United Nations System-Wide
Earthwatch
 
 
REFERENCE PAPER

for the

UNITED NATIONS ENVIRONMENT PROGRAMME
ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVING AND ASSESSMENT STRATEGY

28 December 1998 


CONTENTS
Background paragraphs 1-4

I. MANDATE, MISSION, GOALS AND PRINCIPLES
UNEP's Mandate paragraphs 5-23
- Agenda 21 paragraphs 6-15
- UN ACC paragraphs 16-20
- Nairobi Declaration paragraphs 21-22
- UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements paragraph 23
UNEP's Mission paragraphs 24-30
UNEP's Goals paragraphs 31-36
Information Products for Key Users paragraphs 37-42
General Principles for Information Strategies paragraphs 43-48

II. PRIORITY ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES paragraphs 49-70

III. FOUNDATIONS FOR A NEW STRATEGY paragraphs 71-79
Global environmental observing and assessment - the larger picture paragraphs 72-74
Past experience and lessons learned paragraphs 75
New approaches to achieving goals paragraphs 76-79

IV. ANALYSIS OF UNEP'S FUNCTIONS paragraphs 80-180
Assessment and Reporting paragraphs 84-117
Environmental Observing paragraphs 118-130
Data Analysis and Integration paragraphs 131-153
Strategic Oversight and Early Warning paragraphs 154-162
Partnerships paragraphs 163-168
Regionalization paragraphs 169-172
Background to an Indicative Costing paragraphs 173-178
Assessing Success paragraph 179
What's New paragraph 180

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  ANNEX 1 (separate html document)
 

REVIEW OF PAST ACTIVITIES, PRESENT GAPS AND LESSONS LEARNED 1-2

I. CRITICAL REVIEW OF UNEP OBSERVING AND ASSESSMENT PROGRAMMES
Review of UNEP's work launched before UNCED paragraphs 3-5
Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS) paragraphs 6-7
- GEMS/Air paragraphs 8-10
- GEMS/Water paragraphs 11-13
Global Resource Information Database (GRID) paragraphs 14-15
- GRID/Sioux Falls paragraphs 16-17
INFOTERRA paragraphs 18-19
State of the Environment Reporting paragraph 20
Other information activities paragraph 21
UNEP in the post-UNCED period paragraphs 22-33
Comparisons with Other Programmes paragraph 34
- Global Atmosphere Watch paragraph 35
- U.S. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP) paragraph 36
- U.S. Water Quality Program paragraphs 37-39
- Weather paragraphs 40-42
- USEPA Air Quality Program paragraphs 43-44
Conclusions from Case Studies paragraph 45

II. OTHER ENTITIES ENGAGED IN OBSERVING, ANALYSIS AND REPORTING paragraphs 46-53

III. USEFULNESS OF DATA COLLECTED paragraphs 54-67

IV. CRITICAL DATA GAPS paragraphs 68-81

  ANNEX 2
 


POLICY-ORIENTED ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT paragraphs 1-4

1 Methodological framework paragraphs 5-8
1.1 DPSIR framework paragraphs 9-10
1.2 Data for Integrated Environmental Assessment paragraph 11
1.3 Modelling tools and scenarios; dynamic analysis paragraphs 12-14
1.4 Presentation paragraphs 15-17
1.5 Key areas of expertise paragraph 18
1.6 Key aspects of Integrated Environmental Assessment paragraphs 19-21

2 Critical gaps paragraph 22
2.1 Critical gaps in expertise paragraphs 23-31
2.2 Critical data gaps paragraphs 32-35
- Driving forces paragraph 36
- Pressures paragraph 37
- State paragraph 38
- Impacts paragraphs 39-40
- Responses paragraph 41

3 Collaboration for improved observing and assessment paragraph 42
3.1 Organization of data monitoring and handling paragraph 43-47
3.2 Disseminating data and expertise between collaborating centres paragraphs 48-50

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REFERENCE PAPER
for the
ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVING AND ASSESSMENT STRATEGY

Background

1. The environmental assessment activities of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) currently enjoy widespread global support. This reflects a new international consensus that observing and assessment are central roles for UNEP. It also reflects the success of UNEP's new Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report and the participatory global process that underlies it. This political support provided an opportunity to rebuild and refocus the organization's observing, assessment and reporting activities, many of which, despite the current wave of support and the success of GEO, need strengthening and rebuilding. Indeed, since UNEP's credibility and effectiveness within the international system must rest to large degree on its ability to become a reliable source of authoritative information, it is using this opportunity to define a larger and more ambitious agenda in observing and assessment consistent with its mandate and new priorities.

2. UNEP therefore launched a strategic planning process to prepare a new UNEP-wide environmental observing and assessment strategy. This began by soliciting the views of key outside organizations and individuals with extensive knowledge in the field. In July 1998, UNEP contracted with the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the World Resources Institute (WRI), and Prof. Philippe Bourdeau (Free University of Brussels) to prepare advisory papers on the strategy. These were received in early September. The four papers were largely complementary, with Prof. Bourdeau providing a policy overview, and RIVM focussing on assessment, WRI on monitoring, and SEI on data management. These papers, together with some internal UNEP documents, were the principal sources for a first synthesis document from which this reference paper has been derived. Further discussions within UNEP and with the outside advisers have produced the UNEP Environmental Observing and Assessment Strategy document which distils the main features of the strategy, and includes an executive summary. For those who are interested in the detailed analyses and the review of past activities on which the strategy is based, this paper provides the necessary supplementary information, pooling the inputs from all sources.

3. Environmental observing and assessment include data collection, quality control and analysis, simplification or visualization, interpretation or assessment, and reporting, including early warning. The scope of the strategy covers the whole process of providing environmental information for decision-making from initial observations to final delivery. UNEP's participatory Global Environment Outlook (GEO) assessment process is already producing innovative and successful assessment reports, and is a strong component of the future UNEP programme, as are a number of other UNEP activities. The greatest weaknesses are in data collection, analysis, and simplification or visualization--on the observing component of observing and assessment--and on information delivery to appropriate users, where strengthening and rebuilding are most needed. UNEP has also suffered from broad mandates and extremely limited resources, requiring a clear focussing of efforts to produce effective results. The strategy addresses these needs.

4. This reference paper presents the background to the strategy in the following parts:

- the first describes UNEP's mandate and mission, and defines strategic goals, objectives, user groups and general principles for its observing and assessment strategy;

- the second discusses priority environmental issues and the potential contributions of UNEP to their assessment, as background for the possible development of specific modules;

- the third places the strategy in the context of other strategies and larger strategic frameworks, summarizes the lessons learned from UNEP's past experience (described in more detail in Annex 1), and outlines some new approaches for achieving UNEP's goals;

- the fourth provides the analysis underlying each of UNEP's strategic functions of assessment and reporting, environmental observing, data analysis and integration, and strategic oversight and early warning, including their relation to science and research. It amplifies and explains each of the summary elements included in the Strategy. It also reviews the importance of partnerships and regionalization in implementing the strategy, provides estimates for an indicative costing, and gives measures of success.

- Two annexes provide 1) a more detailed review of past activities and present problems, including critical gaps that have been identified; 2) a general description of policy-oriented environmental assessment of the type UNEP should develop.

I. MANDATE, MISSION, GOALS AND PRINCIPLES

UNEP's MANDATE

5. UNEP's mandate for environmental observing (monitoring) and assessment goes back to its founding at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, where environmental assessment (Earthwatch) was a major component of the Action Plan. This mandate has been confirmed on many subsequent occasions, including the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and its Agenda 21.

Agenda 21

6. Agenda 21 makes several specific references to UNEP's assessment mandate and to the role of the international system and UNEP-led programmes in information for decision-making. In chapter 38 on institutional arrangements, Agenda 21 specifies (38.22):

    "Priority areas on which UNEP should concentrate include the following:

    (a) strengthening its catalytic role in stimulating and promoting environmental activities and considerations throughout the United Nations system;

    (d) environmental monitoring and assessment, both through improved participation by the United Nations system agencies in the Earthwatch programme and expanded relations with private scientific and non-governmental research institutes; strengthening and making operational its early warning function;

    (e) coordination and promotion of relevant scientific research with a view to providing a consolidated basis for decision-making;

    (f) dissemination of environmental information and data to Governments and to organs, programmes and organizations of the United Nations system;

    (g) raising general awareness and action in the area of environmental protection through collaboration with the general public, non-governmental entities and intergovernmental institutions;

    (n) further developing assessment and assistance in cases of environmental emergencies."

7. In Chapter 40 on Information for Decision-making, the following are some extracts particularly relevant to UNEP's strategy (emphasis added):

8. "The organs and organizations of the United Nations system, in coordination with other relevant international organizations, could provide recommendations for harmonized development of indicators at the national, regional and global levels, and for incorporation of a suitable set of these indicators in common, regularly updated, and widely accessible reports and databases, for use at the international level... (40.7).

9. "Countries and, upon request, international organizations should carry out inventories of environmental, resource and developmental data, based on national/global priorities for the management of sustainable development. They should determine the gaps and organize activities to fill those gaps. Within the organs and organizations of the United Nations system and relevant international organizations, data-collection activities, including those of Earthwatch and World Weather Watch, need to be strengthened, especially in the areas of urban air, freshwater, land resources (including forests and rangelands), desertification, other habitats, soil degradation, biodiversity, the high seas and the upper atmosphere. Countries and international organizations should make use of new techniques of data collection, including satellite-based remote sensing. In addition to the strengthening of existing development-related data collection, special attention needs to be paid to such areas as demographic factors, urbanization, poverty, health and rights of access to resources, as well as special groups, including women, indigenous peoples, youth, children and the disabled, and their relationships with environment issues." (40.8)

10. "Relevant international organizations should develop practical recommendations for coordinated, harmonized collection and assessment of data at the national and international levels. National and international data and information centres should set up continuous and accurate data-collection systems and make use of geographic information systems, expert systems, models and a variety of other techniques for the assessment and analysis of data." (40.9)

11. "Establishment of a comprehensive information framework:... At the international level, environmental assessment activities need to be strengthened and coordinated with efforts to assess development trends." (40.10)

12. "Institutional capacity to integrate environment and development and to develop relevant indicators is lacking at both the national and international levels. Existing institutions and programmes such as the Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS) and the Global Resource Information Database (GRID) within UNEP and different entities within the systemwide Earthwatch will need to be considerably strengthened. Earthwatch has been an essential element for environment-related data. While programmes related to development data exist in a number of agencies, there is insufficient coordination between them. The activities related to development data of agencies and institutions of the United Nations system should be more effectively coordinated, perhaps through an equivalent and complementary "Development Watch", which with the existing Earthwatch should be coordinated through an appropriate office within the United Nations to ensure the full integration of environment and development concerns." (40.13)

13. "Countries and international organizations should review and strengthen information systems and services in sectors related to sustainable development, at the local, provincial, national and international levels. Special emphasis should be placed on the transformation of existing information into forms more useful for decision-making and on targeting information at different user groups. Mechanisms should be strengthened or established for transforming scientific and socio-economic assessments into information suitable for both planning and public information. Electronic and non-electronic formats should be used." (40.22)

14. "The organs and organizations of the United Nations system, as well as other governmental and non-governmental organizations, should document and share information about the sources of available information in their respective organizations. Existing programmes, such as... the International Environmental Information System (INFOTERRA), should be reviewed and strengthened as required. Networking and coordinating mechanisms should be encouraged between the wide variety of other actors..." (40.24)

15. "Countries, international organizations, including organs and organizations of the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations should exploit various initiatives for electronic links to support information sharing, to provide access to databases and other information sources, to facilitate communication for meeting broader objectives, such as the implementation of Agenda 21, to facilitate intergovernmental negotiations, to monitor conventions and efforts for sustainable development, to transmit environmental alerts, and to transfer technical data. These organizations should also facilitate the linkage of different electronic networks and the use of appropriate standards and communication protocols for the transparent interchange of electronic communications.... Mechanisms should also be established to carry out the necessary transfer of information to and from non-electronic systems to ensure the involvement of those not able to participate in this way." (40.25)

UN ACC

16. At the highest level of the UN system, the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), made up of the heads of UN agencies chaired by the Secretary-General, provided detailed advice to the UNEP Governing Council in its 1995 report on the United Nations System-wide Earthwatch. It emphasized "the role of UNEP to provide leadership and direction to the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch, to support inter-agency coordination of observation, assessment and reporting activities, and to assist in the joint programming and integration of results that will make Earthwatch an effective effort of the United Nations system to provide international environmental information required for decision-making." "United Nations system organizations participating in Earthwatch are counting on UNEP to carry out its coordinating function in this area and to provide the necessary leadership to a more integrated system-wide Earthwatch, through a combination of active participation and networking. In particular, if UNEP reinforces linkages among expert information fora on the one hand and decisions makers on the other (at national and regional level, and within international policy arenas such as the CSD) then a significant contribution shall have been made. The ACC stresses the importance it places on Earthwatch being a system-wide effort which requires the full participation and support of UNEP."

17. "The need for and expectations of Earthwatch have evolved since its conception over twenty years ago. It is no longer sufficient just to alert the world to emerging and important environmental trends and problems. Environmental factors have to be integrated into political and economic decision-making mechanisms, and become as fundamental as economics in determining sustainable development. This will require the development of a flow of environmental data producing indicators for policy action to improve environmental protection and resource management, which in turn will involve adjustments in economic development process. This flow of information must be more rapid, so that timely data and indicators are available when decision-makers need them. Much of this must take place at the national level, but it is also relevant at the global level, where Earthwatch is the mechanism to provide this information."

18. "As a matter of policy, the United Nations institutions must be the guarantor of the objectivity and reliability in information at the international level." "The assembly within the framework of Earthwatch and 'development watch' of data and assessments to produce indicators and projections using integrated conceptual frameworks, systems studies and models, will assist the development of more future-oriented international policy in an increasingly complex and integrated world."

19. "Earthwatch should pay special attention to the need for balance among the requirements and capacities of various groups of countries in environmental observation, assessment and reporting activities, to ensure a reliable, accurate and objective flow of information at the international level. This will require special emphasis on efforts to fill the gaps in the global coverage of these activities through capacity-building in information gathering and assessment that will allow the full participation of all countries in the observation and assessment processes."

20. "The principal users of Earthwatch will thus include not only the various inter-governmental decision-making bodies that have been created to adopt policy measures and management actions in the various fields of environment and development, but also decision-makers in national governments who are required to know the international context within which their national actions must take place in our increasingly inter-related world. Earthwatch should also continue to supply information to the general public to build support for the actions that are taken."

Nairobi Declaration

21. In 1997, UNEPís Governing Council, in its Nairobi Declaration, reformulated the core elements of UNEPís mandate, which were later confirmed by the UN General Assembly, as follows:

- "To analyze the state of the global environment and assess global and regional environmental trends, provide policy advice, early warning information on environmental threats, and to catalyze and promote international cooperation and action, based on the best scientific and technical capabilities available;

- "To further the development of its international environmental law aiming at sustainable development, including the development of coherent interlinkages among existing international environmental conventions;

- "To advance the implementation of agreed international norms and policies, to monitor and foster compliance with environmental principles and international agreements and stimulate cooperative action to respond to emerging environmental challenges;

- "To strengthen its role in the coordination of environmental activities in the United Nations system in the field of the environment, as well as its role as an Implementing Agency of the Global Environment Facility, based on its comparative advantage and scientific and technical expertise;

- "To promote greater awareness and facilitate effective cooperation among all sectors of society and actors involved in the implementation of the international environmental agenda, and to serve as an effective link between the scientific community and policy makers at the national and international levels;

- "To provide policy and advisory services in key areas of institution-building to Governments and other relevant institutions."

22. This declaration restates UNEPís comprehensive mandate in international environmental policy making. All items of the Nairobi Declaration, not just the first one, have implications for UNEPís observing and assessment and should be taken into account when formulating a strategy for its environmental observing and assessment functions.

UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements

23. Most recently, the report to the UN Secretary-General from the UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, dated 15 June 1998, recommends that UNEP (and Habitat) must, as a matter of high priority:
- develop their capacity in the field of information, monitoring and assessment in order to serve as an environmental guardian ,
- mobilize the necessary resources from governments, foundations, and international bodies,
- transform Earthwatch into an effective, accessible, science-based system that meets the needs of environmental decision makers and the public,
- develop networks with partner institutions,
- elaborate indicators for sustainable development in the field of environment,
- serve as a clearing-house for collecting and disseminating information and data, and
- provide early warning of possible environmental emergencies and conflicts.

UNEP's MISSION

24. UNEPís mission has been stated as: To provide leadership and encourage partnerships in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and people to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

25. This mission statement reflects generally acknowledged insight in what it takes to get from problems to solutions: first people need to know the problem; then they need to develop the will to change; and finally they need levers for change. This is true at both the personal and international levels. The mission statement stresses that UNEPís task is not just to provide people and nations with information about the state of the environment, but also to take an active role in bringing about the changes needed to protect the global environment. In a world with a common environment but more than 150 nation states, leadership is also very important to overcome differences in perceptions and interests and to inspire people to create and make use of opportunities available.

26. In the context of this strategy, the mission statement can be further elaborated:
- "informing" about the state of the environment, about causes for environmental deterioration, about problems ahead (early warning), about possible solutions and strategies to avoid, limit and mitigate environmental problems, and about whether progress is being made;
- "inspiring" by indicating possible solutions, disseminating positive experiences and providing feedback on the benefits of action;
- "enabling" through helping in setting priorities, with facilitating international policy development and enhancing capacities for policy implementation.

27. UNEPís observing and assessment strategy should be viewed in the context of its overall mandate and mission and its position in the UN system, to ensure that the strategy serves the attainment of its overall goals, and helps to strengthen its role as the leading global environmental authority within the United Nations system for setting the global environmental agenda and promoting the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

28. Both UNEPís renewed mandate, as well as an analysis of the evolution of UNEPís position in the UN system and international environmental policy development, confirm the need for a broad definition of its observing and assessment function. This should extent far beyond observing and assessing the state of the environment to include the assessment of policy options, the monitoring of the implementation and effectiveness of environmental policies, and the identification of options for linking various environmental policies and for integrating environment into other sectoral policies.

29. To support UNEPís efforts to regain a leading role, its environmental observing and assessment strategy should be more closely linked to environmental policy making by paying more attention to the monitoring of and reporting on environmental progress and policy implementation, by taking a more active role in the formulation and adoption of international policy goals, by focusing on integrated assessments that highlight the linkages between the various environmental issues and with sectoral policies, and by a greater involvement of regional and sectoral stakeholders in the assessment process.

30. UNEP's existing mandate is sufficient to encompass this new strategy, but both strategic goals and operational objectives for observing and assessment activities need restating.

UNEPís GOALS

31. UNEP's past goals for observing and assessment have not been sufficiently ambitious to live up to UNEP's mandate. Without guiding strategic goals and objectives, the programme is neither likely to add real value to current global activities nor significantly to improve national and international decision-making as it affects the environment. Adopting a clear and compelling goal or goals is thus critical to restructuring and improving UNEP's Programme.

32. 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.

33. These guiding strategic goals, and the resulting more ambitious agenda for UNEP's environmental observing and assessment activities, are guided by two principles or assertions:

- that better information is an essential factor in improved decision-making;

- that UNEP should seek catalytic rather than operational roles.

34. These require some discussion. The first seems self-evident, but it stresses information, not data, implying a process of analysis, synthesis, and simplification or visualization to convert scientific data into indicators or other forms of information useful to decision-makers; that in turn implies the capacity for such an analytic process; and it further implies a reporting process that can provide information to decision-makers in a timely fashion and in an appropriate, policy-relevant context.

35. The second principle is partly based on the pragmatic judgement that UNEP has never had and in the foreseeable future likely will not have the resources to play a significant operational role in environmental observing, especially as compared to existing and proposed national and international observing systems or even those emerging in the private sector and in civil society. It is also based on the judgement that the structure and funding of organizations like UNEP may make them inherently unsuited as a base for operational programmes. UNEP has excelled in the past when it played a catalytic or convening role--in helping to create the global conventions, for example.

36. Obviously UNEP's observing and assessment activities are not an end in themselves, but support policy and decision-making processes to protect human welfare and improve the environment. Some of the specific policy-relevant purposes for global environmental information are:

a) to ensure that the basic environmental components of the biosphere (air, water, land) are not so degraded or contaminated as to threaten human health or ecological stability, and that the human exploitation of natural resources and systems remains within sustainable limits;

b) to identify trends and processes of global environmental change, the state of environmental processes and resources, and the impacts on them that represent risks to human and environmental welfare, and determine the driving forces and pressures producing those risks;

c) to monitor the effectiveness of management actions taken and other human responses to environmental problems.

INFORMATION PRODUCTS FOR KEY USERS

37. As indicated in the strategic goals, the whole observing and assessment process should be policy-oriented and user driven. Therefore, UNEP's strategic goals to improve information delivery across the science-policy interface, to develop the effectiveness of the whole information system, and to strengthen regionalization of the system, need to be viewed in terms of the key user groups where UNEP can focus its impact. These user groups can help to define the kinds of information products that UNEP and its partners should produce.

38. UNEP Governing Council, environment ministers and general public: The first and most essential information product for UNEP is to prepare periodic integrated assessments of the global environment, such as the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports and decadal State of the World Environment reports, for widespread use. Since the planetary system shows many interactions between different subcomponents and processes, a picture of the whole cannot be gained just by summing the various parts covered in sectoral assessments. Linkages and interactions need to be identified, often with the help of systems models, and trends projected to identify areas requiring international action. Integrated scenarios of possible futures can be developed to help explore the consequences for various choices for policy action. These models and scenarios need to be based as far as possible on reliable and globally-harmonized environmental data sets, which should be another complementary product of the environmental information system. This broad assessment process will provide the foundation for a series of other information products for increased impact.

39. Policy-makers: High level policy- and decision-makers in international organizations, multilateral financing agencies and national governments need highly-digested and easily assimilated summary assessments and information of policy-relevance. They should be up-to-date and available whenever and wherever required. The equivalent in economic terms is the flow of economic indicators (exchange rates, stock market indices, interest rates, GDP, unemployment rates, etc.) and evaluations that summarize the state of and trends in the economy. UNEP should produce assessments and information products that keep policy-makers informed of the global and regional environmental situation, particularly where it threatens human health and well-being and environmental sustainability. This should become one mechanism for preparing and delivering long-term early warnings. Where environmental issues are controversial or uncertain, decision-makers also need summaries of the status of, and key points in, the debate, so that they can respond intelligently to public concerns. Outputs for this target group should be graphic and short, less than four pages, with links to more comprehensive reports and specialist documents.

40. International decision-making bodies: Specific international decision-making processes such as the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, the Commission on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Governing Council, the governing bodies of specialized agencies, the Conferences of the Parties of international environmental conventions, and the multilateral financial institutions require environmental assessments in response to their policy questions, summarizing the best available scientific information on the issues they are considering in the most authoritative and representative way possible. These outputs can take the form of major international scientific assessments of specific issues (climate change, biodiversity, forests, freshwater, marine environment, etc.) prepared on a periodic basis, or shorter reports from the secretariat summarizing the scientific conclusions and highlighting policy issues requiring decisions from the body concerned. A few of these reports will be UNEP's direct responsibility; many others will be produced by partners. Since much environmental information is common to more than one issue, and there are many interactions between issues, it makes little sense to have separate data collection and national scientific reporting arrangements for each UN body or convention. Governments are quickly overloaded by such requirements. Therefore, a third type of information product for which UNEP should take responsibility is to ensure that the international system can provide adequate scientific data on the global environment assembled, integrated and organized so that the status and trends can be summarized for each necessary global report. Meeting this objective will require adequate observational data in time and space, assembled in coherent data sets and integrated frameworks, assessed through reliable processes, and presented in indicators, maps, graphics, short text summaries, case studies and similar formats, necessary to compile these different targeted reports. The needs for the final environmental information products, such as UNEP's own integrated assessments, should drive the whole information system, setting its priorities. If the basic scientific information is already available through such a system, national reports to the different bodies can be simplified, concentrating on policy recommendations and the effectiveness of national responses.

41. International environmental conventions: As part of the assessment processes mentioned above, there is an increasing demand to measure the effectiveness of international environmental management actions, particularly in the context of international environmental conventions, defining another type of policy-relevant information product which UNEP should catalyze and support. Governments and the international community are developing environmental laws and regulations, economic instruments and incentives, scientific research, and international collaboration to implement environmental conventions and action plans. Industries, urban governments, the agricultural sector and others are spending large sums on pollution control, waste management, cleaner production, and other environmentally-motivated activities. They all want to know the effectiveness of these measures, so that they can set priorities and improve efficiency. UNEP should invite partnerships in an environmental information system that can collect data and performance measurements relevant to the effectiveness of environmental management. Ideally this should show up in direct scientific evidence of environmental results, such as improvements in air or water quality, but often it must begin by documenting the measures taken. While UNEP should concentrate on international performance measurement, the approaches and methodologies should have applications at other levels.

42. Decision-makers at all levels: There is a broad need for reliable environmental data from the grass-roots to the global level, at coherent nested scales of detail. UNEP cannot possibly meet this need directly, but it can help to design and encourage, through a wide set of partnerships, networks of transparent and accessible environmental information systems in which all participate and which are able to provide essential information to all users, stakeholders and decision-makers from global to local levels. This should be a catalytic activity, with UNEP selecting a few key initiatives and encouraging them for limited periods. UNEP can use its moral authority to stimulate the more free exchange of environmental information, with the participation not only of many government departments (who often do not even exchange data among themselves), but of the private sector, the space agencies, the scientific community, non-governmental organizations, local communities and grass-roots groups. The networks can be geographically-based or issue oriented, but should be responsive to user needs. The Global Forest Watch and the Global Urban Observatories are examples of networks of this type. They can facilitate the access to and aggregation of data up to the global level, but should also return assessments, reports and other useful products back down to the original information sources to maintain the incentive to participate. For example, a network could collect in situ data on water quality from local governments and the grass roots, and in return provide satellite imagery of water resources, with the two combined to give added value to both participating groups.

GENERAL PRINCIPLES FOR INFORMATION STRATEGIES

43. There are some general principles drawn from international experience that should also guide UNEP's strategy. These concern strategic planning processes, participation, use of new information technologies, and free exchange of information.

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

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

46. Participation also needs to be understood in a geographic sense. To succeed in building a global system for environmental observing and assessment, UNEP will have to catalyze capacity building in developing regions, not only for data collection, but also for data analysis and use. The process should ensure that all regions of the world participate as equal partners in the global observing and assessment process so that they feel ownership in and accept responsibility for the end products such a global system would deliver.

47. A key element in an effective environmental observing, assessment and reporting system is to make full use of new information technologies to support assessment processes. This potential is far from fully developed. It is now possible in principle to network electronically among information sources distributed in many places around the world, to harmonize the data and fill gaps, and to deliver relevant information to various scientific assessment processes and processed information products for decision-makers. This will involve multiple databases, models, search engines, expert systems and other information tools. It is an area where technology is moving very quickly, making it possible to envisage a distributed yet integrated environmental information network providing access to the core data on which expert assessments must be based. The network should support quick and structured exchanges among specialists, compilers of reports and representatives of users, facilitating cycles of feedback between report producers and users. Such a network can be designed so that everyone benefits from contributing to it. Strategies for building the capacity to use this potential now need to be developed. With some catalytic leadership and direction from UNEP, rapid progress towards such networking should be possible.

48. The integration of multiple information sources will only work if information can flow freely. A essential component of UNEP's strategy will be the promotion of principles of free access to and exchange of environmental information for non-commercial purposes. This principle of the free exchange of information must form the bedrock on which such a system can be built. Without it, inefficiencies and deficiencies will multiply. In economics, the perfect working of the market mechanism presupposes complete and accessible information. However, there is a strong tendency to want to conceal or manipulate information for market advantage, leading to restricted competition and economic inefficiencies that require intervention. In the same way, effective environmental management requires complete information available to all stakeholders. The more everyone knows, the more effectively and economically environmental security will be assured. An over-commercialization of environmental information that prevents access by many decision-makers, including governments, small and medium enterprises and the poor, who cannot afford commercial charges, will result in bad decisions damaging to the overall environmental interests of society and future generations. Rather than trying to profit from environmental information by commercializing it, the central goal should be to provide a level playing field of full and effective information, based on which public officials, private entrepreneurs and the general public can all develop the most environmentally-friendly and sustainable economic and social systems. Entrepreneurial talent and private enterprise should be expressed in exploiting the knowledge and technologies that come from effective environmental information, not the information system itself. UNEP and the UN system should take the lead in working for the necessary free flow of information.

II. PRIORITY ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

49. The environment is a broad subject touching on almost all aspects of the natural world and human society. For UNEP, some focus on priority issues of global policy relevance is essential.

50. With respect to contents, the scope of UNEPís observing and assessment activities should be broad. Its observing should cover both the state of and trends in the environment, and data on the adequacy of policy responses (including through conventions). Its assessments should include analysis of causes of environmental deterioration, linkages between environmental issues, and environmental forecasting and risk assessment. This latter entails assessment of the full implications of past, present and possible future human behaviour, facilitating the timely signalling of emerging problems, and evaluation of the effectiveness and implications of alternative policy options and strategies. The results of the assessments should support priority setting.

51. UNEPís environmental assessment activities should reach across and integrate environmental issues and sectors. In this way the assessments should help in the formulation of coordinated policies between the issue-oriented conventions, and in the integration of environmental policies in sectoral and general areas of international policy making, such as finance, trade and sustainable development policies. They should provide inputs to other UN agencies and programmes.

52. As a consequence, UNEPís assessment domain, in particular, should be more clearly demarcated. The broadening of the scope of its assessment activities to include driving forces, impacts and responses, and the need to integrate assessments across environmental issues and sectors, would necessitate a narrowing of UNEP's activities to those issues where it can have the highest added value when compared to national and regional assessment efforts. Some focus on priority issues is therefore essential. UNEP must strike a balance between its own broad integrated assessments of the global environment in relation to sustainable development, and specific information products targeting critical policy issues. This would limit UNEPís domain to:
- global environmental issues (planetary systems, global commons, transboundary issues), including their linkages to other issues and to sustainable development;
- environment aspects of international sectoral policies on issues such as trade, finance and aid;
- regional environment issues that pose a threat to environment security or otherwise have significant implications for the global environment.

53. The latter item is a response to the growing need to address environment issues that are regional or local in nature, but that concern the international community due to their possible social and political implications, such as regional/ethnic conflict or the creation of environment refugees. They can be compared to cases of local threats to international peace addressed by the UN Security Council.

54. Global environmental issues that have received high priority in international debate and decision making include: climate change, forecasting seasonal to inter-annual climate variability, freshwater, biodiversity, desertification, forests, ecosystem productivity, food security, ocean dynamics and resource management, land-based activities affecting the marine and aquatic environments, persistent organic pollutants and toxic chemicals, and megacity problems. UNEP and many other organizations are already active in addressing these issues, and for most, observing and assessment activities have already been developed, at least to some extent. UNEP should identify where there are gaps and weaknesses in present activities, and where it has a particular comparative advantage. It can then catalyze action to fill the gaps. In the short term, UNEP should select a few priority issues or areas for initial modules to demonstrate its new strategy in action. A few of these are discussed in the Strategy document. Some examples of the strategic approach that UNEP could use to define other priority issues are given below.

55. Freshwater is an immediate priority area agreed at the 1997 Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council, and therefore a good issue to demonstrate the kind of strategic thinking that should go into the selection of activities where UNEP can make an effective contribution.. There are many actors already active in the water area; UNEP's niche is in cross-sectoral integration. Since the most policy-relevant geographic scale for freshwater issues is that of the watershed and the area over which water is supplied to users, the kind of larger scale water assessments that UNEP might undertake could only flag general issues, but would not be useful for planning. It is also not useful to build a global database of water quality, since such data are of little use at the global level. What is relevant globally is the policy issue of how well water quality targets are being met. UNEP should therefore not try to establish a permanent water information or assessment programme, but should catalyze efforts to improve the information systems developed and operated by those most immediately concerned.

56. A need that UNEP could target is for information system tools at the watershed/subwatershed scale that can integrating all the relevant factors for decision-making. UNEP cannot establish such systems by itself, but it can help to design methodologies for integrating information. In particular, it can work with its partners to generate large scale data sets that can provide inputs to such systems, including: watershed boundaries and topography; climatological data, rainfall variability and projected impacts of climate change; population distribution and trends; land uses and trends (agriculture, urbanization, deforestation) affecting water demand, water quality and water catchment/recharge capacity; pollution sources (industry, non-point agricultural and urban sources, precipitation from air pollution); etc. For example, freshwater biodiversity information may be collected for the Biodiversity Convention; UNEP could ensure that it is recorded in a form that is also useful for water planning. This would allow water planners to know what special habitats were at risk from water extraction or use, and biodiversity specialists to anticipate water uses that might threaten biodiversity.

57. Management of freshwater resources raises a whole series of policy issues that need to be addressed in an integrated way. These include potential conflicts between different user groups which may all be planning to use the same potential resources; future constraints on water uses from a supply shortage or pollution impacts; the operating, infrastructure, and energy costs of maintaining or improving water supply; the down-stream, transboundary, and coastal impacts of water extraction and pollution; the impacts of water problems on agriculture, food security and health; the effects on ecosystems and biodiversity; and water shortages and stresses that may lead to development failures, disasters or environmental refugees. Many of these issues concern external or hidden costs that are too often ignored in water planning.

58. The method to be used would be for UNEP to work with all those partners who have data on some part of the whole picture, and to see with them how the data collected for other uses could also be used for integrated water planning. It could design a process of data flow between these different "compartments". For those kinds of data that could come from the global or regional level, it could request focussed data collection and delivery from the global observing systems or regional environmental information programmes. It could stimulate capacity building by partners or catalytic action to improve data collection by government or other stakeholders. It could even work with NGO networks or government services to organize grass-roots participation in observations, such as the network of school children who collect information on water quality indicator species for water authorities in Australia. The global watershed and water resources maps now being developed provide an existing framework. Links should be established with models of climate, water use, and watershed changes that would allow projecting their impacts on water supply/water quality, to provide early warning of potential conflict situations. The Global International Waters Assessment and the GESAMP assessment of Land-based Activities affecting the Marine Environment could provide supportive information, as could activities of members of the ACC Subcommittee on Freshwater Resources. Pilot activities could start in one or a few watersheds during the developmental phase, in collaboration with users.

59. Water quality information is recognized as a major gap in available data where UNEP is well placed to play an important role. However the significance of water pollution is local, or transboundary along water courses, through its effects on users and on the cost of treatment to restore satisfactory water quality. This is why the GEMS-water approach to a global water quality database was not successful, as such data are not useful at the global level for decision-making. If UNEP can help to develop an integrated observing system for water quality that relates pollution data to supply and impact calculations locally and within watersheds, this will create the motivation to collect the necessary data, and may even identify the most relevant and economical sites for monitoring from the predicted pollution sources. This would catalyze more sustainable water quality observations. A module on catalyzing an integrated observing system for water quality has been developed in the Strategy document.

60. UNEP should have a general interest in the assessment of all significant global ecosystems. It should focus on specific ecosystems such as forests or coral reefs as resources permit, with the ultimate aim to ensure that all ecosystems are covered by assessment processes. For example, forest change is an area highlighted by the recent widespread forest fires, where improved information for preventive action and emergency response would be useful. Since FAO has the lead UN role on forest issues, UNEP should concentrate only on the integration of forest information into integrated land resource and long-term early warning information systems. The FAO global forest assessment will provide input, as could the CEOS/IGOS project on global observations of forest cover, the Global Terrestrial Observing System initiative on primary productivity, and the Global Forest Watch. UNEP should cooperate with these and other programmes to integrate their information outputs, such as maps or images of forest change at nested scales, into information systems supporting assessment and decision-making processes. Such information could be linked, for instance, with meteorological information on water deficits to provide early warning of major fire risks.

61. Coral reefs are an important coastal ecosystem under particular threat. With the International Coral Reef Initiative, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, ReefBase at ICLARM, the recent review of Reefs at Risk, the proposed global Coral Reef Watch, and various regional initiatives, there seems to be an adequate basis for UNEP and its partners to develop some specific information products bringing a regular flow of information on the status of and threats to coral reefs to the attention of decision-makers, so that more preventive or corrective measures can be taken in the most vulnerable or damaged areas.

62. The oceans are an international commons with major impacts on the stability of the climate system, a significant role in regulating atmospheric composition and greenhouse gases,and important resources under increasing threat from various human activities and pressures. UNEP has always played a leading role with partners across the UN system through the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) in periodic assessments of the state of the marine environment that have guided international policy development. The next assessment is due in 2002. UNEP is also required under the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities to prepare an assessment of those land-based activities and their impacts on marine and coastal areas. UNEP should develop a module to provide the teams preparing these assessments with the resources needed to complete their tasks on schedule.

63. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) have been identified as a priority for international action, and their control is presently being addressed in UNEP-led convention negotiations. They will require an international observing and assessment programme if the convention is to be implemented effectively. The design of a targeted observation and assessment programme for both the chemicals expected to be listed under the convention, and others that may be candidates for listing, will become an international priority that UNEP should anticipate in its assessment strategy. There is already a UNEP GEF project to initiate regional capacity building in this area.

64. The continuing high rate of urban migration in many countries and the growing number of mega-cities are making urban environmental problems a critical issue. UNEP could collaborate with Habitat to develop a demonstration project to produce urban assessments for Habitat's target audience of local government policy-makers and regional planners. This could be linked to the freshwater project to emphasize information for urban water supply management, with an emphasis on the development and delivery of information products immediately useful for practical decision-making. Such a project might start, for instance, in some areas where cities are competing with agriculture for limited supplies of water, requiring integrated cross-sectoral planning.

65. For air pollution, the replacement of GEMS-air should start by examining the key policy issues to be addressed at different scales. One is obviously the health impacts of air pollution on the concentrated population in urban areas. The polar distillation processes producing high concentrations of toxic chemicals in the Arctic are a global air pollution concern. At the regional scale, the airborne transport and precipitation of pollution is significant, including acid rain with its forest and agricultural impacts, water pollution of lakes and rivers by precipitation, and the significant inputs from the atmosphere to the marine environment. Assessment of these regional-scale issues can provide the basis for recommendations for new regional agreements and other policy action.

66. For the transboundary air pollution problems, policy issues to be addressed include identification of win-win or win-lose interactions between policy measures at different scale levels, for example climate issues and urban air pollution or climate policy and acidification. Specific attention also needs to be given to disturbance of C and N cycles; acidification; particulates and tropospheric ozone; POPs and pesticides. Some of these are regional in mechanism but are now emerging in almost all regions (for example acidification and eutrophication). The strategic approach needed is to determine the types of air pollution data required to address these issues, what is already being collected, and whether it is being delivered where it is needed for decision-making. It is also necessary to identify the impact data sets required: soils, water quality, ecosystem/species changes, forest dieback, marine impacts, body burdens in people and animals, etc. Where appropriate, UNEP could catalyze improved data collection to fill important gaps. The next step is stimulating modelling work on the movement of air masses to determine transport from sources to sinks, to help interpret the effects and probable causes, and thus to identify where control measures are most needed. Finally, the institutional structures in place should be reviewed to see if any could deal with the regional or global scale problems. If not, UNEP might help to catalyze them.

67. For urban air pollution problems, an information for decision-making strategy should be developed with Habitat as part of the Global Urban Observatories programme, since the local governments in urban areas often have primary responsibility for action. The observing and information system should be designed to signal the specific air pollution effects to facilitate the economic targeting of control measures.

68. In the biodiversity area, there are two issues where UNEP can have a comparative advantage in assessment: regional-scale ecosystems where transboundary species and habitat management issues are important, and the problems of global transport and introduction of invasive species, which now cause both significant economic impacts and the degradation of many ecosystems and habitats as well as species extinctions.

69. UNEP is not the central player on land issues, with FAO, the Desertification Convention and other bodies all active in this area. However, there are three key issues relevant to land use in which UNEP and Habitat have a major interest: freshwater, land-based activities affecting the marine environment, and the impacts of urban development. UNEP should develop a new approach to land issues focussed on these three interfaces:
- water resources and land use/management;
- urban development and land resources (with Habitat);
- marine/coastal impact and land-based activities (GPA/LBA).

70. An example of the monitoring and assessment of response actions, such as the interactions between environmental conventions caused by effects of decisions taken under one convention on environmental issues covered by other conventions, would also be desirable as UNEP assessment module, as the methodology for performance monitoring is less well developed at the international level. In particular, given the political sensitivity that can often surround performance monitoring, developing participatory processes that combine self-evaluation with a kind of "peer review" may help to make such environmental performance monitoring of international institutions and actions a constructive process welcomed by all concerned.

III. FOUNDATIONS FOR A NEW STRATEGY

71. No strategy should be developed without taking into account the larger context around it or the experience of what has gone before. This section summarizes the results of the strategic review undertaken with the assistance of outside advisors. It cites relevant strategic frameworks within which UNEP's strategy is a component or complement, as well as lessons learned from past UNEP experience and gaps that have been identified, before suggesting new approaches.

Global environmental observing and assessment - the larger picture

72. The strategy focusses specifically on UNEP and its role in global environmental observing, assessment and reporting, but UNEP is just one institution in a much wider set of structures and activities. Its strategy needs to fit coherently into the strategies of the whole UN system and the international community, as reflected, for instance, in Agenda 21, particularly chapter 40 on Information for Decision-making, and subsequent reports on that chapter by the Secretary-General to the Commission on Sustainable Development. The ACC report on the UN system-wide Earthwatch, quoted in the section on UNEP's mandate above, also provides agreed strategy elements for UNEP.

73. In preparation for this strategic planning exercise, Earthwatch Coordination has recently reviewed the larger picture of the whole process of providing global environmental information for decision-making in a background discussion document, "Earthwatch Strategic Framework for Environmental Observing, Assessment and Reporting". This includes, among other points, the major strategic components and existing processes, as well as descriptions of the situation with respect to the global issues to be addressed and the major user groups. The review has been one source for this strategy; other more general elements in it are not repeated here.

74. Another relevant strategy is the Integrated Global Observing Strategy, adopted by the IGOS Partnership of space agencies, international organizations (including UNEP), global observing systems and global change research programmes, which covers mechanisms for coordination of the data collection component. Both these strategies are being developed with close coordination through Earthwatch, so as to be complementary and mutually reinforcing. All of the relevant documents are available on the Earthwatch web site at http://www.unep.ch/earthw.html.

Past experience and lessons learned

75. The successes and failures of the past are an important guide to any new strategic planning process. Annex 1 briefly reviews UNEP's work to date, summarizes other entities engaged in observing, analysis and reporting and UNEP's interaction with them, describes data collection efforts that have resulted in useful data or less useful data, and identifies critical gaps in environmental data collection globally. On the basis of this past experience, the following lessons learned have helped to guide the strategic planning process:

    Observing and monitoring systems designed to support global purposes work best when they also serve local and/or national purposes--when they are built on the back of local/national systems and both add value by aggregating and summarizing data in a global context and return value to the local/national entities that are the source of the data. Purely global systems without strong local/national links have generally failed.

    In the past, most global monitoring systems were top-down, with a centralized database and management, but with inadequate support to meet their global ambitions and to produce results of use to data suppliers. Decentralized, bottom-up systems fit better with the concept of broad participation, are more attuned to the Internet age, the idea of on-the-ground early warning, and the value of a system that serves both local/national and global needs.

    Information systems that are policy-relevant--that provide specific information products in a form useful to decision-makers--are far more successful that those that simply collect and disseminate data.

New approaches to achieving goals

76. UNEP has already instituted new approaches to global environmental assessment through the GEO process, with its reliance on governmental and non-governmental collaborating centres, its participatory consultative processes, its regional analysis of global issues, and its use of modelling and scenarios. This integrated assessment approach should be the core of UNEP's strategy. UNEP has also developed new initiatives in UN system coordination, joint planning and indicator development though Earthwatch Coordination. The greatest weaknesses have been in data collection and management, and in information delivery, and these are precisely the areas where the rapid development of new information and communications technologies are making old programmes obsolete and many new approaches possible. Most of the data needed for environmental assessments are not exclusively environmental, but concern land, energy, water, transport, agriculture, income, taxes and subsidies, law, forest, human health, fisheries, etc. UNEP should collaborate with a wide range of partners in these other areas, while concentrating itself on catalyzing improvements in environmental observations. The following outline of a global observing and assessment system suggests ways to renew UNEP's catalytic role.

77. A global environmental observing and assessment system will have to consist of improved observing and assessment at all levels, not just global. The global observing systems, despite some uniquely global components, will largely consist of networks of national and local observing systems. Assessment and reporting will occur at national, regional, and global levels. The key components of the global observing system will include:

a) more tightly-coordinated networks of existing national and global observing systems, including space-based and in situ systems, focussed much more on producing information to meet the needs of decision-makers as well as to support scientific investigation. UNEP can play a key role in improving coordination, in defining specific policy-relevant information products, and in encouraging existing observing systems to make such products a priority.

b) new, bottom-up observing networks that help to fill data gaps and contribute to early-warning, in complement to central statistical services and government-run monitoring networks. These new data-gathering systems should consist of regional and global networks of local groups, including civil society and private sector entities, linked by the Internet. UNEP can help to initiate these new systems by identifying where they are needed and calling for their creation, by providing limited start-up funding, and by establishing institutional links to these systems to enhance their credibility with governments and the private sector.

c) strengthened regional centres for analysis and reporting. These centres, chosen for their close links with national governments in the region, should have the capacity to use data and knowledge from national, regional, and global networks to produce policy-relevant information products for those governments. UNEP can help develop the capacity of these centres and can link them with data sources and with each other, and UNEP can also enhance their credibility with governments in the region by its reliance on them as sources for the GEO assessment.

78. Together, these components could improve data collection and should over time markedly increase the availability and quality of policy-relevant information, thus improving national and international decision-making concerning the environment--the primary strategic goal proposed above.

79. While improved data collection is an essential foundation, UNEP's strength is and must be the combination of various sorts of information and knowledge in an integrated approach to assessment, including explicit interpretation in response to policy questions. This is UNEP's niche, following logically from its size and mandate. Moreover, the need for more integrated assessments and policy advice will only grow as our practical understanding of environmentally-sustainable development grows and as the limits of specific add-on solutions begin to show. In the scientific domain as well, integration of various types of information is the next step forward, in order to capitalize, for instance, on earth observation data. UNEP is in a unique position to push this integration and interpretation forward. Conversely, if UNEP fails to do so, it has no future role.

IV. ANALYSIS OF UNEPís FUNCTIONS

80. As the lead environmental agency within the U.N. system, UNEP has a unique position. 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.

81. 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. The strategy outlines activities in four functional elements: assessment and reporting, environmental observing, data analysis and integration, and strategic oversight and early warning, for which additional background information is provided below. Since the functional elements all concern the same system of information flow, and have many overlaps and interactions, they should not be seen as autonomous activities but as interrelated parts to be made operational in a coherent fashion in focussed priority areas responding to particular needs, as defined in the Strategy.

82. For example, the collection of basic environmental data and information is one of the weakest, most fragmented, and often inefficient parts of present environmental observing and assessment. This applies both to scientific data on the environment, and to information on human activities affecting the environment and responding to it. Many data collected for other purposes are useless for environmental assessment, while in other critical areas no data are available. Poor data undermine the conclusions of all the assessments and lead to bad policy decisions. The data gap, as it was called in Agenda 21, concerns not only the collection of appropriate raw data through observing programmes, but their quality control, their integration and harmonization, and their use to generate indicators. Without these latter steps, the data can be quite worthless. These processes together build the foundation of reliable environmental information, including core data sets, data maps and indicators of trends, upon which assessments, reports and early warnings must be based.

83. 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 analyzed. The appropriate role for UNEP--how UNEP can best contribute significant added value or leverage other contributions--varies greatly from area to area, and the strategy is accordingly specific for each area.

ASSESSMENT AND REPORTING

84. 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. The 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.

85. 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:

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

ii) 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;

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

iv) 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;

v) 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:

i) 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;

ii) 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;

iii) 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.

86. The most immediate and substantive output of the UNEP assessment programme should be the continuing series of Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports, and particularly the next report that will serve as the decadal state of the world environment report for 2002, thirty years after the Stockholm Conference and ten years after UNCED, when progress in Agenda 21 will again be reviewed comprehensively by the United Nations.

87. UNEP already has considerable recent experience in policy-oriented environmental assessment processes, and significant outlets for its assessment work. UNEP's GEO process, with its participatory regional structure and high global visibility, is an innovative and successful example of assessment and reporting. UNEP's partnership in the World Resources Report, with its extensive collection and analysis of global data sets and wide distribution, provides UNEP with another strong reporting vehicle. These two are already well placed strategically in the international field.

88. UNEPís assessment activities in general should be based on a participatory approach. To secure both political support as well as the scientific credibility of the results, the assessment and observing activities should be an open and participatory process. There is a need for a stronger involvement of regional assessment centres and societal groups to capitalise on their expertise and to stimulate policy support. At the same time assessment activities should be open to extensive scientific and public review. UNEP should also enhance the availability of assessment methodologies and analytical tools in support of its broadly defined assessment function, to stimulate local, national and regional assessment activities that will strengthen the foundation for global assessments.

89. With reference to the second operational element of the assessment and reporting strategy, the key to UNEPís strategy is that it positions itself at the interface between science and global/regional policies for the environment. UNEP should focus in its own assessments on assessments and other information products for its specific target groups. This is not inconsistent with meeting other, broader objectives, but ensures an emphasis on user needs. Within this focus, UNEPís environmental assessment effort must be adequately geared to the needs of all its target groups and not just its Governing Council, in order to have a policy-relevant and effective role in international environmental policy making. While UNEPís environmental assessments should provide its Governing Council with adequate information to guide it in defining policies and making decisions, it should reach out to the whole UN system and well beyond if it is to support UNEPís mission. In this respect, UNEP's assessment activities should be looked at more from a marketing than a management information perspective: its assessments are among its key service products, which to be successful should be tailored to its clients. It also implies that UNEPís assessment strategy should define clear products for its customers.

90. Therefore, UNEP should direct its assessments to the environmental policy questions of four primary target groups:
- the UNEP Governing Council, the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, and through them the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN General Assembly;
- specialized UN bodies (e.g. FAO, UNDP, WHO, etc.);
- international environmental conventions;
- multilateral financial institutions.
It should establish a structured dialogue with each of these target groups based on a regular review of information needs and of the focussed assessment activities and reporting.

91. UNEP should provide its Governing Council and the whole the UN system and its decision-making bodies, including the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) of the UN Economic and Social Council, with comprehensive, yet easily accessible information about key developments in the state of the worldís environment, about emerging environment problems, about the causes of these problems, about how they relate to other issues and sectors, and about possible options for their control. UNEP should help in evaluating general progress in improving the environment, in identifying emerging issues (agenda setting), and in setting policy priorities in international environment policy making.

92. UNEPís assessment products should be a comprehensive forward-looking GEO report to support an in-depth evaluation of progress and the effectiveness of policies, to review and adjust policy priorities, and to facilitate agenda setting for emerging issues. In addition, UNEP should prepare annual reports on trends, current issues and policy initiatives needed. The CSD needs UNEPís information to incorporate the environment dimension into effective, integrated sustainable development policies. UNEP should serve the CSD by participating in the drafting of the Secretary-General's reports and the Trend reports, with a primary responsibility for providing the necessary environment data and analysis.

93. UNEPís next target group is specialized UN agencies such as UNDP, WHO, and FAO. Such specialized agencies need UNEPís information to integrate environment knowledge into their sector policies. To serve the specialized agencies, UNEPís assessment activities could provide support to sectoral environment assessments, especially those aimed at analysing and addressing various environment issues at the sectoral level in an integrated way.

94. The third target group for UNEP assessments is the various international (global and regional) environmental conventions. Some of these have secretariats hosted within UNEP or other specialized UN agencies, while others have their own institutional structure (e.g. FCCC). Here, UNEPís assessment task is to collaborate in organizing the assessment of the state of environmental science, to provide guidance on the collection of data, to monitor progress in the implementation of the conventions and the attainment of their stated goals, and to assess options for linking and integrating policies for implementing the various conventions. Products for this group are: providing advice to the Conferences of Parties on how to improve observing and assessment activities, analysis of cross-linkages between issue-oriented policies, and recommendations for enhancing the integration of the Conventionsí policy regimes. UNEP will have rely more heavily on the various Conventions and related expert groups/centres to take the lead in thematic scientific assessments. This implies that for these activities other, non-UNEP sources of structural funding should be found.

95. A fourth target group consists of multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, regional development banks, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the coordination group of donors of international aid (OECD-DAC). These agencies need advice on how to incorporate environment in their policies, on policy priorities for funding sustainable development, and on how to spend their means as effectively as possible with regard to environment protection. UNEPís assessment activities could provide independent environment impact assessments of the activities and policies of these agencies, and advice on how to improve their environment performance.

96. Obviously, materials addressed to the various targets groups should also be accessible to actors with a major influence on policy setting within the target groups, such as national governments, environmental NGOs, the media, and representatives of the business community.

97. UNEP should establish a regular line of reporting with each of its target groups. Establishing a line of reporting with these groups is not so much a matter of formal mandate - since its establishment in 1972, UNEPís mission has been to keep under review the earthís environment and to provide policy advice - but rather UNEP should work with each of the four target groups in order to build a joint routine of environmental reporting to them. Above all, this collaboration should aim at positioning UNEPís focus where this is most useful, by defining and redefining the questions to be addressed and by the selection of indicators.

98. For practical purposes, and in order to deliver a concentrated message, UNEP should service all of its target groups on the basis of the same series of reports. For this to work, UNEP should develop the new GEO series in such a way that it services both agenda setting and progress evaluation, each function being met with an appropriate periodicity. Periodic Global Environment Outlooks, at intervals of two to four years, should be the basis for re-assessing the environmental agenda, and include long-term early warning signals. These should put regional and national developments and efforts in a global context. The Executive Director of UNEP may also wish to issue yearly statements on the environment. These could focus on progress in policy, and report new findings that have emerged. Each statement should contain an indicator-based segment, and should focus on priority areas.

99. A mechanism is required to provide strategic policy guidance on the focus for assessment, taking the needs of all four target groups into consideration. For this purpose, an advisory group on UNEPís observing and assessment programme should be established. This group should include leading scientists, and should advise on policy questions to be addressed by UNEPís assessments, on the choice of indicators and on the selection of observing programmes for UNEP to participate in. It should also provide quality control for UNEP's assessment activities. Some guidance could also be sought from a governmental perspective through the Committee of Permanent Representatives, the High Level Committee of Ministers and Officials, and/or the Governing Council itself.

100. UNEPís initiatives in designing and producing environmental indicators should be fully integrated in the process of designing and producing the assessments described above and in reporting under environmental conventions. UNEP should consider indicators as an information contract between itself and the body it reports to.

101. In relation to international environmental conventions, UNEP should work through the regular meetings of heads of secretariats to assist in designing scientific assessment processes and environmental information support to the conventions. UNEPís approach and various networks have a large potential for application in such more specific settings where international scientific consensus is critical. However, care must be taken not to overburden its networks.

102. With respect to regional links to policy, UNEP should concentrate on regional policy consultations on draft assessments. These consultations can be developed from the regional consultations as held for GEO-1 and GEO-2 and should be organized by UNEPís regional offices.

103. Last but not least among the policy links, it has to be recognized that the above strategy elements aim at assuring linkage to policies of governments. But increasingly, NGOs and the business community participate in policy setting processes for the environment and environmentally sustainable development. UNEP should explore ways to involve key organizations from these groups in its observing and assessment programme, perhaps in a reviewing role.

104. For the fourth operational element of the strategy, UNEP's assessment and reporting efforts should move beyond the state of the environment to give additional emphasis to causes, impacts, and policy responses. Thus UNEP's assessments should not only consider the environment itself, but also evaluate the adequacy, performance and global environmental impacts of societal responses and development programmes, as a basis for realistic recommendations for improving those responses and programmes. This will be difficult and could be politically controversial, and will face significant data gaps, particularly in the initial stages. It should concentrate on adequacy, performance and impacts only in terms of the environment, as a contribution to monitoring the implementation, or lack thereof, of Agenda 21 and other international environmental agreements and action plans. There will need to be a mechanism to achieve a consensus on which issues to assess: achievements and environmental impacts of the various conventions (climate, biodiversity, CITES, etc.), treaties (e.g. Law of the Sea), fora (e.g. International Forum on Chemicals), UN agencies (FAO,WHO ,WMO, etc.). The status of these reviews and recommendations would need to be determined. The process should include the parties directly involved, NGOís, regional and national bodies, business sectors, etc. according to the areas under study.

105. Concerning the fifth operational strategy element, UNEP should focus on global assessments, including regional assessments in a global context. In other words, UNEP should assess:
- global environmental issues (governance of the global commons, transboundary issues), including their linkages to other issues and sustainable development;
- environmental aspects of international trade, finance and aid;
- regional environmental issues that pose a threat to environmental security.

106. UNEP's published state of the world environment reports, represented now by the GEO reports, have long been a reference standard and a guide to international action, although they have not always had the distribution necessary to achieve their maximum impact. The World Resources Reports, of which UNEP is a cosponsor, have circulated more widely, providing another output for UNEP's information. UNEP should continue to publish printed versions of its assessments, but it should also develop new means to extend this information to a much wider and more diverse global audience. The GEO report has been a significant step forward, with an electronic version also available electronically on the World Wide Web.

107. Other UNEP environmental reports and assessment publications should be targeted and timed specifically to support particular decision-making processes, including reviews by the UN General Assembly, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and the Conferences of the Parties of environmental conventions.

108. Although this focus corresponds to an apparent trend in policy questions, it also means limiting the domain of UNEPís assessment and, therefore, its data assembly. Strictly local issues, even if they are universal (e.g. air pollution), should in these assessments not be addressed as such but only in their relation to other issues. The primary reason for this limitation is that it is UNEPís unique position to provide global overviews, and policy advice on this basis. By the same token, UNEP is not in a position to issue free-standing regional assessments that will add critically to policy advice as developed by regional bodies and processes. (For example, Ecoasia or Environment for Europe.) But UNEP should continue to differentiate its global assessments regionally, thereby offering regional and subregional policy setters valuable contextual information. The current level of geographic resolution in UNEP global assessments, i.e. based on five global regions with a finer differentiation into fifteen to twenty subregions, is appropriate. In addition, it is critical that UNEP involves the best of regional expertise in the compilation of its assessments.

109. There should be feedback from assessments to observing activities. Observing activities should be steered by data and information needs identified by experts involved in assessment activities, to ensure that the products can be used in global syntheses. It is UNEPís task to identify these needs and to communicate them to the various international observing systems and scientific programmes. UNEP's own data logistics should be reorganized to support its assessments.

110. The performance evaluation of these assessments can be performed at two levels: technical quality and political impact. For the first, review panels of experts could be used; for the second, a broader review could assess to what extent reports and recommendations have led to positions and actions by decision makers.

111. Under the first collaborative and catalytic element of the assessment and reporting strategy, UNEP should cooperate with other partners in sectoral assessments such as the next State of the Marine Environment report being prepared by GESAMP, the assessment of Land-based Activities affecting the Marine Environment called for under the Global Programme of Action, the Global International Waters Assessment, the Assessment of Ecosystems, and the assessment processes supporting the international environmental conventions, as well as other assessments for which UNEP has a specific mandate. These assessments should be targeted to policy-making process. UNEP should not only contribute its broad environmental perspective and integrated approach to these assessments, but should also incorporate their insights and findings into its own assessments, strategic oversight and long-term early warning efforts.

112. For the second collaborative element of the strategy, UNEP should continue to develop a network of collaborating centres spread around the world as an important contribution to more balanced and participatory assessments. Centres that do not perform may need to be changed, and the selection of centres modified to meet particular assessment requirements. The expertise of centres in the network should be developed to match the substantial requirements of UNEP's assessments. The network should not be expanded in number (except for correcting the present absence of linkage to expertise in Australasia). Its optimal size is probably between fifteen and twenty centres.

113. The role of the centres is to bring to bear the best available knowledge and regional perceptions in the compilation of UNEPís assessments. This includes the analysis of current and alternative policies. They should provide access to expertise and information across the diversity of regions and nations, although, strictly speaking, the centres are not meant to represent regions.

114. A multi-year working programme for the network of collaborating centres should be set up and stable funding and capacity development assured to carry the programme out. The working programme should comprise:
- Further development of methods to make policy-oriented, integrated assessments. This should be targeted at robust methods to meet the need for more comprehensive policy-oriented assessments, instead of single-issue reports or purely descriptive reporting. Moreover, such methods should also link UNEPís environment assessments with economic and social issues, as is increasingly required. The participatory approach to assessments adds greatly to their acceptance, but requires relatively simple methods that can be shared among centres in the various regions. The involvement of not just one but four target audiences, as well as other stakeholders, each with different regional perspectives, also demands simplicity and transparency.
- Methods for improving the quality of available input data for UNEPís assessments with respect to the region in which a centre is located. This aspect of the work programme should focus on methods for interfacing global top-down with local/national bottom-up data, using available expertise.
The programme should build on existing strong points of each of UNEPís collaborating centres and create links between centres in the various regions.

115. UNEPís network of collaborating centres currently receives incremental funding (i.e. for added services to UNEP), as opposed to integral funding. Moreover, funding is organized by project and through project revisions for additional work. Assuming that by necessity funding will continue to be incremental, UNEP should pursue arrangements on the basis of multi-annual commitments by donors and contracts with the centres for periods of approximately five years, as the European Environment Agency does with its topic centres.

116. With respect to the third collaborative element of the assessment and reporting strategy, UNEP should pursue concrete collaboration at the global level with other international bodies, governments and convention secretariats to consolidate and strengthen the whole series of international scientific advisory processes that support various assessments of the environment and sustainable development. Regular consultations and other inter-linkages between the relevant scientific bodies should improve their coherence and effectiveness. The recent report prepared by Earthwatch for the Commission on Sustainable Development on International Scientific Advisory Processes on the Environment and Sustainable Development is a strong start in this direction.

117. Taking into account the requirements for UNEPís assessment activities, its short-term (five year) strategy to strengthen its environmental assessment programme should include five components: (a) establish a structured dialogue with each of its target groups for assessments based on a regular review of information needs for its focussed assessment activities and reporting; (b) consolidate a network of collaborating centres around the world, and enhance their capabilities and expertise to match the substantial requirements of its assessment activities; (c) reorganize its data logistics to support its assessments; (d) enhance the availability of assessment methodologies and analytical tools in support of its broadly defined assessment function; and (e) pursue concrete collaboration with other international bodies, governments and convention secretariats to consolidate and strengthen the whole series of scientific assessment processes that support various environment-related assessments.

ENVIRONMENTAL OBSERVING

118. To fulfil its mission to analyze 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. However, the collection of basic environmental data and information is fragmented and often inefficient: poor data undermine assessment conclusions and lead to bad policy decisions. Moreover, UNEP itself neither collects any data nor directly manages any observing systems. In the past, UNEP has promoted or coordinated several observing activities and programmes, such as the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), marine pollution monitoring in Regional Seas, and the development of emissions inventories for greenhouse gases, but it was unable to maintain these programmes. Today, its role in this area should be limited to the design and launching of needed observing activities and their transfer to other organizations better placed to operate them on a continuing basis.

119. 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. The strategy calls for UNEP to:

i) 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;

ii) 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;

iii) 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;

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

120. There are hardly any assessment reports that do not deplore the lack of data or the unreliability or lack of comparability of available environmental data. The exercise by UNEP and its partners to review core data sets has helped to define the problems more precisely. Data collection efforts are often fragmented or duplicative, and in need of consolidation in support of a variety of assessment processes.

121. The new strategic approach outlined above is needed to fill the data gap. With the persistence of this critical lack of basic information that imperils both national and global decision-making, UNEP must play a catalytic role to help rebuild and refocus not just global observing and assessment efforts, but national and regional efforts as well--since a successful system will link both. UNEP can use its convening powers to engage national observing agencies, many of whom are looking for guidance on policy-relevant information needs and mechanisms for international coordination. Since better decision-making in developing regions depends on better national and regional capacity to analyze data and convert it to policy-relevant information, UNEP must also seek to engage and strengthen regional centres, as it has already begun to do through the GEO process. UNEP can also catalyze and encourage the emergence of new, bottom-up observing efforts that can contribute to long-term early warning. Only such a broad-gauge strategy is likely to command broad political support, and only such a strategy is likely to make a significant difference to the world's ability to make improved decisions affecting the environment.

122. For the second element of the environmental observing strategy, the need for better coordination has already been recognized within the international community with the creation of the Sponsors Group linking the three Global Observing Systems (GCOS, GOOS, GTOS) and the launch of the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS) with the space agencies, Global Observing Systems (G3OS) and their UN agency sponsors, and international research programmes, in which UNEP has been a leader through Earthwatch Coordination. UNEP needs to use its convening powers to extend this approach to national observing agencies, holding meetings to build consensus on protocols and key data gaps and catalyzing new partnerships and data-sharing agreements. UNEP should host or support the secretariats of a limited number of joint global observing programmes. For example, UNEP should offer to host a permanent secretariat for the IGOS Partnership, and continue to cooperate in the Sponsors Group of the three Global Observing Systems (GCOS, GOOS, GTOS), supporting their secretariats and catalyzing more coherent operational observing of the planetary environment. In view of its focus on issues that require decision making at the global or regional level, UNEP should leave responsibility for GEMS Air and GEMS Water to WHO, or encourage their replacement by more appropriate systems.

123. Even more critical, however, is the need to reorient existing observing systems to address the needs of decision-makers, so that these systems see their outputs not just as primary data but also as including a range of timely information products--indicators, maps, bulletins, policy-relevant analyses, graphic images, video clips, and web sites. Many observing agencies are seeking authoritative guidance on what data they should collect and what information they should deliver, and UNEP has unique moral authority to provide that guidance--by working with the convention secretariats, convening expert groups, publishing the results, and using its voice to bring them to the attention of the world's governments and their observing agencies. To accomplish this effectively will require an on-going dialogue with national and international observing agencies, the international remote sensing community, the principal user groups, and other actors, and an expanded UNEP information and assessment staff with the appropriate expertise and adequate budgets for travel and workshops. Prudence and fiscal constraints suggest starting to build greater coordination and policy focus in a few sectors, rather than in all areas at once.

124. This strategy implies that the Earthwatch approach ( the UN system-wide collaboration to keep the Earthís environment under review) should be energetically strengthened. The key step forward, relative to the previous 25 years, is that UNEPís strategy is now more focussed, distinguishing between (i) the collaborative effort to generate the core input data for all sorts of assessment and reporting; and (ii) specific data logistics in relation to UNEPís assessments. The fact that UNEPís assessment programme is now taking shape provides it with a credible reason for determining the observing focus, and the priorities for its interagency arrangements.

125. In addition, UNEP could to a much greater extent call for governments to make commitments to help fill critical data gaps. Some governments have access to advanced technologies in remote sensing and interpretation capable, for instance, of producing a global land-use map at a scale useful as base map for local and national planning and observing efforts, that they might be willing to put in the public domain as a contribution in kind to the world community. Indeed, by asking a number of developed country governments for such high-profile, in-kind contributions, UNEP could stimulate a kind of competition and leverage new observing resources.

126. The third component of the environmental observing strategy is for UNEP to catalyze, encourage, and possibly modestly support the development of new, bottom-up observing efforts. Two such efforts are already under way--Global Forest Watch (initiated by WRI and other NGO partners) and the Global Urban Observatories (initiated by Habitat)--and others, such as a global Coral Reef Watch, are being discussed. These new, internet-based networks of local groups have a strong civil society, grass roots character. They are grounded in collecting data from each node's immediate local area and posting it in a timely fashion on web sites, thus making it publicly available on the Internet. With common data protocols and built-in review processes, these networks can become credible sources of information. They can also provide early warning of emerging or emergency conditions and draw attention to the conditions under observation. As such, these new observing efforts compliment the capacities of centralized national observing agencies and can help fill some data gaps. At the same time, they are inherently far more participatory and can generate local and national support precisely because their outputs are perceived as immediately relevant to the communities--and perhaps the countries--in which each node is located. Moreover, such low-cost networks provide a way to create additional observing resources from non-traditional funding sources.

127. These emerging new systems would benefit from links to UNEP, and UNEP needs access to the information that they will produce. This may involve building partnerships with, and even helping to establish coalitions of non-governmental organizations or other partners, including many at the local level. UNEP should particularly assist with methodology development for participatory observations, questions of quality control and data management, establishing credibility for the outputs, and feeding results back to the data producers to encourage continued participation. There are many such initiatives already developing around the world, and UNEP should stimulate the exchange of experience between them. The Internet will be an important tool for this, but meetings, study visits, handbooks and training manuals, and other supporting activities should also be encouraged.

128. The fourth component of the observing strategy builds on the network of regional coordinators and collaborating centres created by the GEO assessment process for regional quality enhancement of environmental data. These centres already have substantial analytical capabilities, but with further strengthening they could produce regular reports, analyses, indicators, and other information products customized to regional needs and issues and directed specifically at governments within the region. Such immediate feedback will help to stimulate further data collection efforts. UNEP should devote significant resources to strengthening these centres in developing regions, helping to provide access to local, national, and global data sources, encouraging best practices and mutual learning, and helping to build links with national governments in the region. Producing "home-grown" information products at national or regional centres backed by UNEP and other international agencies is the key to improving decision-making affecting the environment in many developing countries. Again, a prudent approach would be to focus initial efforts on a few issues--perhaps even on a few regions--so as to demonstrate tangible results and significant progress rapidly.

129. The Environment and Natural Resource Information Networking (ENRIN) activities with regional centres have proved an effective mechanism to catalyze improved information flows at the regional level, in cooperation with many partners in the regions. One aspect of UNEP's regional activities could be that of facilitator, helping to design information systems that assist countries with their own assessments and international reporting requirements. The Division's regional coordinators should also ensure that relevant global data sets, including geo-referenced data sets, are available to regional, subregional and national users and effectively contribute to regional and national assessments and reports. Thus, through practical experience and frequent iterations, UNEP can create a system whereby global and national data sets, too often very discordant, are brought together and are aligned.

130. UNEP should also build partnerships with a small network of thematic centres to develop a coordinated global approach to particular issues or areas where there is a significant data gap, and often methodological problems as well. The centres would be assigned global thematic or topical roles, for example on land-related issues, biodiversity, or multilateral environmental agreements, reflecting UNEPís long-term priorities. The World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) is one example of a thematic data centre that UNEP together with NGO partners has helped to build into a position of leadership in biodiversity and protected area information.This network of thematic centres of excellence would be entrusted the tasks of accessing sectoral sources of information and of adapting innovative observing, assessment and reporting methods for use in UNEPís area of work. They would also help UNEP to work with global and regional science organizations and funding agencies. The combined topical coverage of such a network should cover land and food, water, energy and materials, biogeochemical cycles, population and health, and the economic system. The thematic centres should relate to UNEPís priority programme activities and the relevant convention secretariats. Sometimes an existing national centre will be prepared to take on a global role in a particular thematic area, and such initiatives should be encouraged.

DATA ANALYSIS AND INTEGRATION

131. Reliable assessments require a solid foundation of scientific data that are quality controlled, integrated into coherent and harmonized data sets, and analyzed for their significance in an environmental policy context. Raw data usually need to be analyzed, 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 are of such poor quality or so difficult to compare that they fail 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.

132. 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. The strategy calls for UNEP to:

i) 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;

ii) 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;

iii) 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;

iv) 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;

v) 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.

133. Facilitating access to, and exchange of, environmental data and information with and between nations and environmental agencies and programmes, for the purpose of environment assessment, is an essential mission for UNEP. By actively promoting collaborative efforts to reduce duplication, expand the data sets available, and to integrate and harmonize those data sets, UNEP will facilitate better decision-making and greater efficiencies for itself and throughout the international system. There is no comprehensive, global system to provide this service, using up-to-date information and Internet technologies. UNEP should first identify perceived needs (these might be quite different once the system is operational), then assess existing systems at national and regional level (for instance the EIONET of the EEA or the USEPA system). After that the global system for an expanding base of regularly maintained and commonly available data, based on remote sensing and geo-referenced data at the appropriate level of aggregation into which more detailed data could be nested and related, should be designed jointly with interested parties at all levels. UNEP should catalyze efforts to fill the major data gaps by bringing partners into a production process for well defined global data sets. There is strong support in the UN system for UNEP to take a leading role in the coordinated production of the core data sets needed for a variety of assessments and reports, as was recently confirmed by the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development at its twelfth meeting.

134. A system of efficient data flow is needed to deliver the right data on time for the assessments. All those who hold relevant data should be made to feel interested in the project and see a return for them in one way or another, including capacity building. It should be realized at the outset that an efficient system will require considerable funding on a recurrent basis. Partnerships should be sought with those who already operate international environmental data and information exchange systems, such as the G7 Environment and Natural Resources Management (ENRM) pilot project of the Global Information Society initiative. Its objective is to create a virtual library of environmental information, applying a common standard for the Global Environmental Information Locator Service (GELOS). GEMET could be used as a multilingual thesaurus. Performance could be evaluated with hit counts, a questionnaires to clients, and a cost-benefit analysis of the acquisition of the information.

135. A regional approach can assist in the quality enhancement of input data. To allow its assessments to be used for priority setting, UNEP should wherever possible base assessments on harmonized global or regional data sets, such as FAOís land-use statistics. However, because they are harmonized, national entries in such global databases are not always identical to what countries have reported. Moreover, many currently available data sets have problems that need correcting before the data can be used as input for policy-oriented assessments. Therefore, UNEPís regional coordinators and collaborating centres should exert quality control on input for UNEPís core data sets, taking into account the region where they were collected. This involves consulting regional and national scientific sources where necessary. It should result in correction of input data when necessary to avoid wrong conclusions, in filling data gaps, and in feedback to the specialized organization supplying the data. This step optimizes the advantage of the existence of harmonized data sets while retaining the possibility of collaborating centres and governments improving input on the basis of superior knowledge and authority.

136. The existing GRID (Global and Regional Integrated Data, formerly Global Resource Information Database) network of regional and national centres represents a useful range of UNEP partnerships with governments and organizations, and access to highly-relevant technical skills in data management. UNEP should give the GRID centres a new and focussed mandate as nodes in UNEP's network to support data analysis and integration, and improved information flow and data logistics. In data access, GRID centres should concentrate on data logistics and processing, including the development of tools to facilitate access to data held in many places, methodologies for the integration of multiple data sets, and formats to present data and assessments in easily communicable, dynamic and policy-relevant forms such as maps, graphics and web pages.

137. Actual data assembly should be a selective rather than comprehensive activity. The only data that the GRID centres should themselves collect and consolidate for UNEP are the input data for UNEPís global assessments, and agreed core data sets held on behalf of the UN system. Obviously GRID centres, as partnerships with other organizations, could have a wider role complementary to their service to UNEP, where they may be mandated and supported by other organizations or governments to hold and manage data on their behalf. This will be particularly true of some thematic centres, and of national GRID centres which function as a country's data depository.

138. To acquire the data necessary for UNEP assessments and reports, the GRID centres should collaborate with the following groups of organizations:
- Key providers of global and regional data sets, including: true observing organizations (such as WMO, FAO, space agencies, etc.) and the Global Observing Systems ; repackagers/consolidators (such as the UN Statistics Division and the World Bankís World Development Indicators programme); organizations related to international conventions with their own observing activities; national governments; and scientific research programmes.
- Regional economic commissions (such as ECLAC, ESCAP)
- UNEPís collaborating centres, especially thematic centres.
Of the above partners, direct operational collaboration with the World Development Indicators Programme of the World Bank may be closest to what UNEP needs. UNEP should incorporate its support for the data collection aspects of the World Resources Reports/World Resources Database in the task of the GRID centres. The databases UNEP holds outside the assessment division, not only in the field of natural resources but also on environmental management issues, such as cleaner production and law, should be cross-linked and used to support the assessment process.

139. For the third element of the data analysis and integration strategy, UNEP needs to catalyze a new integrated information framework to support assessment and decision-making for environmentally sustainable development. The principal environmental issue for the coming decades is the problem of environmental sustainability: how can social needs be met without degrading environmental resources? The interrelated nature of ecological and social systems strongly suggests the need for an integrated framework for evaluating the current state of a country or regionís environment and the pressures placed on it. Such a framework would illuminate current environmental problems, and show the connection between the problems and those aspects of social systems that can be influenced by public policy. The impacts of different policies and the possible appearance of future problems could then be explored using scenarios based on the framework.

140. It is now feasible to construct a minimal integrated framework for environmentally sustainable development for most of the worldís countries, using existing data sources. The minimal framework should be relevant to every country or region, providing a basic platform upon which other country- and region- specific information can be added, as well as a basis for identifying data gaps and prioritizing data development efforts.

141. The problem is the fragmentation of data. The absence of a coherent and structured information base that can be used as a platform for comprehensive national, regional and river basin assessments is a major frustration. Data are often organized vertically, providing considerable detail on various issues, themes and sectors. But useful environmentally sustainable development information is needed that links and integrates horizontally across environmental, resource and socio-economic dimensions. At the same time, many data come aggregated at the national level, when information for policy-relevant spatial units is needed. There is an inherent tension between the specialist and sectoral exercises that provide raw data, and the integrative requirements for environmentally sustainable development. As data bases grow exponentially, so does the level of fragmentation. With modern collection methods and powerful new modes of access, such as the Internet, a dizzying array of rapidly changing databases are accessible. With considerable effort, analysts who are addressing the environmentally sustainable development problem can, to some degree, cobble together data from disparate sources, aggregate or disaggregate to the relevant spatial scale, and fill key gaps. It should not -- and need not -- be so difficult.

142. UNEP should collaborate with other partners such as UN DESA to lead an international effort to build a well-structured information base for assessment of environmentally sustainable development. If existing data were organized into a coherent and well-structured system framework, this would provide an invaluable service. Much -- though certainly not all -- of the data is already available for supporting such an information framework for national and regional assessment. The challenge is to build generic templates for the data structures, and means of distribution.

143. A UNEP initiative in this area would leverage off of existing data, networks, and experience with organizing basic information requirements for environmentally sustainable development. It could initially be in the form of national environmental profiles, with flexibly organized levels of data detail, including a linked system of information and indicators on environmental pressure and states, natural resources, and socio-economic drivers. It could be developed eventually for river basins and other spatial units. Because the issue is one of structuring and re-packaging data into useful information, a key contribution can be made with an incremental commitment of resources.

144. The elements of a basic framework are as follows: Societies consume and transform environmental for production and direct human use. They place pressures on the environment and alter environment states. The sustainability evaluation must take into account the environment, socio-economic processes, and their mutual influences. Indicators are used as summary measures of the state of the system. They provide a reference for monitoring change and assessing the state of the system relative to sustainability targets. The evaluation acts as an environmental "report card," which shows at a glance where problems lie. It provides a coherent entry point into the rest of the framework, which contains data characterizing social and environmental states organized in such a way that the causes of the problems can be identified in terms relevant to policy. Arranging the data in a coherent framework makes it possible to connect data on the environmental condition with data on the state of societies. It can also reveal gaps in the existing data. One example is the general lack of data on historical and potential land-use dynamics. This could be addressed, in part, by combining the data contained in different geo-referenced data sets.

145. The framework would catalyze efforts to formulate sustainable development analyses, indicator sets, targets, alternative policy-relevant scenarios and action plans. If UNEP takes up this challenge, it can build on a number of experiences in organizing structures and generic data sets for environmentally sustainable development assessment.

146. The fourth strategic element responds to the potential of new information technologies. With the rapid evolution of information technologies, the definition of new and more effective information products should be part of the strategy. UNEP's experience with GEO has shown how a product can drive a whole information process. But a printed product like the GEO report does not reach a major part of the intended audience. No top decision-maker has time to read such a book, nor do most journalists or the general public. The UNEP strategy should include the design and gradual implementation of a more timely electronic environmental information system on the World Wide Web that will, through its accessibility and visibility, support action at all levels, and also help to drive improved data collection and assessment processes.

147. The system would bring together existing capacities in UNEPnet and the Mercure system, in the GRID centres, and in Earthwatch, and draw on the substance of the observing and assessment processes. Its aim should be to make high value-added information and assessments, of direct relevance to policy-making, rapidly available over the Internet, using graphics, maps and indicators, among other tools. This is the only way to increase the pace of information delivery beyond the slow rhythm of published reports. All information products generated by UNEP should be designed for dual reporting in an appropriate printed form and electronically, to use the information most effectively. This information system should be initiated through specific targeted and well-focussed demonstration projects in a few priority areas, and then be allowed to expand into other areas of user demand as resources permit. Continuous feedback from users, especially in UNEP's target groups, is essential to ensure that the system is responding to priority needs.

148. Many of the necessary partnerships and elements already exist or are being created (G3OS, IGOS, collaborating centres, UN Earthwatch, etc.). UNEP needs to catalyze their combination through electronic networking into a coherent system that delivers the kinds of products decision-makers want (maps of forest fire risk, water-stressed regions, ozone depletion, etc.). It should be a decentralized system, with each partner taking responsibility for its own pages. It should deliver clear and visible products providing a scientific basis for decision-making. The concept is ambitious, but is becoming technically practical.

149. To begin with, there will be very few parameters which are ready for electronic display, and often only over limited areas. There are enormous data and assessment problems, and often too much noise to be able to show a visible signal. Nevertheless, it is essential to make breakthroughs in building the necessary data sets and assessment mechanisms, and to leap to new and more effective information products that respond to the political demand. They should give environmental information a real-life dimension so that users can see its potential to help them. They must make the value of operational observing of the environment evident for decision-makers, funders and the public, just as weather forecasting is seen as valuable. They will help to get across the message that investment in the process is essential. At the same time, the initial products must reflect realistically what is possible and useful at various scales in time and space. If they show what could be done, they will create a demand for collecting better data and assessing it more rapidly.

150. The products should have as an essential aim the need to communicate a sense of the dynamics of the world system, and of the interconnections and associations that require an integrated view. They should show the story that indicators can tell. They should make visible and understandable what is taking place in the global environment, and build a bridge from science to public understanding. They need to communicate the pace and scale of change, show who is affected, and where it seems to be going. The new media and computer graphics make this kind of presentation possible. Mapping data situates them in space and allows people to locate themselves with respect to the data. Multiple maps (like the forest loss over time in the Norwegian State of Environment report) can give a sense of rapid change, and can ultimately be animated in dynamic sequences showing change. Graphic pictures communicate more than text or data tables; language is no barrier, and everyone is hit visually by the message of the data. Ideally the products should not only be visible on a computer screen or web site, but should be projectable in video, CD-ROM and digital disk, so that they can not only reach computer users, but communicate over video and television. In this sense, indicators become visual signals of what is going right or wrong, and stimulate action. The products should lend themselves to demonstration to ministers, to use by television journalists, and to projections in schools. They should give the assessment strategy an outreach and impact it would otherwise not have.

151. Once UNEP has made the effort to produce a particular report or assessment, the basic information and messages should be repackaged in this way into a variety of information products for a wider audience, and made freely available for use through all UNEP's information channels including the Internet. This will help to build public understanding and support for the decision-making processes directly targeted by the reports. One set of products should facilitate access to summary environmental information for UNEP's Permanent Representatives and the missions in other UN centres, and for delegations participating in intergovernmental meetings and negotiating sessions, to ensure that all governments have access to the best environmental information in support of international decision-making.

152. For the fifth element of the data analysis and integration strategy, UNEP should play a leadership role in the field of environmental indicators, catalyzing and supporting the development of improved environmental indicators to increase the effectiveness of assessment and reporting efforts. UNEP should prepare an inventory of environmental indicators used within the UN system, as requested by the ACC and its Sub-committee on Statistical Activities, and should work for the harmonization and consolidation of such indicators for use in environmental assessments and reporting, linked closely to the need for indicators in UNEP assessments and information systems. This would facilitate access to the different activities and sources of environmental indicators, encouraging the exchange of experience and harmonization. Cooperation with many parties is essential, including statistical offices, environmental agencies, other UN bodies, NGOís, etc.

153. Decision makers are fond of indicators because they facilitate their task; they are also appreciated by the public. Their appeal is now again very high as it becomes harder to cope with the growing quantity of information. Indicators should become a major component of all UNEP assessments. Since so many bodies are currently involved in developing and testing indicators, UNEP should concentrate on environmental indicators of sustainable development at the global level, for use in its assessment reports and information products. Environmental performance indicators could be emphasized, since there are presently relatively few in comparison with state and pressure indicators. This should be worked out in collaboration with the CSD work programme on indicators and the OECD, to produce indicators with wide applicability and acceptability to key audiences. One gauge of success would be the extent to which partners actively participate; another would be whether the sets of indicators influence decision making.

STRATEGIC OVERSIGHT AND EARLY WARNING

154. 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, the strategy calls for UNEP to:

i) 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;

ii) 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;

iii) 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;

iv) 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.

155. UNEP's assessments should be broad in scope and integrated in approach. If the assessment process is to move the broad international commitment to sustainable development from the level of good intentions to a practical basis for assessment, planning and decision-making, it requires (a) an understanding of environmental, social and environmental systems within an integrated framework, (b) awareness of the multiple linkages and interactions between environmental, resource and social issues, and (c) placing near term actions in the context of long-range sustainable development goals and uncertainties. Integrative tools such as systems modelling, scenario development, and frameworks for aggregating indicators can contribute to this capacity, and should be developed with outside partners.

156. For the second element of the strategic oversight and early warning strategy, links need to be established with the many networks of international and non-governmental organizations that may be the first to collect evidence of emerging environmental issues. Scientists are often the first to identify emerging issues, interactions and feedback mechanisms that could present serious environmental problems, and many environmental observations are still collected through research programmes. UNEP's assessment team, collaborating centres and other networks, in liaison with partners in the scientific community, need to maintain a watching brief on technical reports, news releases, the scientific literature and scientific debate in order to identify problems for which an early warning may be justified.

157. In the implementation of these functions, UNEP should continue to collaborate formally with organizations such as the Global Observing Systems, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) of ICSU, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the World Resources Institute, the International Symposia on Remote Sensing of the Environment, etc.

158. The third element would be for UNEP to take on an overall responsibility for the health and effectiveness of the international environmental observing and assessment system. UNEP should maintain a global overview of international assessments, and define its own priority products, including the assessments and reports to be produced by the whole of UNEP, and how they contribute to each other and to global comprehensive assessments such as GEO. Inputs from the relevant UN organizations should be solicited through Earthwatch Coordination. UNEP should concentrate in its work programme on the delivery of a number of defined priority assessment products. The assessments and reports should define the information requirements that feed back to observing and data assembly at the regional and national levels.

159. UNEP should also work with other global bodies to report periodically on the state of observing in relation to environmentally sustainable development. This report should be based on the findings of UNEP and other bodies with respect to the input data they need. It should translate these findings into the identification of critical observing gaps, possible changes in the type of data required, and priority of action to be taken. The report should be of a technical nature and address data suppliers and funding agencies. UNEP should take the initiative for such reporting, and explore the possibility of carrying out an exercise jointly with UNDP and the World Bank, possibly in the context of the GEF. Apart from UNEP, UNDP and World Bank, the report should involve FAO, WHO, WMO, UN Statistical Commission and possibly UNESCO, DESA and OECD. Input from the private sector and from governments with important observing operations can be considered. In taking this initiative UNEP can find material in reports of the GEO Core Data Working Group, which should be subsumed in this activity, and in Earthwatch inventories.

160. As part of this strategic oversight, a greater attempt should be made to obtain user feedback. The cooperation of outside partners and users should be sought to test information products for their effectiveness in communicating environmental information to decision-makers and for their relevance to policy-making processes. This experience should then be shared widely within the UN system, where there is broad recognition of present weaknesses in this area.

161. For the fourth element of the strategy, the whole observation and assessment process should pay special attention to environmental problems that may justify an early warning to the international community or to a particular country or region concerning emerging issues or on-going trends which could result in natural and human disasters and emergencies. Such warnings of high risks in the long-term of major damage to health, well-being or environmental security should be issued, if at all possible, in time for preventive or defensive action to be taken.

162. Depending on the nature of the problem and the speed with which it is developing, such information may have to be distributed quite rapidly to many users in governments, international organizations and the media. UNEP should establish formats and protocols for such early warnings with the target groups directly concerned, as well as procedures through its information networks and assessment processes to identify and evaluate problems to determine when early warning is justified. Adequate scientific assessment processes should be in place to evaluate the evidence and the risks, and to prepare early warning notices for release by UNEP's Executive Director and for rapid electronic distribution. One or two small pilot projects should be developed first to demonstrate the concept.

PARTNERSHIPS

163. It is clear from the functional elements of the strategy that UNEP cannot implement all these functions in isolation. UNEP's new strategic initiative must be considered against the background of the myriad data and information gathering and analysing exercises which have taken place internationally since at least 1972. These cannot be replaced, but could become more coherent. UNEP should aim at assuming a leading role in integrating the many initiatives, and incite the other actors to accept this role, as it already has within the UN system through Earthwatch. Beyond the UN family there are other partners whose cooperation should be enlisted, including the world's leading national observing agencies, regional intergovernmental organizations (i.e. the European Environment Agency and others), international NGOs and other elements of civil society, and private sector entities. It is essential that they be active participants to avoid a waste of resources. This broad partnership base is critical to any significant -- and successful -- reform of the world's environmental observing system and to an effective global assessment effort. A broad partnership base is also essential if UNEP's assessment effort is to command broad political support. The network of GEO collaborating centres is one important step in this direction.

164. Many of these partners have sophisticated data collection and analytical capabilities and a growing interest in more rational, information-based policy decisions on global issues. For example, in the North American context, UNEP should partner with NASA, NOAA, EPA, and USGS, as well as Environment Canada. UNEP should also establish direct or indirect links with more participatory processes, such as the Global Forest Watch and a Global Coral Reef Watch. It should foster the emergence of the Global Urban Observatory, a unit of Habitat that should perhaps be part of a joint UNEP/Habitat programme initially but should eventually be spun off as an independent entity -- following the principle that UNEP should be catalytic, not operational.

165. Experience shows that it is very difficult to achieve effective cooperation in providing and pooling environmental data and producing reliable and useful information for a variety of reasons: differences in observing methods, vested interests, administrative obstacles, etc. UNEP cannot hope to exercise leadership simply by administrative fiat; it will have to persuade its partners that it is in their advantage to cooperate. UNEP has recently shown, through the GEO process, that it is able to mobilize bodies throughout the world, as well as its own programmes, to help it gather and analyze relevant information and produce useful reports for policy makers.

166. Building the various partnerships will require an extension of the Earthwatch Coordination function well beyond the UN system, as already called for in Agenda 21, and as developed, for instance, in the Integrated Global Observing Strategy. These partnerships should aim to produce specific outputs and information products as defined in this UNEP strategy, including harmonized core data sets, the integrated information framework, the GEO reports and other assessments, and the electronic environmental information system, among others.

167. UNEP should also collaborate with important funders and programmes of environment related research to help address gaps in knowledge and data that are particularly important for the enhancement of the policy relevance of UNEPís assessments in the coming years. Useful starting points for such scientific agenda setting are the lists of knowledge gaps based on the experiences with GEO-1 and GEO-2, and the report of the SCOPE/UNEP project on sustainability indicators (Moldan and Bilharz, 1997). Key bodies for UNEP to collaborate with are: World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and the Diversitas programme of ICSU. In particular, UNEP should work with the International Group of Funding Agencies for Global Change Research (IGFA) set up to coordinate funding of these programmes. The current collaboration between UNEP and DG XII of the European Commission should also be continued. UNEPís networks of collaborating centres and thematic centres can help UNEP to play its part vis à vis these organizations.

168. The three global forums that UNEP has set up bringing together partners for data, scenarios and models should be discontinued as separate activities and integrated into the new programme. The global data forum should be transformed into a reporting activity preparing the report on the state of global environmental observing. The work on scenarios should be integrated in the development of UNEPís assessments and concentrate on scenarios for use jointly with other global assessment processes - in particular IPCC. The work on models should be transposed into broader and possibly thematically organized working programme for UNEPís collaborating centres.

REGIONALIZATION

169. In operational terms, experience has shown that an activity of the scope of this observing and assessment programme cannot be implemented solely on a centralized basis from UNEP headquarters. A range of decentralized activities with a strong regional component is necessary. The Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning already has regional coordinators in Bangkok, Mexico City, Geneva, Nairobi, and Sioux Falls (USA), working closely with UNEP's Regional Offices and the regionally distributed GRID and GEO collaborating centres. Other GRID centres, and Earthwatch Coordination in Geneva, also strengthen the decentralized nature of the Division's activities, bringing them closer to users and partners, and increasing their visibility and impact.

170. UNEPnet and the Mercure system tie these distributed elements together into a coherent global system which will be strengthened further when it is operating within this single strategic framework. The role of the headquarters units is to provide central direction, to link with and respond to senior management, and to integrate with and provide services to the other programme activities of UNEP and Habitat. The distributed components tie in closely with partner organizations inside and outside the UN system, and with the different user communities including UNEP's principal targets.

171. The network of over 170 INFOTERRA national focal points represent a significant potential to extend the reach of UNEP's observing and assessment strategy down to the national level by providing an official point of information access and delivery within each government, usually in the environment ministry or agency. They should be supported and maintained through the regional coordinators and UNEP's regional offices as part of a single but multilevel observing, assessment and early warning network. The potential for INFOTERRA focal points to handle queries in the context of UNEP's assessments needs to be explored and developed as resources permit. The general query-response function of INFOTERRA may still meet important needs, but it is not relevant to this strategy.

172. The Environment and Natural Resource Information Network (ENRIN) activities which have catalyzed significant increases in environmental information capacity within the regions should become another component of this decentralized regional strategy to increase the participation of all regions in observing and assessment activities.

BACKGROUND TO AN INDICATIVE COSTING

173. The elements of the strategy do not provide enough specifics to estimate the cost of its implementation. True costings can only be developed in the context of UNEP's biennial work programmes and budgets. However, an attempt was made to make an order-of-magnitude estimate based on the experience of the external advisers in relevant contexts.

174. Costs can be estimated, for instance, using experience from the European Union and from some countries where arrangements along the same lines have been set up in support of environmental policy. Although UNEPís spatial coverage is larger, this has to be compensated by a more limited selection and less detail. Moreover, there is probably a natural limit to parameters such as the number of centres and the frequency of reporting. On balance, the total annual cost is likely to remain in the order of magnitude of US$ 25 to 40 million (with approximately 40-50 professional staff employed).

175. This would be approximately double the funding of UNEP's 1994-1995 observing and assessment programme ($20 million per year), and the minimum to make any noticeable impact. A lower level of funding will result in too slow an implementation of the new programme to make a visible impact in the time required to capture policy attention.

176. The annual costs to UNEP to implement the general functions of the observing and assessment strategy, based on European experience, could be broken down as follows. Cost estimates are given in given in brackets, in millions of US dollars per year. These figures give order-of-magnitude estimates, but they still need to be allocated to the different modules in the strategy. One particularly important assumption is that UNEP will not be charged significantly for data, including earth observation data.

- organization of the global process of information supply and core data sets for UNEPís assessments (3.0)
- regional quality control and capacity building (3.0)
- secretariat for selected observing programmes (2.0)
- catalytic promotion of advanced observing systems (2.0)
- stimulation of bottom-up observing processes and networks (1.0)
- catalysis of integrated information delivery through national focal points (2.0)
- technical reporting on the state of observing (0.5)
- development and maintenance of an integrated information framework (1)
- inventory and coordination of environmental indicators (0.5)

- arrangements for global and regional assessment consultations (0.6)
- maintaining a structured dialogue with target groups on the required content of assessments (0.4)
- improving and expanding the assessment capabilities in UNEP-DEIAEW (2.4)
- strengthening the collaborating centres (3.0)
- establishing topical centres of excellence (2.5)
- peer review of draft assessments (0.1)
- contributions to UNEPís sectoral assessments (3.0)
- production of GEO integrated global assessments (1.5)

- development of electronic environmental information system (1.0)
- support for new module development (2.0)
- programme management (0.5)

The total annual cost from these estimates is approximately US$ 32 million. More could easily be added to expand the number of modules being implemented.

177. UNEP should contract the collaborating centres for a period of about five years. It has been assumed that core funding for all centres comes from other sources, UNEP providing incremental funding for incremental activities to its benefit. This is an important difference with the CGIAR, which otherwise has served as a model for the network of GEO collaborating centres.

178. The above figures assume that actual observing is carried out by other agencies than UNEP, or by governments, and that the right to use any data will be granted at relatively low cost. Nevertheless, activities linked to observing constitute the largest cost item.

ASSESSING SUCCESS

179. The best indicator of the success of the strategy will be improved policies and decision-making affecting the environment within the governments of the world and within the international community. More tangibly, UNEP should aim to achieve, within 5 years, a clear revitalization and strengthening of data collection and analysis for several sectors, with an abundance of policy-relevant information being reported at regional and global levels, coherent assessments to provide policy guidance, and actions taken in many national governments to respond to the key environmental challenges with appropriate policy responses within those sectors.

180. To document success in the intermediate stages, UNEP should also seek clear evidence of more coordinated data collection and analysis for those sectors, and some major data gaps filled and more timely early warnings issued by UNEP or by networks linked to UNEP. Significant progress should be evident in the creation and routine use by governments and international agencies of policy-relevant environmental indicators. The implementation of one or more of the global conventions should be clearly enhanced by additional information products, based on new data collection and improved analyses, assessments and reporting. The evaluation of policies that have been implemented should begin to show results in terms of environmental improvements.

WHAT'S NEW?

181. Many components of the strategy have already been developed by UNEP over the years, particularly through UNEPís persistent work on UN system-wide collaboration in environmental observing and reporting (through Earthwatch Coordination). In addition, since 1992, the development of the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) process has meant a breakthrough in assessment methodologies. This new style of UNEP assessments, in particular, has at last provided a means for defining what data is needed, at least in principle. The GEO programme and Earthwatch have influenced the shape many of the strategy elements incorporated here. Significant new elements in the recommended strategy include:

* coherent management, in a clear strategic framework, of all steps in the process of information flow from data collection to delivery to decision-makers and assessment of performance, focussed on delivering assessments, long-term early warnings and other information products for a specific policy audience;

* 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, among others;

* new partnerships with remote sensing activities 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. 

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