United Nations System-Wide

Summary description of UN system-wide Earthwatch
Terms of Reference
Mechanisms for Earthwatch coordination

Legislative Mandate
UN system-wide contributions to Earthwatch
Thematic coverage of Agenda 21 programme areas (tables)
Analysis of Earthwatch after 25 years
History of Earthwatch 1972-1995

Powerpoint presentation of Earthwatch


     The first inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party (Geneva, 1-2 June 1994) agreed on the following mission statement, terms of reference, and coordinating mechanisms for the revitalized Earthwatch:

The mission of the UN system-wide Earthwatch is to coordinate, harmonize and integrate observing, assessment and reporting activities across the UN system in order 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 terms of reference of the UN system-wide Earthwatch are to:
  1. facilitate access to information on on-going and planned environmental activities, and     to information held by each part of the system;
  2. identify possibilities for collaboration and mutual reinforcement among agency observation and assessment programmes and reports, and with outside partners including governments, the scientific community, NGOs and the private sector;
  3. promote and monitor capacity-building for data collection, assessment and reporting;
  4. improve and obtain international agreement on the harmonization and quality control of data and the standardization of methodologies to ensure reliable and comparable information on the environment at the national and international levels;
  5. facilitate the wider use of information and assessments from each partner beyond its own constituency in national and international decision-making processes;
  6. coordinate joint reporting on broad interdisciplinary issues such as the global state of the environment and sustainable development;
  7. identify priorities for international action;
  8. establish joint procedures to identify the need for early warnings of emerging environmental problems and to bring such warnings to the attention of the international community;
  9. share experience in applying new technologies and in increasing the impact of environmental and sustainable development information and reports;
  10. assist in increasing support for observing, assessment, reporting and capacity-building activities across the whole UN system and its programme countries;
  11. demonstrate the ability of the United Nations to organize coherent plans for activities responding to system-wide mandates such as Agenda 21.
Mechanisms for Earthwatch coordination

     The Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development named UNEP as Task Manager for Earthwatch, reinforcing the coordinating and catalytic role that UNEP has played in Earthwatch since its founding.  An inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party of focal points in all the cooperating organizations has met annually since 1994 to provide a continuing mechanism for inter-agency liaison and coordination to implement the system-wide Earthwatch, supplemented by frequent electronic communication.

     The UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination unit established by UNEP in Geneva provides a central point of contact and liaison.  The ACC has confirmed 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.

     Specific activities are implemented by ad hoc interagency technical meetings or existing structures within the system as appropriate.  The aim is to maintain flexible informal arrangements able to respond dynamically to the need for increasing coordination and collaboration without creating undue bureaucracy or excessive burdens on already overstretched organizations.

     Through the Earthwatch site on the World Wide Web and other measures, Earthwatch facilitates access to programmatic and environmental information and pertinent data held by all parts of the UN system.  The network of Earthwatch partners strengthens the working relationships among UN organizations and with the environmental Convention Secretariats and appropriate international activities of governments and non-governmental organizations.  Earthwatch also provides an interface with international research and observation programmes concerning the global environment.


     The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972) adopted an Action Plan of three main components, of which one was the global environmental assessment programme (Earthwatch) which grouped various recommendations under the functions of evaluation and review, research, monitoring, and information exchange.

     In 1989, General Assembly resolution 44/224 recognized the need "to strengthen international cooperation in monitoring, assessing and anticipating environmental threats and rendering assistance in cases of environmental emergencies"; reaffirmed that "the United Nations system, through the United Nations General Assembly, owing to its universal character, is the appropriate forum for concerted political action on global environmental problems"; underlined "the importance of broader participation in Earthwatch, established by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment and operated by the United Nations Environment Programme, in order to strengthen its capacity to make authoritative assessments, anticipate environmental degradation and issue early warnings to the international community," and requested a report to be considered during the UNCED preparatory process.  The resulting report of the Secretary-General on Follow-up to General Assembly Resolution 44/224 (UNEP/GC.16/17) reviews the early legislative mandate and development of Earthwatch, so this is not repeated here.

     On the basis of this report, the UNEP Governing Council decided in 1991 (16/37) "that assessments are particularly needed in all those areas of concentration" identified by the Governing Council and by the General Assembly for UNCED; considered "that Earthwatch should also be able to accommodate emerging issues as and when need arises;" recommended "that, in keeping with its mandate, Earthwatch should identify global and regional environmental monitoring and assessment needs, co-ordinate and harmonize global, regional and national monitoring and assessment programmes to the extent required, prepare comprehensive assessment statements, inventories and analytical statements, give advanced warning of emerging environmental threats, advise on causal relationships of observed environmental changes, and suggest policy responses and management options where necessary;" further recommended "that Earthwatch should pay particular attention to the interface between environment and development;" and requested "the Executive Director to continue to strengthen the environmental monitoring and assessment capacities of developing countries to enable them to participate actively and more fully in Earthwatch."

     General Assembly resolution 46/217 of 1991 which conveyed the report to the UNCED Preparatory Committee again "stressed the need to strengthen international cooperation in the monitoring, assessment and anticipation of environmental threats."

     Agenda 21 contains a number of references to strengthening Earthwatch, particularly in Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making, which provides a good general framework for a renewed Earthwatch.  For instance, "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" [paragraph 40.8].  "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].  "At the international level, environmental assessment activities need to be strengthened and coordinated with efforts to assess development trends" [40.10].  Under institutional means, Chapter 40 states: "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 system-wide 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].

     Agenda 21 also included among the priority areas for UNEP in Chapter 38: "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" [38.22(d)], as well as "dissemination of environmental information and data to Governments and to organs, programmes and organizations of the United Nations system" [38.22(f)] and "raising the general awareness and action in the area of environmental protection through collaboration with the general public, non-governmental entities and intergovernmental institutions" [38.22(g)].

     In 1993, the General Assembly again passed a resolution on "Strengthening international cooperation in the monitoring of global environmental problems" (GA48/192), which cited "the importance of participation of relevant organs, specialized agencies and other organizations of the United Nations system, within their respective mandates, in Earthwatch, in particular in its environmental monitoring programmes, and the need for early warning capabilities in those programmes", and "the need to make Earthwatch a more efficient instrument for environmental sensing and assessment of all elements influencing the global environment in order to ensure a balanced approach in serving, in particular, the needs of developing countries."  It requested a report on environmental monitoring, containing proposals and recommendations within the context of Agenda 21 and a review of Earthwatch, to be prepared by UNEP in cooperation with relevant entities within the United Nations system and, where appropriate, outside the United Nations system.  This review, including the first edition of the Earthwatch programme document, and an ACC report on the United Nations System-wide Earthwatch (UNEP/GC.18/33) was presented to the UNEP Governing Council in 1995, which in turn reported to the General Assembly through its decision 18/27 on Earthwatch.  This decision "urges all partner agencies and programmes to cooperate in implementing the system-wide Earthwatch" and endorsed the ACC recommendations "regarding the development of approaches to the linking of socio-economic and environmental assessment and reporting by the United Nations Environment Programme and the system-wide Earthwatch."

     The UN system-wide Earthwatch also contributes to the implementation of UNEP's mandate, as redefined in the Nairobi Declaration in decision 19/1 from UNEP's 19th Governing Council on 7 February 1997 and confirmed by the UN General Assembly Special Session in June 1997, "to analyse the state of the global environment and assess global and regional environmental trends, provide policy advice, early warning information on environmental threats, and to catalyse and promote international cooperation and action, based on the best scientific and technical capabilities available."

     In July 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 53/242, following its consideration of the reports of the Secretary-General and of the United Nations Task Force on environment and human settlements, in which it "reiterates the importance of strengthening the capacity and capability of the United Nations Environment Programme and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), within the framework of their existing mandates, in the areas of information, the monitoring and assessment of global and regional environmental and human settlements trends and early warning information on environmental threats, so as to catalyse and promote international cooperation and action, and in this context emphasizes the importance of strengthening the system-wide Earthwatch as an effective, accessible and strictly non-political science-based system".


A participant in the Young Scientists' Summer Programme at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Vienna has prepared an interesting history and conceptual analysis of the Earthwatch concept and its implementation over the past quarter century.  Earthwatch 25 Years On: Between Science and International Environmental Governance by Jan Stefan Fritz, IIASA Report IR-97-059,  can be down-loaded from IIASA Web site. A revised version has been published in International Environmental Affairs (Volume 10, Number 3, pp. 173-196 - Summer 1998).

The report describes how Earthwatch has evolved in its approaches to the application of science to policy making, ranging from the "functional approach" through the "feeder of information" approach to the "assessments for policy" approach applied in Earthwatch today.

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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva