United Nations System-Wide
Earthwatch
 
 
UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME

ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVING AND ASSESSMENT STRATEGY

WORKING DRAFT of 15 February 1999
Replaced by a REVISED DRAFT OF 28 March 1999
For the most recent draft, see the UNEP Strategies page


This preliminary version of the DRAFT UNEP Environmental Observing and Assessment Strategy was prepared by an expert team of external consultants. The team and UNEP emphasize that this is a working draft only, subject to further change and development based on internal and external consultations and the evolution of the restructured UNEP work programme. The team does consider that the document represents the beginnings of a strong, innovative strategic framework to guide UNEP in developing a realistic observing and assessment strategy within the new functional structure of UNEP.

This paper was made available as an information document at the 20th UNEP Governing Council (Nairobi, 1-5 February 1999). UNEP still has to review the paper internally before proceeding with the development of a UNEP-wide assessment strategy. The draft is made available in this form as an indication of present progress towards the development of a revised assessment strategy preparatory to a more formalized consultation process.



CONTENTS
Executive Summary
Mandate and Strategic Goals
Functional Elements of the Strategy
- Assessment and Reporting
- Environmental Observing
- Data Analysis and Integration
- Strategic Oversight and Early Warning
Operational Implications
- Assessment and Reporting
- Environmental Observing
- Data Analysis and Integration
- Strategic Oversight and Early Warning
Restructuring of UNEPís Programmes
- Consolidation
- Regionalization
- Expansion


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This action strategy outlines a phased programme for environmental observing and assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP's mandate is to analyse the state of the global environment, assess global and regional environmental trends, and provide early warning on environmental threats. In support of that mandate, and in recognition of rapidly changing circumstances that pose new challenges and opportunities for UNEP, this strategy recommends significant changes in UNEP's operational activities and structure.

The strategy is based in part on background reports prepared by outside consultant organizations, summarized in a reference paper that documents UNEP's mandate, outlines strategic goals for observing and assessment, places the strategy in the context of other strategies and larger strategic frameworks, and describes the lessons learned from UNEP's past experience. The strategy is also based on UNEP-wide consultations with key individuals. It reflects a consensus that major change is needed, and widespread support for the major elements of the strategy.

The strategy can be characterized in several ways:

* a user-driven strategy -- focussed around key issues, driven by the needs of policy and decision makers, which determine assessment activities, which in turn guide observation and analysis.

* more ambitious strategic goals -- reflecting UNEP's leadership role on the environment within the UN system and its guardianship role for the environment for all Earth's peoples.

* more focussed programmes -- reflecting greater clarity about UNEP's role and ability to add value in each element of the strategy.

* modular implementation -- starting with a few key issues and demonstration products, allowing programme elements to be put in place piece by piece as funding becomes available, within the overall strategic framework.

The functional elements of the strategy, and the proposed role for UNEP in implementing them, include:

* Assessment and Reporting, where this strategy recommends a more sharply focussed operational role and an expanded collaborative role, responding to user needs and driving the whole information system;

* Environmental Observing, where this strategy recommends expanded catalytic and partnership roles, working with global and national monitoring agencies and with new bottom-up monitoring networks;

* Data Analysis and Integration, where this strategy recommends both catalytic and operational roles;

* Strategic Oversight and Early Warning, where this strategy recommends enhanced operational roles.

The strategy is designed to provide a wider range of more policy-relevant and timely information products, in print and via electronic media, including:

* short, timely reports on environmental situations and threats for global and regional policy-makers and integrated global assessments for UNEP Governing Council, environmental ministers, and the public;

* integrated data on status and trends for international decision-making bodies and conventions and information networks and systems for expanded public access.

Beyond these specific outputs, this plan contemplates that a major product of UNEPís efforts will be partnerships that create a more efficient global system of observing, assessment, and reporting.

Administratively, the strategy proposes a number of changes in the structure and programme of the Division of Environmental Information, Assessment, and Early Warning (DEIA&EW), including:

Consolidation -- folding GEMS and other activities into a single coherent system; refocusing GRID as centres for data analysis and integration, charged with supporting UNEP's assessment and early warning both directly and by catalysing analysis supportive of UNEP's mission by other agencies;

Regionalization -- placing Infoterra national focal points under regional control through UNEP's Regional Offices (with overall coordination by Headquarters) and refocusing the focal points to provide both national nodes for UNEP's environmental information system as well as more active national information centres implementing a possible international initiative on access to environmental information.

Expansion -- expanding UNEP's Earthwatch-like capacity for strategic oversight; creating a capacity to catalyse needed changes in observing systems at the global level, at key national or regional observing agencies, and with emerging grass-roots observing networks; and expanding ENRIN activities aimed at creating greater regional capacity for independent analysis and reporting, in support of UNEP's assessment and early warning missions.

This strategy identifies programme modules within each structural element of the strategy, designed to produce the specific products described above. Some modules are capable of rapid implementation; others are intended for further development and later implementation; still others will need to be added for additional priority environmental issues. Together, these modules constitute an ambitious but realistic plan, transforming existing activities into a coherent, unified programme and launching or helping to launch bold new efforts, including:

* strengthened participatory assessments and collaborative links that enhance UNEPís reporting within the international system, focussed operationally on GEO and collaboratively on such ongoing activities as the State of the Marine Environment, the Global International Waters Assessment, the scientific assessment processes that undergird the international environmental conventions, and the Millennial Assessment of Ecosystems/World Resources report, among others;

* new partnerships with remote sensing agencies such as the Global Observations of Forest Cover and the internet-based Fire Watch early warning system that together significantly expand the base of environmental information; and active encouragement of more participatory, bottom-up approaches to environmental observing, such as HABITATís Global Urban Observatory and the NGO-based Global Forest Watch;

* development with partners of new integrated information frameworks and harmonized, readily-accessible data sets to support assessment and decision-making across the international system, including UNEPís own assessment efforts, while reducing national reporting burdens;

* strengthened analytic and reporting efforts at a regional level, enhancing regional capacity for informed decision-making affecting the environment and strengthening UNEPís participatory assessment process;

* stronger links with the scientific community, with policy experts, and with users to strengthen UNEPís strategic oversight and ensure the quality and credibility of its assessments.

The broad international political support for UNEPís role in environmental observing and assessment expressed at recent Governing Councils underscores a very significant opportunity, as outlined in this strategic plan, to transform UNEPís work plan and increase its effectiveness. If fully implemented, the plan outlined here would give UNEP a significantly enhanced role within the UN programme and around the world as a reliable, authoritative source of environmental information. It would enable UNEP to lead more effective efforts to address rising environmental challenges by catalysing and coordinating activities within the international system and acting in partnership with governments, the private sector, and civil society. 



DRAFT
ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVING AND ASSESSMENT STRATEGY

MANDATE

1. UNEP's mandate for environmental observing and assessment set forth in the 1972 Stockholm action plan and renewed in Agenda 21 and the 1997 Nairobi Declaration is to analyze the state of the global environment, assess global and regional environmental trends, and provide early warning information on environmental threats, based on the best scientific and technical capabilities available. The UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements also recommended that UNEP transform its Earthwatch function into an effective, accessible, science-based system that meets the needs of environmental decision makers and the public. Fulfilling this mandate is the aim of this strategy.

2. UNEP also has a unique leadership role on the environment within the international system, with a mandate to focus on linkages among the various environmental issues and sectoral policies, and a global role as guardian of the environment for all Earth's peoples.

STRATEGIC GOALS

3. The following are four new strategic goals for UNEP's Observing and Assessment Programme:

a) to improve local, national and international decision-making that affects the environment by strengthening the quality and availability of policy-relevant information;

b) to report globally on the state of the global environment, including the causes of environmental degradation and the impact of policy responses;

c) to catalyse, encourage, and assist the evolution of an improved and more coordinated global observing and assessment system, focussed to a greater extent on policy-relevant outputs;

d) to increase regional capacity for environmental data collection, analysis, and reporting as a foundation for the global system.

FUNCTIONAL ELEMENTS OF THE STRATEGY

4. As the lead environmental agency within the U.N. system, UNEP has a unique role. It alone has the mandate to provide broad, strategic oversight on the state of the global environment and to highlight the linkages among environmental issues and sectoral policies. UNEP also has a critical role in providing timely information to meet the needs of environmental decision-makers and the public, and in stimulating greater involvement of regional and sectoral stakeholders in environmental assessment processes.

5. But with limited resources, UNEP cannot do everything. Instead, UNEP must define carefully those functions across the whole chain of information flow, from collecting raw data to delivering processed information and policy recommendations, where it has a comparative advantage at the international level and the capability to be effective. This strategy outlines activities in four such areas: assessment and reporting, environmental observing, data analysis and integration, and strategic oversight and early warning. UNEP should ensure that all these activities are integrated into a single efficient system, with the needs of users for reports and early warning information determining the assessment processes, which in turn define the data to be collected and analysed. The appropriate role for UNEP--how UNEP can best contribute significant added value or leverage other contributions--varies greatly from area to area, and this strategy is accordingly specific for each area.

ASSESSMENT AND REPORTING

6. Environmental assessment--that is evaluating the state of and the trends in the planetary environment, its life support systems, and the natural resources on which humanity depends--has always been an essential function of UNEP, one of the most important activities for exercising its role in the international community. As the flow of environmental information has increased and the number of actors involved in environmental assessment at local through global levels has expanded enormously, the role and form of UNEP's environmental assessments and reports has had to evolve. This strategy continues and accelerates that evolution. In particular, what are now needed are integrated assessments that also evaluate the inter-linkages among issues, driving forces, and policy responses. Also needed are assessments that make use of such tools as scenario analysis, modelling, and geographic information system (GIS) analysis in order to provide users with better insights into where current trends may lead, how impacts differentiate by region, and what alternative policies may achieve.

7. UNEP has both a direct operational role in assessment and a catalytic and collaborative role within the international system. In its operational activities, UNEP should:

a) continue to prepare and publish authoritative global integrated environmental assessments, building on and strengthening the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report and the regionalised, participatory process that supports it;

b) increase its focus in its own assessments and information products on providing environmental guidance to the key elements of the international system, including the UNEP Governing Council, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and through them ECOSOC and the UN General Assembly; the multilateral financial institutions; specialized UN bodies such as FAO, UNDP, WHO, etc.; and especially the international environmental conventions;

c) consult regularly with these groups to review their environmental information needs and discuss relevant findings from UNEP's assessments;

d) give additional emphasis in its own assessments to causes, impacts, and policy responses and to evaluating the adequacy, performance and global environmental impacts of societal responses and development programmes;

e) develop specific and timely environmental information products for its main target groups: policy-makers, international decision-making bodies, and international environmental conventions, which can also provide the basis for outputs to the media and the general public;

In its collaborative and catalytic activities, UNEP should:

f) participate as appropriate in other sectoral assessment reports targeted to specific policy-making processes, both to contribute to those assessments and to incorporate their insights and findings into UNEPís assessment, strategic oversight, and early warning efforts;

g) strengthen the capacity of a selected set of regional centres in developing regions to undertake analysis, assessment, and reporting, focussing on those centres that can support the GEO effort and that have close ties to or command the confidence of national governments in the region. This focussed, limited capacity building should be supported at a level that can achieve a significant increase in the availability of policy-relevant information pertaining to regional and global environmental issues;

h) catalyse consultations and inter-linkages among the international scientific advisory processes involved in assessments of the environment and sustainable development, to improve their coherence and effectiveness.

ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVING

8. To fulfil its mission to analyse and assess the global environment, UNEP depends upon data and information gathered by a wide variety of sources that together constitute the elements of a global environmental observing system. But UNEP itself neither collects any data nor directly manages any observing systems. Moreover, the collection of basic environmental data and information is fragmented and often inefficient: poor data undermine assessment conclusions and lead to bad policy decisions. To improve global environmental information and to fill critical data gaps, UNEP must play a catalytic role in encouraging changes in existing observing systems and stimulating the development of new systems. This strategy calls for UNEP to:

a) catalyse more effective data collection and analysis to meet assessment and early warning needs. This is necessary at all levels, not just at the global level. For this, UNEP should engage a wide variety of partners, including other UN system entities, national observing agencies, and efforts within civil society and the private sector, using its convening role and its leadership mandate for the environment;

b) provide leadership that can help to re-orient existing observing efforts to produce more policy-relevant data, building on and supporting the Integrated Global Observing Strategy and Global Observing Systems, but also engaging national observing agencies, to set forth policy-relevant information needs and to build a consensus on critical data gaps and how to fill them;

c) actively encourage the creation of additional innovative observing efforts, especially those that are bottom-up (and thus have the potential of adding local as well as global value) and those that can provide early-warning alerts or help to fill data gaps;

d) work to strengthen regional centres and thematic centres that can assist with observing methodologies, data management, quality control and harmonization, and data analysis.

DATA ANALYSIS AND INTEGRATION

9. Reliable assessments require a solid foundation of scientific data that are quality controlled, integrated into coherent and harmonized data sets, and analysed for their significance in an environmental policy context. Raw data usually need to be analysed, interpreted, and summarized in graphics, maps, tables or indicators to become useful, easily understood information. This process by which data becomes information is one of the weakest links in the chain of information flow, as its importance is often underestimated and insufficient resources provided for it. A high proportion of existing data is of such poor quality or so difficult to compare that it fails to pass this step successfully. While UNEP should not become a major data provider except for its own assessments, it should seek to work with partners to facilitate and coordinate improved access to reliable data sets developed and maintained by many organizations, including data on the state of the environment, on environmental trends, on the causes or drivers of environmental change, and on the physical, biological, and social impacts of environmental change and degradation.

10. UNEP should therefore play both catalytic and operational roles in data analysis and integration, including harmonization of data sets that are essential to environmentally sustainable development. This strategy calls for UNEP to:

a) stimulate and establish, through collaborative efforts and partnerships with other international agencies, regional organizations, collaborating centres, national agencies, and civil society groups, an expanding base of high-quality, regularly-maintained and commonly-available data to support its assessment activities and those of other entities;

b) focus the activities of GRID centres on analysis and data integration efforts that support UNEPís assessment role, and on catalysing needed analysis by other groups;

c) catalyse the development of an integrated information framework for environmentally sustainable development, and promote and seek to make use of advanced modelling and analysis tools and advanced methods of presenting and disseminating information;

d) make greater use of the potential of the Internet to build an electronic environmental information system, linking in its integrated information framework the distributed data sets and analyses developed and maintained by many groups. With common data protocols and built-in review processes, such a system can become a credible and widely available source of information;

e) take the lead in coordinating and encouraging the development of a coherent set of environmental indicators, based on aggregated data, for its assessments and reports, as part of the global effort to develop indicators of sustainable development.

STRATEGIC OVERSIGHT AND EARLY WARNING

11. UNEP should take an expanded operational role in strategic oversight of environmental issues and in building cooperative environmental early warning mechanisms using the latest information and communications technologies. To that end, this strategy calls for UNEP to:

a) strengthen its assessment capacity so as to be able to assess and highlight the linkages and interactions among environmental issues and sectoral policies and bring them to global attention;

b) build collaboration with existing networks in the UN system, intergovernmental and regional organizations, the scientific community, and non-governmental organizations to identify emerging environmental problems and potential crises;

c) strengthen its strategic oversight of the whole global system for environmental observing and assessment and report periodically on the state of the observing system itself, identifying gaps and needed improvements;

d) develop specific mechanisms for long-term early warning of significant environmental problems which could result in human or environmental disasters, emergencies or conflicts requiring international action.

OPERATIONAL IMPLICATIONS

12. To achieve UNEPís goals and fulfill its mandate, UNEP must translate the functional elements of this strategy into tangible actions. For each element, this section suggests an implementation approach consistent with the overall strategy. It lists core activities that are at the heart of the strategy (Phase One modules), and describes a number of additional modular activities or demonstration projects designed to allow phased implementation of particular products or outputs as additional resources become available. Other modules will need to be developed for other priority environmental issues, including assessment mandates which the Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning (DEIA&EW) is inheriting from other parts of UNEP; such modules should be developed within the framework of the strategy and incorporated in it. This section also suggests how UNEPís own capacity and staff need to be strengthened if the Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning (DEIA&EW) is to be able to carry out the actions described.

ASSESSMENT AND REPORTING

13. UNEP has both an operating and a cooperative role in assessment and reporting. In its operational role, UNEPís assessment and reporting strategy must be driven by user needs for environmental information of policy relevance, focussing specifically on the needs of the international system. Within that context, it should define the information products (reports, bulletins, electronic services, etc.) able to meet those needs. For example, it might prove useful to provide a web site or other electronic information access for UNEP's Permanent Representatives to give status information and key dates for the regional components of on-going assessment activities. To be sure of focussing its assessment and reporting activities in this way, UNEP should establish a structured dialogue with each of its target groups within the international system. These dialogues should include regular meetings to understand their information needs and specific efforts to inform them of and discuss with them the results of UNEPís assessment activities and their implications.

14. In addition to UNEPís own assessment activities, however, there are other global and sectoral assessment and reporting activities relevant to the environment. These include international energy assessments, the State of the Marine Environment, the Global International Waters Assessment, the scientific assessment processes that undergird the international environmental conventions, UNEPís partnership with the European Environment Agency for concise annual assessments, and UNEPís on-going partnership with UNDP, the World Bank, and WRI for the World Resources report, among others. UNEP needs to create the internal capacity and administrative structures to cooperate effectively with other organizations and to participate actively in such assessments, where appropriate, to ensure that its perspective and an integrated view of environmental issues are incorporated in the assessment, to gain early access to findings and results that can inform its own assessment and reporting activities, and to strengthen its strategic oversight of environmental issues. This will require an expanded and strengthened core assessment staff and adequate travel budgets, and would be greatly facilitated by upgraded computer and software tools and more reliable electronic communication links.

15. To support its assessment and reporting strategy, as well as its early warning activities, UNEP needs to significantly upgrade its technical capacity to visualize information--in maps, multi-media presentations, web sites, and video clips--so as to be able to communicate it to policy-makers and to the media more effectively. This will require both new in-house skills and equipment and more creative use of external services.

A-1 Phase One Module: Global Environment Outlook report
16. One continuing core activity is the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports requested by the UNEP Governing Council to meet the need for regular integrated, forward-looking assessments of the state of the global environment including a regional perspective. UNEP must build on the early success of the GEO process of participatory assessment, strengthening it to improve both global assessment and reporting and regional/national decision-making affecting the environment. GEO is the most ambitious operational activity in this strategic plan. To produce high quality reports that are technically sound and politically relevant requires the active support of the entire Division and UNEPís leadership and regular communication between that leadership and the GEO team. To cover not only environmental trends but also the factors driving environmental change and policy responses, UNEP will need access to a wide range of expertise and data, requiring broad consultation and possibly consultative and cooperative relationships. To function efficiently, the core assessment staff requires the addition of professional editorial and publications management expertise.

17. Planning for GEO-3 should begin shortly after the release of GEO-2. This plan proposes that GEO-3 should be produced on a three-year cycle, with the next report serving also as the decadal state of the world environment report for 2002. The report might look back on the 30 years since the Stockholm conference, asking to what degree environmental considerations have been integrated into the mainstream of decision-making, and look forward to ask what can be done and should be done with todayís and tomorrowís policy instruments, especially economic and information instruments. The appropriate periodicity for this report series should be reviewed following GEO-3.

A-2 Phase One Module: Harmonize UNEPís sectoral assessments
18. As UNEPís in-house assessment activities are brought together under the DEIAEW, their approach should harmonized with that of GEO, so that they are mutually supportive and so that sectoral assessments can contribute to GEO. Sectoral assessment activities should also be focussed on those issues where UNEP can contribute the most: focussing water assessment activities on water quality issues; focussing land assessment activities on the interaction between land management and other issues, e.g., land management and water quality in watersheds, land management and land-based sources of pollution and coastal/marine degradation, land management and biodiversity.

A-3 Phase One Module: Create an advisory group to oversee assessment quality
19. The credibility of UNEPís assessments is critical to their success. To enhance and maintain that credibility, UNEP should establish an advisory group including leading scientists to provide strategic guidance and quality control for its assessment activity. It should empower this group to play an active role in establishing UNEPís processes to ensure the scientific accuracy and soundness, policy relevance, and over-all quality of its assessment products and in monitoring how those processes are implemented. This outside advisory group can also provide guidance for UNEP in the implementation of this strategic plan.

A-4 Phase One Module: Build regional analytic and reporting capacity
20. Integral to UNEPís own assessment and reporting efforts, especially for GEO, is the need to strengthen the capacity of a selected set of regional centres in developing regions to undertake analysis, assessment, and reporting, focussing on those centres that can support the GEO effort and that have close ties to or command the confidence of national governments in the region. This focussed, limited capacity building should be supported at a level that can achieve a significant increase in the availability of policy-relevant information pertaining to regional and global environmental issues, concentrating efforts on only a few centres at a time for maximum impact. It should include a more formalized work programme for each centre and multi-year contracts with predictable budgets, allowing the centre to plan ahead and direct more of its innovative potential to UNEP assessments. This ENRIN-like activity overlaps with activities discussed below under Data Analysis and Integration, but is also discussed here because it should be driven in large part by the needs of the GEO assessment process. Potential partners in such activities would include GEO collaborating centres and GRID regional centres in developing regions.

A-5 Phase Two Module: Develop additional information products
21. In addition to full assessment reports such as GEO, UNEP should develop additional information products on the basis of consultations with its target groups, including policy-makers, international decision-making bodies, and the international environmental conventions. These might include short briefing reports or newsletters in print and/or electronic form, web sites that provide access and update information to specific target groups, video clips that illustrate environmental conditions or explain environmental processes, and structured presentations in print or electronic form for use with or by decision-makers, among others. UNEP should also consider, for example, whether it needs two streams of assessment products coming from the GEO process focussing separately on agenda setting and on evaluating progress. By developing a wider range of products in consultation with its users, UNEP will be able to communicate its message and convey the results of environmental assessments to its target audiences and to the media more effectively.

ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVING

22. UNEP has a catalytic role in environmental observing. Its efforts to improve observing systems must be driven by the information needs of policy-makers and of assessment processes, within UNEP and throughout the international system (including the global environmental conventions), and by UNEP's early warning role.

23. In exercising its catalytic role for environmental observing, UNEP and its partners need periodically to assess priority needs for environmental data. UNEP also needs to engage and maintain a dialogue with observing agencies and organizations, use its convening power to host workshops and other meetings, and use its moral authority as the environmental conscience of the UN System to suggest priority information needs to observing agencies. UNEP can also form partnerships with observing agencies, host secretariats, and sponsor or endorse new initiatives. These activities will require fairly senior staff dedicated to specific catalytic activities, with adequate travel and workshop budgets and authority to commit UNEP to collaborative activities; it will also require specific requests to monitoring agencies or national governments by or in the name of the Executive Director.

24. Although UNEPís own assessment and reporting activities will be focussed at the global level, a review of past experience suggests that a sustainable global observing system must be built on and closely linked to national and local components. Past experience also suggests that a successful global observing system cannot operate parasitically--it must draw data from and return useful information to its national and local components. The emerging global observing system will of necessity include many different components: remote-sensing systems, a wide range of in situ instruments, and reports from human observers. This strategy suggests phased implementation of activities (modules) designed to catalyse improvements in all three types of systems, tied to specific policy or assessment needs. These activities greatly expand UNEPís existing Earthwatch activities.

O-1 Phase One Module: UN Earthwatch
25. The on-going Earthwatch activities in environmental observing should continue, including regular networking and dialogue with UN system agencies to coordinate environmental observing and information.

O-2 Phase One Module: Guiding existing global observing systems to meet policy needs
26. UNEP is already a partner in the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS), which provides a framework for the observing activities of the Global Observing Systems, space agency satellite programmes, and global change research programmes. UNEP should dedicate a full-time staff person as liaison to the global observing systems and to IGOS; should offer to host a secretariat for the IGOS Partnership; and should play a more direct role in helping to shape the evolution of these systems. In this time-limited (perhaps 5 years) catalytic role, UNEP should articulate the information needs arising from the global environmental conventions and from ongoing global assessment activities (both GEO and others in which UNEP participates), and advocate a more user-driven, policy-relevant approach to shaping the global observing systems and designing their outputs.

O-3 Phase One Module: Guiding national observing systems to meet global needs
27. In parallel, however, UNEP should expand its engagement with national or regional monitoring agencies, and with the coordinating body of remote sensing agencies, the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS). This will require a full-time staff person assigned to maintain regular contact with national monitoring agencies. As with the Global Observing Systems, UNEP should articulate the information needs arising from the global environmental conventions and from ongoing global assessment activities, and advocate a more user-driven, policy-relevant approach to contributions from national monitoring programmes. By making explicit both the information needs and the policy-relevance of those needs, UNEP can help provide a global mandate for national monitoring agencies and help to legitimize and catalyse specific projects as well as a larger international role for these agencies. By organizing technical workshops, UNEP can also promote harmonization of data, standardization of measurement techniques, and greater international coordination among national agencies. And by directly requesting from observing agencies or governments the collection or release of specific, policy-relevant information, UNEP can help to stimulate significant national actions. Such activities will help to improve the quality of the information flow available to assist environmental decision-making at national and global levels, as well as providing direct support to UNEPís and other international assessment activities and to UNEPís early warning efforts.

28. Specifically, UNEP should endorse and encourage such projects as Global Observations of Forest Cover, a CEOS effort to improve remote sensing of forests that can serve UNEPís purposes, FAOís forest assessments, the climate and biodiversity conventions, and national forest agencies. UNEP should anticipate the launch of new remote sensing platforms such Landsat 7, the Earth Observing System, and other national systems that promise greatly expanded environmental data by encouraging the relevant observing agencies to give priority to information products that have particular importance to the international community. By legitimizing particular projects and increasing their internal support, and by providing a neutral forum for discussion of joint national efforts or for resolving differences, UNEPís catalytic role can leverage very large resources.

29. A related activity is the opportunity for declassifying national intelligence information relevant to environmental issues held in several national agencies. A request to relevant governments by the UNEP Executive Director could play a critical role, tipping the balance in on-going internal debates and triggering major declassification efforts. A related opportunity is suggested by the high priority attached to land use data--for assessment of environmental impacts, for development planning, for a wide variety of national and international purposes--and the almost complete lack of such information on a global scale or even a national scale for many countries. Creating a digital base-map of land use would markedly assist assessment activities and facilitate more informed development planning. A UNEP request to produce and put in the public domain a global land use map, in electronic form, as a base-line for current and future assessments, might conceivably trigger the greening of intelligence information.

O-4 Phase One Module: Catalysing the development of new bottom-up observing networks
30. The rise of the Internet is making possible more distributed, participatory observing approaches -- global networks of local groups or institutions that together can provide powerful new sources of information for both local and global purposes. These new networks can help fill data gaps, can support assessment and early warning activities, and can broaden the base and the political support for environmental observing. UNEP should actively endorse and support the development of such systems, providing credibility for the systems with national governments. UNEP should maintain an active link to such systems, both to gain timely access to the data they collect and to help ensure the objectivity and reliability of the data. UNEP may also be able to support such networks with the analysis capability of the GRID centres. Taking full advantage of such opportunities will require a full-time UNEP staff person to maintain the links and actively participate in shaping these networks and catalysing new ones.

31. Two prototype bottom-up systems are already well under way and can provide the initial focus for UNEPís efforts. One is HABITATís Global Urban Observatory, the funding and rapid implementation of which UNEP should encourage; HABITAT estimates that implementation will require 12-13 staff. UNEP should seek to strengthen the environmental data elements of the Global Urban Observatoryís programme, particularly in the area of air quality, so that it serves both HABITATís and UNEPís assessment needs. A second prototype system, Global Forest Watch, is being launched and independently funded as a global network of local forest NGOs by the World Resources Institute and its partners, and will eventually become an independent entity. Both of these networks will collect data using well-defined frameworks, operate a review process to ensure objectivity, report in near real time using web sites on the Internet, and publish global overview reports at periodic intervals, roughly every two years. Both will provide information that significantly extends what can be obtained by remote sensing. UNEP should also seek to catalyse similar networks in other high priority issues where a distributed approach holds significant promise. One such opportunity may be to catalyse a global Coral Reef Watch, lending an active observing component to the Regional Seas programme.

32. UNEP should also seek to integrate the output of such observing networks into ongoing assessment activities. Using the analytic capability of its GRID centres, for example, UNEP could link the pattern of forest activities under planned forest concessions gathered by Global Forest Watch to potential watershed changes and their implications for water supply (for the international water assessment) or for flooding danger (for early warning) or for habitat preservation (for the Biodiversity Convention).

O-5 Phase Two Module: Linking national in-situ observing systems to meet global needs
33. National observing systems based on in-situ data collection are much less linked and coordinated than is the case with remote sensing systems. There is correspondingly a major opportunity for UNEP to play a catalytic role in promoting such links and in promoting standardization of measurement techniques and harmonization and integration of the resulting information, starting initially with a limited number of demonstration projects in one or two regions. As with remote sensing systems, UNEP should articulate the global information needs and advocate a more coordinated and policy-relevant approach in specific sectoral areas. UNEP can help provide a global mandate for national monitoring agencies and help to legitimize and catalyse specific projects as well as a larger international role for these agencies. By organizing technical workshops, UNEP can also promote harmonization of data, standardization of measurement techniques, and greater international coordination among national agencies. In implementing such catalytic efforts, UNEP should choose only one or two sectoral areas, such as water quality or other high priority issues, at a time. Additional dedicated staff would be required.

O-6 Phase Two Module: Catalysing an integrated observing system for water quality
34. A specific instance of an in-situ observing system concerns water quality. Freshwater is a priority area agreed at the 1997 Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council. A major data gap that impedes international assessments for water is lack of global information about water quality. This suggests an opportunity for UNEP to catalyse a new integrated observing system for water quality, starting with a few key watersheds and expanding to prototype national systems linked to global as well as local and national needs.

35. Based on past experience, this strategy recommends that global observing networks be based on and tightly integrated with existing local networks, which means that the global network must return added-value products to the local level in return for continuing access to the local data. This is the pattern for weather observations and the resulting weather maps and forecasts, perhaps the most successful of all environmental observing systems.

36. For water quality, a number of existing activities can provide the foundation for such an information system. Integration of water supply data into a digital map is already under way at UNEP's GRID-Sioux Falls centre. If local water quality data from provincial or national networks--in countries where these exist, which include most industrial countries and many major developing countries--were integrated into such a map, pollutant loadings could be estimated and an approximate water quality map generated, even with incomplete data. Such outputs would be useful both to local and national environmental officials, as well as providing missing data to global assessments. Such watershed-level analyses, moreover, could be the basis for estimating pollutant and nutrient inflows to estuaries and coastal waters, for estimating the impact of irrigation schemes, dams, or other developments on water quality and quantity, and for providing early warning of the impact of drought, heavy precipitation or other water crises.

37. Obtaining access to local water quality data, building the cooperative networks, developing the analyses and reporting systems and other elements of an integrated electronic water quality information system will take significant effort, requiring the full-time efforts of several UNEP staff. Such an activity, however, could give focus and a clear goal around which to integrate UNEPís freshwater activities. The effort should build explicit links to ongoing and planned international water assessments. Pilot activities should start in one or a few watersheds during the developmental phase, in collaboration with users. But the opportunity to help fill a significant data gap and to support a high-priority assessment need seems well worth the effort, given the number of UN system entities for which water data and water assessments are critical. This activity overlaps with those discussed under data analysis and integration, specifically in the need for data harmonization and for analysis to support and integrate the information from the observing system, illustrating the integration of different elements in this strategic plan.

DATA ANALYSIS AND INTEGRATION

38. Environmental assessments and early warnings need a foundation of reliable, readily understandable information, which often must be assembled from many different data sources through processes of analysis and integration, including essential steps of quality control and harmonization. UNEP needs to become a sophisticated user of data and information provided by others, with the capacity to analyse and evaluate its quality and appropriateness for its own use in assessment and early warning processes. UNEP also needs to identify weaknesses and gaps in global and regional data sets and catalyse or work cooperatively with others to fill those gaps through environmental observing, through improved analysis and quality control, through data integration and harmonization activities, and through efforts to create more broadly accessible environmental data for its own use and for use by other assessment and decision-making processes. To provide the internal capacity required to use data effectively and to understand its limitations, the Assessment cluster at Headquarters should include several programme officers with specific data and information-related coordination responsibilities, such as for indicators, data frameworks, or sectoral assessments.

39. UNEP should also strengthen and make more effective use of its own analytic capacity, especially that represented by its GRID centres. It should also extend its capacity by out-sourcing analysis, modelling, data integration, and indicator development through cooperative agreements, and engage in limited efforts to increase the capacity for analysis in selected regional centres in support of its assessment and reporting goals. Again, dedicated staff is required to coordinate such activities and to ensure that regional activities remain integrated into the strategy.

D-1 Phase One Module: Strengthen and focus GRID centres on data analysis and integration
40. The primary role of GRID centres should be data analysis, assembly, and integration to support UNEPís assessment, strategic oversight, and early warning missions. Their expertise can also assist UNEP in data logistics and electronic reporting. To fulfill this role, the activities of GRID centres should be closely tied to UNEPís assessment, strategic oversight, and early warning activities, including at least one full-time, UNEP-supported staff member in each centre. The centres should be strengthened in their own analysis and integration capacity, and should also seek to catalyse and encourage data analysis and integration by others. To this end, GRID centres should where possible be co-located with regional institutions that have data missions and expertise. Centres should be encouraged to develop special expertise in a particular area of analysis and/or integration. In light of this refocused role, existing GRID centres should be reviewed and scarce resources should be concentrated in a few such centres rather than spread widely.

41. At the same time, UNEP should seek to develop additional GRID centres in developing regions by limited, focussed efforts to build the capacity for independent data analysis, integration, and reporting. The goal of these efforts is to support UNEPís assessment activities as well as to strengthen regional and national decision-making that affects the environment. This activity overlaps with and should be coordinated with UNEPís regional activities in support of its assessment and reporting role, and should be focussed on only a few centres at a time to achieve significant impacts.

D-2 Phase One Module: Integrated information framework
42. Assembly of the core data sets required for UNEP assessments and reports requires collaboration with partners inside and outside the UN system. Virtually identical efforts are undertaken to assemble data sets for all major international reports on environment and sustainable development and for many internal analyses by international and multi-lateral organizations. Thus the opportunity exists to improve efficiency and eliminate duplicative efforts by developing an integrated information framework to support assessment and decision-making for environmentally sustainable development. Building on the efforts already undertaken by UNSD, the UNCSD, and the World Bank, UNEP should take the lead in a cooperative effort to develop a prototype integrated information framework, bringing together major data providers and key users and forging the relationships required to maintain core data sets over time within such a framework. By catalysing such a system, UNEP would help to transform the expanding but fragmented international data system into a structured platform for supporting environmental assessment and decision-making for environmentally sustainable development. If the information in such a framework were accessible as national profiles, among other formats, such a system could also be used by national governments to reduce reporting burdens.

43. The UNEP initiative should leverage off of existing data and information networks. It should make full use of emerging Internet tools for finding, linking, annotating, and displaying information, and build on experience in other fields with organizing such information frameworks. Because UNEP does not now have adequate technical capacity and experience with data issues, it should implement this activity in large part through cooperative agreements with other institutions, while providing overall guidance and institutional coordination. The activity should aim to create a working prototype integrated information framework within two years of initiation, with provision for subsequent review, modification and enhancement, and on-going maintenance and administration.

D-3 Phase One Module: Coordinating and supporting the development of environmental indicators
44. Closely related to the initiative on integrated information frameworks is the need for development of environmental indicators as an important component of sustainable development indicators. Despite widespread activity, environmental indicator development remains a fragmented effort; convergence to consensus indicators has not occurred. As a result, environmental indicators do not yet have the usefulness for policy-making nor command the same attention as do leading economic and social indicators. In cooperation with and support of the UNCSD indicator workplan, UNEP should actively encourage, coordinate, and support the development of improved environmental indicators. Its role is not to develop indicators itself, but rather to convene workshops and guide and partially fund research, drawing on its assessment and strategic oversight activities and the needs of its target groups to indicate which types of indicators are most relevant for policy purposes and seeking to forge consensus around emerging indicators that fit those needs.

D-4 Phase Two Module: Converting national focal points to environmental information centres
45. The INFOTERRA network of national focal points is at a crossroads. Its function as a scientific documentation and referral service is being rapidly overtaken by the Internet and does not fit within this observing and assessment strategy. However, many of the national focal points in developing countries have considerable potential to become key access and outreach centres within their countries for global, regional, and national environmental information; to become nodes that gather country-specific environmental information for UNEP; and to play an active role in improving public access to environmental information. Such transformed focal points, operating as environmental information centres able to deliver assessments and reports to national and local decision-makers and the general public, would extend the impact of the whole information system outlined in this strategy, particularly in developing counties. In recent years, UNEP has barely been able to maintain the Infoterra network, so this potential is far from being realized. To achieve it will require a major effort to build capacity, possibly in cooperation with UNDP. This activity should begin with a small number of demonstration sites.

46. To ensure closer integration, such transformed national focal points should be under regional control, with Regional Coordinators and DEIA&EW staff working together. This will require developing demonstration sites, convincing governments to accept an active information collection and delivery role for these focal points, ensuring that the focal points are suitably located for the new functions, equipping them with computers and Internet access, and providing the necessary training. By redefining their role and enhancing their capacity, national focal points can extend the reach of UNEP's observing and assessment strategy down to the national level, providing an official point of information access and delivery within each government. Such focal points also provide UNEP with inputs to U.N.-wide national assistance strategies, helping to ensure that environmental concerns are fully incorporated into such strategies.

STRATEGIC OVERSIGHT AND EARLY WARNING

47. Strategic oversight and early warning are both extensions of the assessment function, but are discussed separately to emphasize their importance. Strategic oversight addresses UNEPís mandate to highlight linkages among environmental issues and sectoral policies, to continually survey how the international system is responding to these issues, and to point out gaps or new needs that require attention. This strategy calls for UNEP to strengthen its strategic oversight of the whole global system for environmental observing and assessment. This should include building collaboration with existing networks within the UN system, enhancing ties to the scientific community, and periodically assessing the state of the global observing system to identify gaps and needed improvements.

48. Early warning addresses the need to anticipate and avoid environmental crises and to deliver environmental information more rapidly. This strategy calls for UNEP to develop specific mechanisms for long-term early warning of significant environmental problems that could result in human or environmental disasters, emergencies, or conflicts requiring international action. An important first step will be to establish criteria for identifying issues or areas pertinent to early warning. Separately, UNEP should also link to networks and mechanisms developed by others to allow its decision-makers timely access to information on environmental crisis situations.

S-1 Phase One Module: UN Earthwatch oversight activities
49. The on-going Earthwatch activities provide one mechanism for strategic oversight and should continue, including regular networking and dialogue with UN system agencies to ensure that UNEP is aware of all relevant activities within the international community.

S-2 Phase One Module: Reviving the Ecosystems Conservation Group
50. UNEP should continue its effort to revive the Ecosystems Conservation Group as a mechanism to develop an integrated overview within the international system on ecosystem related issues. If successful, this mechanism could identify gaps in current programmes, encourage cooperative efforts, and encourage a more integrated, less sectoral approach to these critical environmental systems.

S-3 Phase One Module: Strengthening ties to the scientific community
51. While a separate unit for science in the secretariat is not needed, UNEP needs to strengthen ties with the international scientific community to ensure that its strategic overview is informed by the very best scientific insights and information available. These efforts should include working level relationships with scientific programmes generating data; cooperation with other scientific assessment processes and bodies; and strategic collaboration and advisory relationships with the International Council for Science (ICSU) and its subsidiary bodies including SCOPE; close cooperation with UNESCO on science in support of environmental observations and assessments; and bringing to the attention of the scientific community areas requiring additional research to resolve uncertainties or to guide management decisions. UNEP should devote at least one full-time staff equivalent to this effort. As described under assessment activities, UNEP should also actively seek top-level scientific input through an advisory board to guide its assessment efforts.

S-4 Phase Two Module: Developing an environmental early warning capacity
52. UNEP should develop the capacity for long-term early warning, using its assessment process and its links to the scientific community to identify emerging issues and areas where particular effort is needed to avoid environmental crises. Effective long-term early warning will require, among other things, that progress in policies be systematically assessed.

S-5 Phase Two Module: Timely Access to Environmental Crisis Information
53. UNEP should also link to existing and emerging systems that can provide timely information during environmental crises and should the create the capacity to inform its own decision makers and others regarding these crises with short alerts or status bulletins, at least for certain priority environmental issues with a high probability of repeated crises. In creating this capacity, UNEP should actively explore collaborative efforts, building on or linking to the early warning systems being developed by other institutions, such as the internet-based Fire Watch system. This will require making better use of electronically-based information tools, bringing together existing capacities in UNEPnet, Mercure, GRID, and Earthwatch and linked to many other partners. This activity should start with small pilot projects, assembling existing networks and establishing formats and protocols for alert bulletins with the target groups directly concerned and developing criteria for issuing such bulletins. UNEP will need staff dedicated to such reporting activities, as well as additional staff outside DEIA&EW to upgrade and maintain the electronic infrastructure that rapid reporting requires.

RESTRUCTURING OF UNEP'S PROGRAMMES

54. To adapt to the new strategy, the UNEP secretariat needs to restructure its existing observing, assessment and information programmes as follows:

CONSOLIDATION

55. Many of the programme elements of the Division of Environmental Information, Assessment, and Early Warning (DEIA&EW) should be consolidated, refocussing some and eliminating others. All remaining activities should be folded into a single coherent system. Specifically,

a) GEMS should be replaced. There are important elements of this strategy addressing water and air quality issues which should be developed in new modules, but GEMS is not the right vehicle for them. There is wide support within UNEP for this action.

b) The former INFOTERRA national focal points should be placed under regional control of either the Regional Coordinators or the UNEP Regional Offices (see below under Regionalization) and refocussed, in collaboration with the UN Resident Coordinators and UNDP, to provide both national nodes for UNEP's environmental information system (e.g. sources of information for UNEP) and more dynamic national environmental information centres. They may also play a role in implementing a possible global initiative on access to environmental information.

c) GRID (Global and Regional Integration of Data) centre activities should be refocussed as global or regional UNEP centres for data analysis and integration, charged with supporting UNEP's assessment and early warning functions both directly and by catalyzing analysis by other agencies that is supportive of UNEP's mission. National GRID nodes in Eastern Europe should be combined with or closely linked to the (former INFOTERRA) national focal points. UNEP should not be encouraging a confusing multiplication of structures at the national level that it cannot maintain.

d) The former ENRIN regional centres for analysis and reporting should be expanded as new funds become available. Such a limited, focussed effort to increase regional capacity for independent analysis and reporting is critical to support UNEP's own regionalized assessment activity and to improve regional decision-making that affects the environment. The successful Environment Assessment Programme for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok is an appropriate model for this effort.

REGIONALIZATION

56. The Regional Coordinators, in collaboration with the UNEP Regional Offices, should be given an increased role in regional information collection on the environment and in stimulating the development of national environmental information centres, including:

a) providing information about environmental situations at the country or regional levels that may require some response from UNEP or the international community.

b) maintaining the (former INFOTERRA) national focal points, and linking them to the UN Resident Coordinators and UNDP capacity building. Where there is more than one UNEP-linked national focal point (INFOTERRA and GRID, for example), their combination or close collaboration should be encouraged.

c) assist DEIA&EW in overseeing collaborating centres, GRID centres, and other affiliated information activities within the region.

d) identify regional priorities and policy concerns as inputs to UNEP's global assessments.

EXPANSION

57. DEIA&EW needs to significantly expand its efforts to catalyze needed changes in observing and assessment systems:

a) The efforts of Earthwatch with the UN system and the Global Observing Systems provide a model and a nucleus for these catalytic activities.

b) DEIA&EW should initiate Earthwatch-like catalytic efforts directed at key national or regional environmental observing agencies such as NASA, NOAA, EEA, ISRO and the European Space Agency, and at emerging grass-roots observing networks such as the Global Urban Observatories and Global Forest Watch.

c) Expansion is also needed in the assessment processes delivering timely and relevant products to UNEP's principal users at the international level. 

Return to homepage


UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva