Keynote Address by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Secretary-General of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to be here, at this historic “Eye on Earth” Summit.

I would like to express my sincere appreciation to His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates.

Thank you for hosting this summit… in partnership with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, and the United Nations Environment Programme.

And thank you to the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, for fashioning this inspiring program.

We meet to address the challenge of how to utilize environmental and societal data…in support of sustainable development.

This event cannot be better timed. The preparations for Rio+20 are gathering speed.

Timely and accurate data contribute to monitoring and assessment. This is indispensable to informed policy … and decision-making.

But what does this mean?

It means that governments, institutions and communities around the globe …must collect and maintain critical data and information …for fact-based decision-making on sustainable development issues.

In 1992, at Rio, Member States and stakeholders highlighted the critical role of data and information.

It is worth noting that …of the 40 chapters of Agenda 21… 33 addressed the need for collecting… compiling … regularly updating ….and distributing data and information.

The entire Chapter 40 is dedicated to bridging the data gap. And to improving information availability … to ensure better decision-making.

The 20 years since the Earth Summit have brought great changes.

The technologies available to collect and analyze data about our ecosystems and societies… have advanced tremendously

Of strategic significance, is the advance in geospatial data collection and analysis.

Geospatial information systems, or GIS, are capable of measuring progress on all three pillars of sustainable development.

Let’s take the case of food security and sustainable agriculture. GIS maps and high-resolution satellite imagery can assess crop growing conditions in key regions.

On sustainable energy, GIS tools help locate the best wind power resources.

GIS can be applied in land-use management…zoning and site design plans…. helping to form and shape a sustainable city.

GIS aids in disaster preparedness… as well as mitigating the effects.

Flood hazard mapping has proven to be vital for planning in flood-prone areas.

There are also important applications of GIS in the areas of oceans and marine resources… as well as freshwater management.

In short, GIS can be humanity’s Eye on Earth…serving as the information guide for sustainable development.

The United Nations has recognized the critical role of GIS in advancing sustainable development.

Let me share with you a few examples of the work the UN does … in utilizing geospatial information.

  1. First, the Cartographic Section of the UN Secretariat (Department of Field Support) has a team of specialists who formulate cartographic standards… and prepare maps and GIS products.
  2. Second, ReliefWeb, the humanitarian information service managed by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), helps track humanitarian crises worldwide… with the aid of maps and info-graphics.
  3. Third, the UN Programme on Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM) of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs – which I head… develops standards for national data … enhancing the use… accessibility… and application of geospatial information globally.
  4. In addition, our colleagues in UNEP, working with governments and scores of collaborating centres, have made increased use of GIS for environmental monitoring.

GIS products have also been used by many other UN agencies in support of monitoring and decision-making.

This past July, the Economic and Social Council established the United Nations Committee of Experts for Global Geospatial Information Management.

This new Committee will work to improve the management, and coordination, of geospatial information at the global level.  In October, the group had its inaugural meeting in Seoul, Korea.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In addition to GIS, the UN has a long history in the development and use of environmental, economic and societal information.

The United Nations Statistical Commission is the apex entity of the global statistical system. It oversees the work of the UN Statistics Division in my Department, which has developed useful frameworks for the development of information and indicators. Together, we collaborate with the whole UN system. For example:

  1. We are revising the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts (SEEA) with a view to providing internationally comparable statistics on the environment… and its relationship with the economy.
  2. We are revising the UN Framework for the Development of Environment Statistics (FDES).
  3. We are coordinating the work of the Interagency and Expert Group (IAEG)… on the Millennium Development Goals Indicators.   This group, with inputs from close to 30 UN entities, is responsible for the data and analyses of over 60 indicators that measure progress towards the MDGs.

As we approach Rio+20, Member States and stakeholders have underscored the urgent need to:

  • enhance integrated assessments, and
  • raise the profile of data and information for monitoring… follow-up… and decision-making.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Rio+20 session, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, takes place in Rio de Janeiro next June.

It will mark a new chapter in the history of global sustainable development.

This new chapter must be forward-looking. And action-oriented.

But action is only effective when backed by follow-up, monitoring, and assessment.

In this regard, I see two challenges ahead.

First, the need for integrated information and information networking.

The United Nations publishes a number of flagship reports on world economy, global environment and human development.

We have, for example:

  • the World Economic Outlook by IMF,
  • World Development Report by the World Bank,
  • Global Environment Outlook by UNEP,
  • Human Development Report by UNDP
  • and the World Economic and Social Survey by my own department.

Similar regional publications come out regularly…with thanks to the efforts of the UN regional commissions, regional development banks, and other regional entities.

NGOs have been publishing global reports on the state of world resources.

However, there is not one global publication that brings together the economic, environmental and social pillars of sustainable development.

The UN system has, so far, failed in producing an integrated report on global sustainable development.

This must change.

If we are serious about following up on Rio+20, then making integrated assessments of global sustainability, as called for by the UN General Assembly, will be indispensable.

Of course, for this to happen, we need to have integrated data and information on all three pillars of sustainable development.

This is a challenge I want to bring to your attention.

It is my ardent hope that at Rio+20, we will make a leap forward in meeting this challenge.

It is a challenge for all – governments, international organizations, civil society and business.

Let us tackle this challenge in partnership.

Let this Eye on Earth initiative also be an Eye on the Earth’s ecosystems…  an Eye on the Earth’s societies… and an Eye on the Earth’s economy – in short an Eye on the Earth’s sustainability.

To achieve this goal, we must … as a priority … enhance the accessibility of data and information.

Which brings me to the second challenge ahead of us.

For policy to be based on science and facts, data and information must be widely and easily accessible. It must also be in formats usable for decision-making, and in public domains.

We must therefore support developing countries to strengthen their national capacities… within Governments, civil society and the business sector.

We must establish partnerships so that we can tap into commercial data and information sources, to bridge data gaps.

We must broadly distribute information products, to civil society, business and individuals… empowering them to make production and consumption decisions that are sustainable.

Ladies and Gentleman,

Rio+20 has but one objective: to renew political commitment for sustainable development.

And with commitment must also come focus and resources.

I understand and appreciate that many governments have immediate and pressing challenges right now.

One might be forgiven for thinking “the future can wait”.

But the future cannot wait.  We all know this.

The most vulnerable countries, notably the least developed countries and small-island developing states, are already living a so-called “future”.

In this future, there is sea-level rise, worsening droughts, floods, and heat waves.

Even developed countries find they are no longer immune.

Though money can buy some time, time will run out…eventually!

Even now, timely access to information – for example through early warning systems – can mean the difference between life and death.

But Rio+20 cannot be just about adaptation to environmental changes.

It must set us on a course towards safeguarding the Earth’s life support systems. Towards a green economy.  And towards a more equitable society.

And we must strengthen our institutional framework for sustainable development.

If we don’t, we risk forfeiting the social and economic development gains of the last few decades.

And the billion or more people who continue to live in extreme poverty, face an even grimmer future.

This is why failure at Rio+20 is not an option.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Rio+20 Conference will take place six months from now.

The process will not bear fruit if all the stakeholders do not offer their fullest support.

The ambitions of the actions agreed at Rio+20 must match the scale of the challenges we face.

Half measures will not do. This window of opportunity cannot pass us by.

History has given us a chance to make a difference.  Let us make it happen.

I look forward to seeing you in Rio.

Thank you.