United Nations System-Wide
  Earthwatch Working Party 5
Geneva, 3-4 May 1999
26 April 1999

Initiation of preparations for the
ninth session of the CSD
on the cross-sectoral theme of
Information for Decision-Making

Working paper by UNDSD/UNEP 


1.  At its nineteenth special session, the UN General Assembly adopted the Programme for the Further Implementation of Agenda 21, including the Multi-year Programme of Work for the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) for the period 1998-2002. In accordance with this Programme of Work, the cross-sectoral theme of the ninth session of the CSD in 2001 will be information for decision-making and participation.

2.  The United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development share the role of Task Manager for the implementation of the issue of information for decision-making as elaborated in Chapter 40 of Agenda 21. In light of the substantial and diverse developments throughout the UN-system on this issue in the context of sustainable development, there is a need to establish a "work plan" to ensure comprehensive coverage of the activities and issues involved in time for the review.

Overall scope of the preparatory process

3.  Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 specifically requires implementation of two programme areas: (a) bridging the data gap and (b) improving the availability of information. Throughout the UN-system, it has been evident in recent years that access to information is essential in the planning, design and monitoring of policies to support sustainable development at the regional, national and international levels. At the Government level, a growing number of countries are carrying out national data inventories, organizing the collection and dissemination of data, and developing information systems.

4.  However, it is also evident that great differences exist between geographical regions and countries at different stages of development, as to the availability of relevant primary data (e.g. in the area of the environment), the quality, comparability and frequency of data compilation and the subsequent quality of information systems. Furthermore, an additional issue for discussion is the integration and use of the available information into decision-making processes, at all levels, in a timely and appropriate fashion. The preparatory process is intended to establish a common system-wide approach to the analysis of access to and use of information while focusing specifically on the two programme areas requiring implementation as part of Chapter 40 of Agenda 21. The following issues, as amplified from Chapter 40, might be reviewed during the preparatory process.

Bridging the data gap

Indicators of Sustainable Development

5.  Significant progress has been made both internationally and nationally in the development of indicators as tools to support national decision-making processes, and this should be reviewed. One example is the CSD Work Programme on Indicators of Sustainable Development, which represents the largest UN system wide and country collaboration to date in the development of a framework and indicator methodology based on a consensus approach among the more than 30 participating agencies, other international organizations and Governments. To date 22 countries are involved in testing the indicators before an overall revision of the framework and methodology is undertaken in preparation for CSD9. Other major initiatives include the work of the World Bank on genuine savings and measures of wealth indicators, the OECD DAC/WB/UN programme on indicators for Shaping the 21st century and the UNDP work on human development indicators. Many others should also be reflected in the report.

Improvement of data collection and use

6.  Major initiatives have been launched to improve environmental observations and data collection, ranging from ozone monitoring under the Montreal Protocol and the three Global Observing Systems to non-governmental organizations monitoring forests and coral reefs. There have also been efforts to improve coordination and cost-effectiveness, such as through the Integrated Global Observing Strategy. The review should cover the possibilities opened up by new technologies, the decline in essential observations due to reductions in government support, and the need to shift from data collection in research programmes to operational systematic observing mechanisms and institutions able to provide both the long-term time series needed to monitor and assess global change, and information delivered rapidly for immediate use in decision-making. The particular problems of data collection in developing countries, and the difficulties in obtaining and combining data from different ministries for an integrated view of sustainable development, could be highlighted. The preparatory process could aim to increase awareness in Governments of the need to increase support for critical data collection efforts both nationally and internationally.

Data assessment and analysis in a comprehensive information framework

7.  While technological progress has driven improvements in remote sensing and in information access over the Internet, the ability to analyze and assess data and to assemble information in a comprehensive integrated framework has lagged behind. The review should consider weaknesses in the whole data collection, analysis, assessment and reporting process and recommend necessary improvements to eliminate bottlenecks in the information system. Even in the most developed and data-rich regions such as Europe, the regional integration and assessment of data has been hampered by inconsistent methodologies and inadequate harmonization.

8.  Progress can be reported in the production of more integrated and forward-looking assessments of environment and sustainable development, including the Critical Trends report prepared for the CSD, the UNEP Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports, and the World Resources Reports (UNEP/WRI/UN/WB) which provide data for 157 countries on environmental resources, consumption and waste as well as new information on poverty and food security.

Traditional information

9.  Specific progress in the collection and use of traditional information under the Convention to Combat Desertification could be featured in the review. Other examples should be collected where available.

Improving availability of information

Making information useful for decision-making

10.  New multimedia technologies, and tools such as indicators and animated graphical presentations, are opening new avenues for preparing and presenting information in formats more easily understood by decision-makers and the general public. It would be desirable to develop demonstrations of this potential for use at CSD 9 to illustrate the revolution in information for decision-making, particularly where information systems are becoming operational.

11.  The use and development of GIS- and map-based information tools have expanded rapidly in recent years. They provide, among other uses, for helpful planning tools allowing for visual assessment of impacts and of resources available to address problems and environmental emergencies. One example of the expansion of such information tools is the Global Resource Information Database (GRID) as part of UNEP's environmental information network. Another example is the CIAT/WB/UNEP Spatial Planning Atlas available of on CD-ROM for the Latin American and Caribbean region. The practical applications of this technology should be highlighted in the review.

Information access and sharing

12.  A major new issue since UNCED that falls within the scope of Chapter 40 is the need to facilitate public access to environmental information, as exemplified in the adoption in 1998 of the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. The UNEP INFOTERRA global environmental information exchange network, with national focal points in most countries, is being reformed to ensure better public access to environmental information and to advocate the public-right-to-know principle. Other actions in this area and in efforts to improve the sharing of information as called for in Chapter 40 should be highlighted in the review.

Electronic networking

13.  Due to rapid technological improvements in computing and telecommunications and in the number of Internet users, electronic access to data has significantly improved, with such tools as web-based meta-databases and Government and organization homepages providing direct links to data sources. Problems of non-uniform standards and methods for handling information are being overcome, although new problems of intellectual property rights to data and information are arising. One example of improved electronic networking is the United Nations System-Wide Web Site on National Implementation of the Rio Commitments accessible at (http://www.un.org/esa/agenda21/natlinfo). This site provides links to both international sites and Government hosted sites containing country information on sustainable development. The United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), responding to a request by ECOSOC, is currently examining the need for harmonization and rationalization of development data and indicators in an attempt to address the growing number of data requirements of UN-system programme activities. In this context UNSD will be launching a meta-database of UN-system development data accessible on the Internet in 1999. UNEP is also planning an environmental information meta-system. The rapid progress in this area should be reviewed for CSD9.

14.  The necessary complement to this information revolution is the need to ensure that it is not restricted only to more privileged countries and sections of the population. The review process should emphasize efforts to make electronic environmental information as widely available as possible, since decision-making on sustainable development takes place at all levels from intergovernmental meetings to individual resource users in rural areas. One example is the Sustainable Development Network Programme (UNDP), which supports efforts to bring together national producers and users of information for the purpose of improving data collection, accessibility and analysis through dialogue and electronic communication.

Commercial information sources and business involvement

15.  Chapter 40 refers particularly to commercial information sources and information available in the private sector, and this area has seen significant developments since 1992. In addition, business and industry are becoming more involved in monitoring and accounting for their own environmental impacts and their role in sustainable development. The following initiatives could provide interesting inputs to the review process:

- "Improving Government's Role in the promotion of Environmental Managerial Accounting" (UNDSD): This initiative, involving a series of expert meetings, intends to analyze and improve the options and policies available to governments in encouraging and motivating business to adopt Environmental Management Accounting procedures and corresponding data gathering systems.

- "The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)" (CERES/UNEP): The GRI seeks to establish a common framework for enterprise-level reporting on the linked aspects of environmental, economic and social sustainability.

- "The Intergovernmental Working Group of Experts on International Standards of Accounting and Reporting (ISAR)" (UNCTAD)

- "Engaging Stakeholders Programme" (UNEP TIE in cooperation with SustainAbility Ltd)

Proposals for Action by the Earthwatch Working Party

16.  In light of the above, the Earthwatch Working Party may wish to consider the following modalities for effective preparations for the discussion on information for decision-making at CSD9:

a.  A meeting of an intergovernmental group of experts on information for decision-making to be held in early 2000, coordinated by the Task Managers for the issue. Bearing in mind the outcome of the ECOSOC informal meeting on development indicators, this meeting would establish priorities in the development of data and information systems, as identified by national governments, as well as analyze appropriate action required, e.g. in the areas of common access to data and of information products required for national decision-making. The outcome of this meeting will provide a basis for the Secretary-General's Report on Chapter 40 of Agenda 21.

b.  Commission a contribution/study by selected experts to analyze the specific role of data and information related to the sectoral theme for CSD9: Atmosphere/Energy and the economic sector/major group theme Energy/Transport, in collaboration with the Task Managers for these issues.

c.  Provide a comprehensive compendium of contributions from the UN system and other international organizations, updated, reformatted and extended from the compendium assembled as background for the 1995 report to the CSD (maintained on the Earthwatch web site), to inform the CSD of the work at the international level to support national information initiatives. This could provide a basis for a review of the effectiveness of the observing, assessment and reporting system itself.

d.  Prepare demonstrations of new integrated information systems and decision-support tools for environment and sustainable development, to show the CSD some of the tangible initiatives available to further national implementation of data access and information systems. These might be made available in an electronic form.

e.  Incorporate into the Secretary-General's report on Chapter 40 the results and major findings of the reports on the Work Programme on Indicators of Sustainable Development, the outcome of the process on Government's role in managerial accounting, and the global reporting initiative, for which separate reports will be submitted to the CSD9.

f.  Prepare and facilitate national presentations during the Ad Hoc Inter-sessional Working Groups as well as during CSD9, using sustainable development indicators and electronic information tools, such as GIS, as appropriate.

g.  It is expected that, in accordance with the practice of the CSD, the preparatory process would benefit from various initiatives taken and activities organized by national governments and major NGOs, which should be sought out and incorporated into the outcome of the preparatory process. Examples of these activities are the many local initiatives on indicators of Agenda 21.

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