United Nations System-Wide



The UN system-wide Earthwatch is intended to serve as one of the major pillars of the structure providing information for decision-making at the international level, as well as providing the international environmental context for national decision-making.  This aspect of Earthwatch was integrated into the Secretary-General's report on Agenda 21, Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making, prepared for the third session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in 1995.  The following analysis is modified and updated from pertinent sections prepared for that report.

Data Collection and Use
UN System-wide Earthwatch
Improvement of Methods of Data Assessment and Analysis
Establishment of a Comprehensive Information Framework

Production of information usable for decision-making
Standards and Methods for Handling Information
Establishment and strengthening of electronic networking capabilities


     Based on an analysis of the work done since UNCED on information for decision-making, particularly in the context of the in-depth study of Earthwatch, it appears that many of the elements for an effective information system for decision-making on environment and sustainable development are in place or are being developed at the international level.  Considerable progress has also been made at the national level, through the efforts of Governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and the UN system.  This work, however, needs to be expanded and strengthened, and, in general, better linked at all levels.  Continuing emphasis must be placed not only on access to data, but also on developing the capabilities to collect, analyze, apply and disseminate data at the national and local levels.  What also needs to be completed is to assemble the various elements in a coherent process that moves information quickly from initial data collection (generally by governments), through compilation and assessment to delivery in forms decision-makers can make use of.

     The "information revolution" in new technologies such as electronic networks and computer imagery will make possible flows and uses of information that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago.  There is in fact a danger of information overload, as the ability to collect and communicate information exceeds the ability to absorb and understand it.

     Decision-makers may not have the technical training to allow them to use information from scientific, technical or statistical sources in the most productive manner.  They are likely to rely on an adviser who interprets the information for them.  This requires a careful reconsideration of the information-supplying process, to produce the critical factors from the assessment process in forms that can be understood and utilized.  Indicators are one approach to this problem.  Another is the use of "information brokers," to help interpret, manage, filter and add value to the flood of available information.  The information broker is a facilitator who can raise awareness about what is available, at what costs and for what purpose.  This is a role to which the system-wide Earthwatch may be able to contribute at the international level.

Data Collection and Use

     Countries and international organizations are requested in Agenda 21 to carry out inventories of environmental, resource and developmental data, based on national/global priorities. The objectives are primarily three: improved management of sustainable development; identification of gaps; and organization of activities to fill those gaps.

     Particular reference is made in this context to the strengthening of the UN system-wide Earthwatch and the suggested creation of a Development Watch.  In the context of Chapter 40 and Earthwatch, UN system data and information activities are summarized in the tables of thematic coverage of Agenda 21 programme areas. The tables demonstrates the wealth of activities across the United Nations system generating information useful for decision-making and the potential for assembling that information more effectively in support of national policy-making and environmental management and in implementation of Agenda 21.  While some programme areas seem well covered, there are also significant gaps to be filled.  Among these gaps is the weakness in data collection and assessment particularly with respect to the following programme areas of Agenda 21:

  • Local population programmes (5C)
  • Health risks from pollution and hazards; data on environmental accidents (6E)
  • Energy and transport in the context of human settlements (7E)
  • Comparative evaluation of energy sources (9B)
  • Global isotope monitoring of atmospheric trace gases and river run-off as a part of global change research; impact of aircraft engine emissions in the upper atmosphere. (9D)
  • Mountains:  strengthening knowledge and integrated watershed development (13 A&B)
  • People's participation in agricultural policy (14B)
  • Land conservation and rehabilitation; monitoring of land resources (14E)
  • Plant nutrition (14J)
  • Rural energy (14K)
  • Application of biotechnology to food and raw materials (16A)
  • Application of biotechnology to improving human health (16B)
  • Oceans: establishment of global marine databases supported by GIS as well as a network of marine laboratories for emergency situations; better quality fishery data at the national level (17)
  • Classification and labelling of toxic chemicals; preparation of a priority list for chemicals and accelerating risk assessment for priority chemicals (19B)
  • Prevention and management of hazardous wastes (20A&B)
  • Disposal and treatment of wastes (21C&D)
  • Information on the role, activities and participation of Major Groups, and especially of NGOs (27), local authorities (28), entrepreneurs (30) and farmers (32) (23-32)
  • Availability of environmentally-sound technologies (34)
  • Promotion of the local production and use of sustainable development information (including traditional information) and community-based initiatives.
     Even where good data exist, the geographical coverage is neither consistent nor universal in many cases.  This highlights the need for georeferencing of data and for coordinating the collection of data across sectors and organizations, at national and regional levels.  For many sectors, local level comparisons, such as intra-urban differences or intra-district differences, may also be critical in illuminating the issues and supporting the solutions.

UN System-wide Earthwatch

     Earthwatch has been the framework since the Stockholm Conference in 1972 for the efforts of the United Nations system to monitor and assess the global environment.  In response to the United Nations General Assembly and the UNEP Governing Council, the UN system-wide Earthwatch has been redesigned and strengthened as a closely-linked collaborative set of international efforts to coordinate, harmonize and integrate observing, assessment and reporting activities.

     The objective of Earthwatch is to provide environmental and appropriate socio-economic information for national and international decision-making on sustainable development and for early warning of emerging problems requiring international action.  This should include timely information on the pressures on, status of and trends in key global resources, variables and processes in both natural and human systems and on the response to problems in these areas.

    The major issues that Earthwatch addresses include the following:

    1. observing the capacity of land resources and the impacts of processes such as deforestation, soil degradation and desertification;
    2. the loss of natural areas and biodiversity;
    3. the protection of the atmosphere;
    4. the quantity and quality of freshwater resources;
    5. the state of oceans and coastal areas;
    6. human health conditions and quality of life determined by the environment, including the living and working environment of the poor;
    7. the accumulation of wastes, particularly hazardous wastes, and chemicals; and
    8. the risks of biotechnology.
In addition, Earthwatch must be alert to new and emerging issues, and in particular to the inevitable interactions between all these issues and development processes, where threats to development prospects and to human well-being may emerge.  Thus the UN system-wide Earthwatch cannot be content to assess each problem separately, but must build the capacities to examine them all together and to draw out the key policy issues to be addressed by the international community.

     Such an effort cannot be done by any United Nations organization alone.  It requires the combined efforts of the whole UN system and many outside partners, with each of the agencies with major environmental or resource concerns taking a lead in its particular sector, and with UNEP, in its coordinating role for the environment, looking at how all of the parts fit together into an integrated whole.  UNEP also collaborates closely with the UN Division for Sustainable Development, as joint Task Managers for Agenda 21 Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making, on information requirements for sustainable development.

     Through Earthwatch, the UN system facilitates access to information on environmental activities, and to information held by each part of the system. It identifies possibilities for collaboration and mutual reinforcement in observation and assessment programmes within and outside the UN system.  It promotes capacity-building for data collection, assessment and reporting, as well as improves the harmonization and quality control of data and the standardization of methodologies.  Earthwatch also facilitates the wider use of information and assessments from each partner in national and international decision-making, and helps to coordinate joint reporting on the global state of the environment and sustainable development through such outputs as the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report.  Earthwatch contributes to UN system efforts to identify priorities for international action; to give early warnings of emerging environmental problems; and to share experience in applying new technologies and in increasing the impact of information.  It is one mechanism to respond to UN system-wide mandates such as Agenda 21.

     In the strengthening of the system-wide Earthwatch since UNCED, an Earthwatch Working Party of all the concerned United Nations system organizations has been organized to support the continued development of Earthwatch and to facilitate taking decisions in common.  UNEP has established a small Earthwatch Coordination unit to maintain continuous liaison between the partners and to assist in implementing common activities.  The aim is to achieve maximum joint programming, collaboration and cooperation within available resources.  Earthwatch has been supporting UN system efforts to develop common or compatible systems of access to data held within the UN, drawing in part on the experience acquired in the Global Resource Information Database (GRID) in the handling and integration of large environmental data sets, in order to make better use of the large quantities of environmental information already available.

     With respect to the need for operational early warning systems under Earthwatch, some components already exist and others are in preparation.  FAO operates systems for early warning of food security including production, trade and consumption trends, as well as drought and migratory pests.  WHO provides early warning of certain infectious diseases, and of the health implications of disasters, and has developed early warning strategies for water pollution monitoring under the GEMS/Water programme.  WMO has encouraged early warning systems for tropical cyclones in areas where they are a significant threat. The UN Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator is preparing a humanitarian early warning system.  For longer term early warning, the continuing observations being planned under the Global Observing Systems for climate, oceans and the terrestrial environment (GCOS, GOOS and GTOS) should be able to detect significant trends in global change, hopefully in time for the international community to take preventive action.  UNEP is organizing the means to look the interactions between all these critical elements of the global system, where interlinkages and feedbacks are most likely to provide surprises.  Adequate support to these long-term operational environmental measurements and assessments will be necessary for them to fulfil their early warning potential.

     The UN system-wide Earthwatch incorporates both the environmental observing, assessment and reporting activities of each specialized agency in its sectoral area, and a wide range of interagency programmes which demonstrate the increasing coordination and cooperation across the UN system.  International scientific, non-governmental and governmental organizations are often associated with these initiatives.  Each participating agency is, within the limitations of available resources, strengthening its contributions to information for decision-making and improving its linkages with cooperating partners.  UNEP, through its Global Environment Outlook process, is working with a group of collaborating research centres to develop tools such as computer models to integrate the many types of environmental and socio-economic data and to prepare projections and scenarios that should help to give early warning of coming problems and provide decision-makers with policy options for responding to them.

     Many of the partners in Earthwatch are developing indicators for measuring progress in their particular sectors and on priority issues.  Earthwatch cooperates with the CSD programme of work on indicators of sustainable development and other initiatives to work for the maximum harmonization of such indicators, as well as to develop more aggregated and integrated measures of sustainable development.  The organizations cooperating in Earthwatch should also be able to help the UN Division for Sustainable Development to support national efforts to use indicators for policy-making and as guides to sustainability, as well as in reporting to the Commission on Sustainable Development.

     Earthwatch is exploring the potential to use public participation in data collection efforts, including proposals for an Earthwatch campaign to get a much more complete view of the state of the world in the year 2000.  Such a campaign, if carefully planned to ensure scientific validity and proper quality control and assessment of the data collected, could involve schools, NGOs, the media and other groups in building a more complete picture of the status of species, land uses, development activities, pollution problems and the characteristics of the human and natural environment as inputs for the next State of the World Environment report and as a basis for selective continued monitoring of national and global trends.  Such approaches have proven their worth in some countries, for instance by involving bird-watching groups in an annual census of bird populations.  Initiatives to involve school classes in environmental monitoring will also be encouraged.  Public participation will demonstrate to people that they can observe their own environment and draw their own conclusions about behaviour for or against sustainability, and will help them to understand the results of national and international public information efforts.  Such programmes would require a major commitment on the part of UN agencies, governments, NGOs, the media and even the private sector, but with potential benefits for all involved.  This may be the only practical approach in the short term to close the data gap in many developing countries.

     One priority of Earthwatch is to work for a more rapid flow of information through the system and to target decision-making processes more directly, so that policy-makers can receive more timely and appropriate information.

Improvement of Methods of Data Assessment and Analysis

     Work is under way at the national level, in many countries, where national and local governments are taking the initiative to establish data and information inventories. The development of national frameworks both for information and for indicators also represents an attempt by countries to improve data collection, assessment and analysis.  In addition, both Earthwatch and Development Watch are attempts by international organizations to develop practical methods for coordinated, harmonized collection and assessment of data at national and international levels.  The UN Statistics Division's work programme will focus on, inter alia, the development of concepts and methods of environmental indicators and integrated environment and economic accounting.

     Another example has been the joint development by the relevant UN agencies and the international scientific community of a Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), a Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and a Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS) to organize operational long-term programmes of measurements necessary to understand and model how global systems work and to detect possible signs of predicted global change.  These systems aim to bridge the gap from short-term research programmes to operational data collection for management purposes, and if adequately supported by governments, should be able to supply globally coordinated and comparable data sets necessary to determine important trends and to provide the bases for early warning systems.  Other more specialized systems are being established or strengthened in particular fields, usually within these general frameworks.  The UNEP Earthwatch unit has catalyzed the formation of a Sponsors Group for the Global Observing Systems and the development of an integrated global observing strategy.

     Most of the agencies that collect data or build national capacities to do so have active programmes to develop standardized methods, harmonize definitions and classifications, and ensure quality control of the data collected.  Such activities are essential to any use of information beyond the local area, and the lack of such common approaches in some fields has prevented the global assessment of some significant problems.  One way to build a common understanding of terms is to organize, in a coordinated manner, very detailed information that is location-sensitive.
     A tool that is becoming increasingly important for the assessment of environment and development trends and their potential consequences is computer modelling.  It is such models fed by large quantities of data that have supported the majority consensus of international scientific opinion on the potential for global warming from the greenhouse effect.  Models are used routinely by WMO for weather prediction, by FAO to forecast crop yields and to give early warning of potential famines, and by WHO to assess the risks of morbidity and disability from diseases.  UNEP in cooperation with various collaborating research centres is now using models to integrate the many kinds of environmental, social and economic information and to study how they interact.  DESA maintains and is developing further a global input-output model (GIOM) which integrates pollution and pollution-abatement activities and renewable and non-renewable resource use with production and consumption patterns for sixteen world regions.  Many of these models, and others developed by national-level users, are already being used in some countries to explore policy options and to give guidance for decision-making in sustainable development.

     It is also possible to programme the judgements and decision processes of experts, and various types of scientific information, into computerized expert systems, which can be adapted to local situations and to make such expertise more widely available to decision-makers than would otherwise be possible.  Some pilot systems for developing countries and regions have already been developed, and further progress in this area can be expected.  FAO has made considerable progress with systems for agricultural planning, and WHO is developing systems for local health planning.  UNEP has worked with IIASA and others to explore the utility of expert systems in national state of the environment analyses and reporting.  Expert systems may help to bridge the information gap created by the lack of adequate scientific expertise in many countries and the long time required to build that capacity through educational programmes and practical experience.

     Information can be provided at various geographic scales from the local community to the planet.  Since the issues at each scale are different, specific information mechanisms are required at each level, but the general principles discussed here still apply.  Similarly, some issues can be addressed with numeric or statistical data, while others require data referenced to specific geographic locations so that it can be mapped and spatially related to other data.

     Assessments could be more meaningful in some instances if they could be compiled for agroecological zones, ecoregions, river basins, and geographical entities such as coastal areas or mountain regions.  If data are georeferenced with their precise locations when collected (now becoming much easier with global positioning systems), they can easily be correlated in space through geographic information systems.  Much information is in fact collected at sub-national scales, but it is generally combined into national statistics before being reported internationally, thus losing much of its value.

Establishment of a Comprehensive Information Framework

     The strengthening of Earthwatch and the establishment of a closely linked Development Watch should provide a coherent framework for information on sustainable development at the international level.  These measures are already strengthening collaboration in the UN system, improving efficiency and increasing the value added to information collected.

     At the same time, a number of Governments are moving toward structural integration of environment- and development-related ministries, through National Councils, Commissions, and other coordinating machinery.  These new organizations may serve as the focal points for integrating environmental and developmental information as well.  The development of indicators for monitoring progress at a national level towards sustainable development, through the implementation of Agenda 21, should also assist in this process.

     Efforts at both the international level and the national level rely on the involvement of relevant non-governmental as well as governmental and inter-governmental actors.  Major groups, as represented in non-governmental organizations, are essential to the comprehensiveness of an information framework.


Production of information usable for decision-making

     Information is disseminated by the international community through a variety of formats to a wide range of users.  Annual and biennial reports and yearbooks contain largely textual and analytical information for a user who is likely to be more academic than political.  Reports are prepared for intergovernmental and expert bodies; statistical data are made available, through both print and electronic form; and promotional material, such as brochures, bulletins, and newsletters, are regularly provided, primarily in print.

     All of these are important and often, in fact, mandated. They are relevant to decision-making, by popularizing areas related to sustainable development and thus helping to create an informed public; by providing technical data for scientists, engineers and other trained cadres who rely on these inputs for the analysis and recommendations that feed into the political process; and by suggesting broad goals, objectives and policy options for discussion at intergovernmental fora.  Nonetheless, most of this information is not available in a format of immediate and direct use to decision-makers at national and local levels.  The exceptions, including some of the more experimental attempts, are interesting and highlight the direction that information dissemination may take.

     In general, decision-makers may be understood to need information that is succinct, that is representative, and that allows some play for alternative scenarios and customizing for national (or local) conditions.  Indicators should assist in this process.  There needs to be up-to-date information on the current situation, georeferencing, and some way of anticipating what the future may hold through modelling, projections and scenarios, leading to policy options and their implications. Textual reporting remains important as "stand alone" analyses and to help provide meaning and context to quantitative data.

     Information is disseminated through print, diskette, and electronic networks.  Virtually all United Nations system organizations use all three means, and, for the immediate future, this redundancy in delivery is both good and necessary.  The objective may be to move toward electronic, "on-line" services for rapid access, capability to handle large amounts of data and relative low-cost for service.  Eventually, electronic communication will not only provide two-way communication and downloading of data,  but it may also, through electronic seminars and workshops, put at the disposal of decision-makers groups of experts, advisers and trainers in a manner that saves both time and money.

     For now, however, the reality is that an insufficient number of countries, as well as relevant departments, institutes and organizations within countries, have either the human, the technological or the telecommunications capacity to abandon print as the primary format for information. At the same time, many organizations within the United Nations system, as well as several non-governmental organizations, are increasingly using a combination of print and diskette, and, in fact, the latter provides a medium-level entry into electronic information.

     Discussions concerning dissemination of information tend to focus on the sender.  However, unless the user has the capacity to receive the information, to interpret it, and to incorporate it into the decision-making process, the amount and quality of information provided is irrelevant.  Capacity-building programmes, therefore, need to emphasize support for a local brokering capability and to assist decision-makers to make better use of the information available.  Capacity-building must also include training for the overall handling of technical data, for the use of information technologies, for needs assessment as well as information and impact assessment, for data collection and monitoring, and for the development and use of methodologies.   Capacity-building must be directed not only toward human resource development but also institutional strengthening, through the provision of information technologies and access to the relevant networks.

     All organizations in the United Nations system and many non-governmental organizations, as well as bilateral initiatives, include capacity-building in their information programmes, and most of them target all of these objectives.  Nonetheless, the lack of sufficient human and financial resources to accomplish fully all of the capacity-building that is needed is a major constraint.  The United Nations system and other organizations should seek ways to gain efficiencies through cooperative training workshops and courses, through the provision of standardized equipment, and, where appropriate, through on-line instruction.

Standards and Methods for Handling Information

     Countries, the United Nations system collectively, and a number of international non-governmental organizations have a wealth of information, but it is largely distributed on a sectoral basis to a specialized constituency.  Its value for sustainable development could be greatly increased by cross-linking the data through interdisciplinary analysis, such as relating epidemiological data on health conditions with environmental data on pollution problems in the same area.  This will require agreement on standard methods and definitions so that such comparisons can be made effectively.

     The access to information by decision-makers is also influenced by the availability of brokers that assist in the analysis of data and re-packaging of information in appropriate formats.  Since this is an issue at the heart of interpreting complex data into policy options, more attention should be devoted to the use of brokers and possibly to coordinating brokered information at the national and regional levels.

Establishment and strengthening of electronic networking capabilities

     Electronic networks can replace the need to gather all data into one place, by creating mechanisms to search for and collect just the required information from many data repositories.  This requires what is now called meta-data, that is information as to who holds what kinds of data, where it is, and how to access it.  The explosion of new electronic information technologies and their spread around the world is rapidly making possible new and more effective approaches to providing information for decision-making.

     There are a very large and diverse set of networks on overlapping topics.  Identifying and understanding the purpose of each of these networks is a daunting task for international organizations, but the problem is likely to be more complex at the national level.  In order to address this problem, IACSD's Task Managers could develop and disseminate meta-information in their respective programme areas of Agenda 21.

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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva