United Nations System-Wide

Assessing the global environment for sustainable development

The phenomenal economic and technological development since the last century, the explosion in the human population, and rising levels of consumption are rapidly pushing our society towards global limits.

Just as one cannot manage a bank account without knowing the balance of funds in the account, so we cannot manage the global environment without knowing the balance of natural resources and the state of the life-support systems of this planet.

Earthwatch*  was established in 1972 by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm as the action plan and framework within which all the United Nations agencies can work together to observe and assess the global environment.

The United Nations has strengthened Earthwatch to implement the call of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the "Earth Summit"), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, to provide information for decision-making on environment and development as the basis for achieving sustainable development.

What is Earthwatch?

Earthwatch is the framework through which the United Nations system, in cooperation with the international community, develops programmes to maintain a watch on the planet Earth. It stimulates the collection of information on global environmental change, and coordinates mechanisms to advise decision-makers so that management actions can be taken. It is composed of many separate but inter-related UN activities that assemble and assess information on the human and natural environment, in order to anticipate environmental degradation and to alert the international community to ways in which human activities may be interfering with the functioning of the biosphere and with human well-being.

How does Earthwatch work?

Through Earthwatch, the network of United Nations specialized agencies and their partners collaborate in international efforts to coordinate, harmonize and integrate their observing, assessment and reporting activities.

Earthwatch addresses major issues such as:

--the capacity of land resources to support society and the impact of processes such as deforestation, soil degradation and desertification
--loss of natural areas and biological diversity;
--protection of the atmosphere;
--quality and quantity of freshwater resources;
--state of oceans and coastal areas;
--environmental effects on human health and quality of life, including the living and working environment of the poor;
--accumulation of wastes, particularly hazardous wastes, and chemicals;
--risks of biotechnology.

UN bodies are working to achieve an international consensus on the definition and use of environmental and sustainable development indicators that will show trends in the environment and sustainability for policy-makers and the public.

While most activities are organized by sector, there is a need to look at the interactions in the global system. Earthwatch partners are stimulating studies of how different human activities and parts of the natural system interact with each other, with special attention to feedbacks where one damaging activity may reinforce another, and to the implications of future trends.

Since many environmental impacts like climate change will develop over decades, Global Observing Systems are being developed for long-term observations of climate, oceans and terrestrial areas, within an Integrated Global Observing Strategy.

At present, environmental data are lacking for many developing countries. A special effort through all the organizations cooperating in Earthwatch will aim to build the capacity of all countries to assess their own environments and to contribute to the Earthwatch process.

There will always be surprises in a system as complex as this planet. The agencies cooperating in Earthwatch will keep alert to new problems and unexpected changes, so that early warnings can be issued to the international community.

The results of Earthwatch are communicated to decision-makers, planners, specialists and the general public in a variety of forms, including comprehensive reports and data compilations, state of the environment reports, electronic documents and web sites on the Internet.

While it may take decades to see the full results of Earthwatch, we must act now to build an information system on the global environment that will help us to correct present problems and to make wiser choices for the future.


An inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party meets annually to coordinate the continued development of Earthwatch. The United Nations Environment Programme, as the principal body in the United Nations system in the field of environment, maintains a UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination office in Geneva to catalyse and coordinate participation in Earthwatch by all parts of the United Nations in cooperation with governments, the scientific community, and non-governmental organizations.

For further information, contact:

UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination
United Nations Environment Programme
International Environment House
15 Chemin des Anémones
CH-1219 Châtelaine, Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: (41 22) 917 8207
Fax: (41 22) 797 3471
E-mail: dahla@unep.ch
WWW: http://www.unep.ch/earthw.html
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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva