United Nations System-Wide
  Earthwatch Working Party 4 (Geneva, 2-3 April 1998)
Agenda Item 3
UNEP/EWWP4/2 17 March 1998


Earthwatch Coordination
Information for Decision-making
Global Observing Systems
Ocean-related information and assessments

Earthwatch Coordination

1. In the two years since the Third Earthwatch Working Party (New York, 17-18 January 1996), there has been reasonably steady progress in the implementation of Earthwatch Coordination despite a continuing substantial reduction in resources available. While the staff available has continued to consist of the Earthwatch Coordinator and a half-time secretary, the number of responsibilities assigned has increased with the down-sizing of UNEP, and the budget was reduced to the bare minimum. It was necessary to focus on the few priority areas described below where it seemed possible to produce practical results. Some activities requested by the Working Party in 1996, such as the policy bulletins and the review of information activities and requirements on wastes, could not be implemented for lack of resources.

2. The Earthwatch Working Party meeting planned for October 1996 was not held, as it was found not necessary to support the 5-year review of Agenda 21. A smaller scale workshop in September 1996 allowed interagency discussion of the most urgent items. Also, with the heavy commitments of all Earthwatch partners in preparing the 5-year review of Agenda 21, it seemed wiser not to burden the calendar with an Earthwatch Working Party meeting in 1997.

3. To reduce the necessity for frequent meetings, the Internet has been developed as a principal means of communication with Earthwatch Focal Points. All but 8 of the 52 inter-agency focal points have provided e-mail addresses to the Earthwatch Coordination office, making for a more efficient and cost-effective exchange of information. In early 1997, all the Earthwatch partners were requested to update the summaries of their work on information for decision-making and their coverage of Agenda 21, for inclusion on the UN System-wide Earthwatch Web site hosted by UNEP in Geneva (http://www.unep.ch/earthw.html). The site was then completely revised and many improvements introduced in August 1997, adding updated information on all the agencies and links to their web sites. Other new features include a page for Earthwatch news, summary descriptions and references on emerging environmental issues, all the documentation for and reports of Earthwatch Working Party meetings, and other relevant documents. Since the Earthwatch office now has direct access to the server, information is updated as it is received, and every effort is made to keep the web site completely current. New features are added regularly. The World Wide Web should thus become one important mechanism for interagency coordination under Earthwatch. Inputs and suggestions for links from all the partners are welcomed (see Agenda Item 10).

4. The UN System-wide Earthwatch Programme Document has also been updated, for those users who do not have access to the World Wide Web, and is available for review at this meeting before reproduction.

5. Earthwatch Coordination has also been requested to serve as the principal channel between UN system organizations and the UNEP Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reporting process. This included contributing information on the state of the environment, and coordinating inputs from the whole UN system, to the Global Environment Outlook-1 report issued in 1997. The first draft of the GEO-2 report is being circulated to all focal points, and this meeting has been timed to support the interagency review of GEO-2 which is due to go to press at the end of 1998 (see Agenda Item 8).

Information for Decision-making

6. Through UNEP's role as IACSD Task Manager for Earthwatch, there has been continuing close cooperation with the UN Division for Sustainable Development, as co-Task Managers with responsibilities for Agenda 21, Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making, in reporting to the Commission on Sustainable Development in 1996 and 1997.

7. Materials prepared for the Earthwatch Working Party assisted in the development of a system-wide policy on information exchange and on common and compatible access to data from all parts of the UN, adopted at the DPCSD/UNEP Meeting on Common/Compatible Systems of Access to Data (New York, 19 January 1996).

8. There was also close collaboration in the design of World Wide Web access to information across the UN system through the Earthwatch Web site and the Sustainable Development Web site created by the Division for Sustainable Development, including co-organization of the DPCSD/UNEP Workshop on Information for Sustainable Development and Earthwatch (Geneva, 24 September 1996).

9. Through the Earthwatch office, UNEP prepared a Report on International Scientific Advisory Processes on the Environment and Sustainable Development (UNEP/EWWP4/4) as a background document for the review of science for sustainable development (Agenda 21 Chapter 35) at the sixth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in April 1998. These advisory and assessment processes are an important component of Earthwatch, but their operation had never been studied and compared. The report reviews the diversity of international scientific advisory bodies and raises some important issues about their independence, their relation to policy-making, their potential for capacity-building, and the need to avoid duplication, especially among scientific and technical advisory processes under the conventions (see Agenda Item 7).

Global Observing Systems

10. Through Earthwatch Coordination, UNEP took the lead in establishing a Sponsors Group for the Global Observing Systems (GCOS, GOOS, GTOS) involving FAO, ICSU, UNEP, UNESCO and its IOC, WMO and the three system secretariats, to coordinate all the Global Observing Systems. This included organizing and chairing the following meetings:
- Preparatory Meeting on a Sponsors Group for Global Observing Systems (Geneva, 15 October 1996), which adopted terms of reference;
- First Meeting of the Sponsors Group for the Global Observing Systems (GCOS, GOOS, GTOS) (Geneva, 13-14 January 1997), which agreed on closer collaboration and harmonization between the systems;
- Second Meeting of the Sponsors Group for the Global Observing Systems (Geneva, 15-16 September 1997), which adopted an Integrated Strategic Plan for the Global Observing Systems and launched closer cooperation with the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and the International Group of Funding Agencies for Global Change Research (IGFA).
The chairmanship rotates each year, and ICSU is chairing the Sponsors Group in 1998.

11. The Earthwatch office also drafted inputs to an integrated global observing strategy to make international plans for operational observations of the environment more coherent and cost-effective. The Coordinator, on behalf of the Sponsors Group, presented the Integrated Strategic Plan for the Global Observing Systems at the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) plenary (Toulouse, 19-21 November 1997), which agreed to continued close cooperation. This joint work between the space agencies, the international organizations, and the Global Observing Systems to achieve an integrated approach to global environmental data collection is a major focus of Earthwatch Coordination efforts in the immediate future (see Agenda Item 11).


12.The Earthwatch Coordinator was asked by UNEP to lead its work in developing environmental indicators. This has involved continuing the efforts launched jointly with the UN Statistics Division shortly after UNCED to provide overall strategic direction and substantive contributions to the development of indicators of sustainable development. For example, strong support was provided to the CSD Work Programme on indicators, including participating in and facilitating the Second International Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development (Ghent, 20-22 November 1996), the DSD Regional Meeting on Indicators of Sustainable Development (Accra, Ghana, 2-7 June 1997), and the Fourth International Workshop on Indicators of Sustainable Development (Prague, 19-21 January 1998).

13. Another contribution has been to the work on indicators of vulnerability in Small Island Developing States, including participation in the Expert Group Meeting on Vulnerability Indices for Small Island Developing States (New York, 15-16 December 1997). In support of this work, the Island Database, with many environmental indicators for small islands, was updated and made available as an Island Directory on the Web in early 1998.

14. A special focus has been on bridging work on indicators within the UN system and work in the scientific and non-governmental communities in cooperation with the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). This has included participating in the Bellagio Workshop of IISD (November 1996), which developed Guidelines for the Practical Assessment of Progress Toward Sustainable Development (the "Bellagio Principles"). As a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee and co-author, the Earthwatch Coordinator contributed to the successful completion of the SCOPE project on indicators of sustainable development, with the publication of the final book Sustainability Indicators (SCOPE 58) in time for distribution at the UN General Assembly Special Session in June 1997. One other output was the article on "Measuring the unmeasurable" published in the UNEP periodical Our Planet in 1996, describing conceptual approaches to indicators of sustainable development. The Coordinator is also a member of the Consultative Group on Indicators of Sustainable Development (Wallace Global Fund and IISD) established in November 1996, which is working to develop new conceptual approaches to highly aggregated indices.

15. This year, the work on bridging between different indicator activities is being extended to the sectoral level, including cooperating with OECD in the organization of a meeting on agro-environmental indicators, and with FAO in a meeting on indicators of sustainability in fisheries.

16. The momentum to develop and apply policy-relevant indicators is increasing at the local, national and international levels. Such indicators are becoming an important tool for communicating the results of the observations and assessments that are at the heart of the UN system-wide Earthwatch.

Ocean-related information and assessments

17. Because of its central location and expertise, the Earthwatch office has been supporting the implementation of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) through development work on the clearing-house mechanism. This included organizing and chairing the Technical Meeting on the GPA Clearing-house (Geneva, 26-27 September 1996) to initiate the design of the clearing-house mechanism; providing a documentation centre for the GESAMP global assessments of land-based activities and of the state of the marine environment (over 1200 documents collected and catalogued); preparing a preliminary bibliography for the Global International Waters Assessment (August 1997), and developing a Web-based bibliographic document access and management tool which can be useful for a variety of information exchange activities under Earthwatch.

18. In conclusion, while Earthwatch Coordination is a very small effort to bring some coherence and collaboration to UN system-wide efforts in environmental information, it has tried, with the cooperation and support of all the Earthwatch partners, to deliver some substantive results of benefit to the whole UN system.

Return to homepage

UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva