN system-wide Earthwatch responding to the needs expressed by Agenda 21, the General Assembly, and our various governing bodies, built largely from existing and planned elements, capacities and resources within the system, by assembling them in ways that are mutually reinforcing and by improving their visibility and impact. This should be the goal of the in-depth study of Earthwatch this year.

Data collection

While much data collection already exists, it needs to be made more systematic, focused and cost-effective. The global observing systems (GCOS, GOOS, GTOS, etc.) will be a principal mechanism to achieve this, expanding and fulfilling the original intent of the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) launched after Stockholm. Once basic environmental processes have been documented and understood, monitoring programmes canoften be reduced in detail, spacing and/or frequency. Many basic data needs can be met by periodic censuses, not only of population, agriculture and forest resources, but of industry, chemicals, wastes, biodiversity, etc., synchronized at the global level to provide an evolving overall picture of major trends.

The role of the UN agencies is critical not only in collecting, assembling and assessing data through specially-designed monitoring programmes, but also in the more general collection of national data in their areas of responsibility. Accessibility of national data is a key issue with both political and commercial dimensions that requires a concerted effort by the whole UN system. Designing an Earthwatch process that demonstrates the benefits of data sharing by providing useful outputs in return may help to reverse the present tendency towards increasing restrictions on data sharing.

The possibility of public participation in data collection also needs to be explored. There are environmental parameters for which data could practically be collected through school-based monitoring programmes as suggested by Al Gore, and the potential for a much wider use of public involvement, through NGOs and other existing frameworks, in annual bird censuses and other reporting on specific phenomena, could easily be developed. Feeding back the results rapidly to the producers would maintain interest, serve an important public education function, and create the possibility of media events reported much as elections are today.

Data collection will always be primarily a national or even local activity, even when the summary data are need for global syntheses. However, once the global assessments have been made, their interpretation needs to be brought back down to the national level. National decision-makers need to know what a particular global problem or trend means for their own countries, and even the impacts on particular groups or areas within the country. Modern reporting systems should make it possibly to "customize" global assessments with reports on each national situation, in cooperation with regional and national networks and experts. In these times of financial stringency, it is difficult even to maintain existing data collection programmes. Pertinent reporting can help to build support for the necessary data collection.


This information loop from the local to the global level and back again should be at the heart of a renewed UN system-wide Earthwatch. The delivery of appropriate environmental information should be as important as data collection and assessment. The following are some possible types of Earthwatch outputs:

-- printed reports and references, such as a UN system-wide Earthwatch report with chapters by each agency, short policy summaries on key issues, an Earthwatch map series of environment and development parameters, system-wide inputs to the decadal State of the Environment Report, regional and national sub-reports derived from the above, and printed materials for public information and school use;

-- user-friendly electronic systems for data distribution, manipulation and decision-support, including GIS and expert systems, Earthwatch inputs to the Sustainable Development Network, electronic early warning networks or services, etc.;

-- audio/video/TV formats for both mass and high-level communications, such as audio/video clips for news broadcasts, videocassette briefings for decision-makers, etc.;

-- people who can receive and act on Earthwatch information through participation in expert panels or committees at the global, regional and national levels, or by receiving systematic and up-to-date information so that they can produce their own commentary and outputs at various levels of decision-making;

-- institutional structures ("earthwatch observatories") with a mandate to collect, verify, harmonize, analyze, archive and report critical environmental information on an operational basis, much as weather services do now, building where possible on existing institutions using appropriate guidelines.

Many of these already exist in scattered or embryonic forms or in a few places, and some catalytic work by the UN system could multiply them and make them more effective. Environmental reports are already beginning to be presented regularly in the media much as weather reports are today, but this requires a more widespread rapid and regular flow of data. For decision-makers, it is now possible to design systems that project the implications of various decisions and policy options on processes and people. Such systems require comprehensive and frequently updated databases. Earthwatch needs to be reoriented to these priority needs through some appropriate combination of outputs.

One function of the UN system-wide Earthwatch should be to make much wider use of information collected in the UN system by reaching beyond the constituency of each agency. This should include identifying the most needed information products for decision-making and designing systems to deliver them. We should be providing the policy-relevant information that will lead international decision-making, not trying to catch up with international opinion. Reports should thus aim to be future-oriented, rather than just documenting the past. The same information products designed for decision-makers will also have much wider utility in reaching the media and the general public, which is often necessary to attract the attention of policy-makers. The potential is there to use our many special constituencies constructively within a larger framework of service to the global community.


While the mandate of Earthwatch in general terms is clear, the mission it should perform and the concept of how it should work has never been well defined or agreed among all the participating parts of the UN system. Much has also changed since the concept was launched at Stockholm in 1972. There is therefore a need to agree on an up-dated concept and mission for Earthwatch. The following are some proposals for discussion.

It is essential that Earthwatch be seen as a UN system-wide process in which all participants are equal partners, and that any Earthwatch activities are of benefit to all concerned. The functions of Earthwatch and the mechanisms established by mutual agreement within its framework should be to:

-- explore and adopt mechanisms to keep each other better informed of ongoing andplanned environmental activities;

-- identify possibilities for collaboration and mutual reinforcement among agency observation and assessment programmes and reports;

-- facilitate the wider use of information and assessments from each partner beyond its own constituency;

-- coordinate joint reporting on broad interdisciplinary issues such as the global state of the environment and sustainable development;

-- establish joint procedures to identify the need for early warnings of emerging environmental problems and to bring such warnings to the attention of the international community;

-- share experience in applying new technologies and in increasing the impact of environmental and sustainable development information and reports;

-- assist in increasing support for observing, assessment and reporting activities across the whole UN system;

-- demonstrate the ability of the United Nations to organize coherent plans for activities responding to system-wide mandates such as Agenda 21.

In the light of these functions, the following is proposed as a draft mission statement for the UN system-wide Earthwatch:

The mission of the UN system-wide Earthwatch is to catalyze and integrate environmental observing, assessment and reporting activities across the UN system in order to produce timely information on the pressures on, status of and trends in key global environmental resources, parameters and processes in both natural and human systems and on the response to problems in these systems so as to provide early warning of emerging problems requiring international action and guidance towards sustainable development.


UNEP, as Task Manager for Earthwatch, needs to coordinate a report to the Commission on Sustainable Development through the Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development on the implementation of Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 on "Information for Decision-making", for which the deadline is 1 December 1994. Also, UN General Assembly Resolution 48/192 requests the Executive Director of UNEP to prepare and to submit to the 18th Governing Council a report on the Programme's activities in environmental monitoring, containing proposals and recommendations within the context of Agenda 21 and a review of Earthwatch, in cooperation with relevant entities within the United Nations system and, where appropriate, outside the United Nations system, with the conclusions and recommendations of the Governing Council to go to the 50th General Assembly through ECOSOC. UNEP must also respond to the suggestion made at its 17th Governing Councilfor an in-depth study of Earthwatch and the resolution of the 16th GC requesting detailed proposals for adequate financial and institutional support for Earthwatch. As the deadlines are the same, these requirements should as far as possible be met by a single report.

To prepare the report, UNEP has initiated an in-depth study of Earthwatch. A few activities are under way, including a summary paper on the concept of Earthwatch 1972-1992 and a consultant review of the impact of some past UNEP outputs under Earthwatch. However, since Earthwatch is a UN system-wide activity, all the participating parts of the system should be involved in the study to redefine what Earthwatch should be today, and to assemble the information necessary for the reports mentioned above.

Apart from agreement on a concept and mission, the following practical issues need to be considered within the in-depth study:

1. The Earthwatch role and responsibility of each organization and agency in the UN family should be defined to our mutual satisfaction, recognizing that it may take some years for this to be reflected in work plans and budgets. Each agency will also need to identify their potential for specific sectoral and functional inputs to the Earthwatch process, both within existing means and if additional support can be obtained.

2. Plans to stimulate government participation in and support for a coherent Earthwatch programme need to be developed, perhaps including an inter-governmental or government-nominated expert panel or working group.

3. Mechanisms for inter-agency liaison and coordination should be agreed, possibly including a network of focal points, meetings as necessary of an Earthwatch working party, a small Earthwatch liaison/planning office/secretariat, a collaboration policy for the global observing systems, and specialized expert groups as needed, building as far as possible on existing activities and structures.

4. The substantive issues that need to be clarified and incorporated in the in-depth study must be identified, such as the use of indicators and implementation of the concept of early warning.

5. The scope of and boundaries for Earthwatch need to be agreed. Should it be primarily global in focus? What should the national role be in Earthwatch, both as a contributor and a user? How should it relate to the capacity-building initiatives in the UN system? Where should Earthwatch leave off and Development Watch begin, and how should they interact to define the environmental limits to sustainable development?

6. The specific needs today for outputs from Earthwatch, the user groups targeted and the results expected need to be defined, so that the efforts and resources of the cooperating agencies can be focused on realistic and useful products. This should in turn attract more support for Earthwatch activities.

As indicated above, the deadline for completion of the in-depth study of Earthwatch is 1 December 1994, both for the report to the DPCSD for the Commission on Sustainable Development, and the report to the UNEP Governing Council. The following is a suggested workplan and timetable to meet this deadline:

June-Aug. Drafting of concepts, strategies and proposals for future Earthwatch activities. Preparation by each agency of a summary of their activities contributing to Earthwatch.

July Agreement on some high-level experts (government-nominated or otherwise selected with appropriate geographic balance) to be invited to the ad hoc expert working group.

September Ad hoc expert working group meeting to review the proposals for Earthwatch and to make recommendations on the future of Earthwatch.

October Interagency Working Party meeting on in-depth study of Earthwatch to review the results of the ad hoc expert group meeting and to agree on the major components of the report.

1 December Finalization of reports on Earthwatch for DPCSD and UNEP Governing Council.

Draft outline for the report on Earthwatch

1. Introduction: the need for Earthwatch in the context of sustainable development (including relationship to other initiatives and to capacity-building at national and regional levels, benefits to developing countries), the process undertaken to renew Earthwatch in response to GA and Agenda 21.

2. Observation: environmental observing as the essential basis for information to guide policy and action.

3. Assessment: the assessment and early warning process, modelling and projections, sectoral and integrated approaches.

4. Delivery: information for decision-making, use of indicators, proposed Earthwatch outputs, linkage to development watch.

5. Institutional support: system-wide mechanisms for collaboration, further requirements, need for governmental cooperation and support.

6. Financial implications: use of existing resources, gaps to be filled.

Annexes: Legislative Authority

A brief history of Earthwatch


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