United Nations System-Wide


22 February 2000


The planetary environment is now changing more rapidly than any time in human history. The explosion of the human population over the last century, multiplied by our technology-driven impacts on natural resources and the environment, have created growing pressures on the biogeochemical cycles and life-support systems on which humans and all life depend for survival. Managing those pressures and avoiding damaging changes to the environment have become urgent global priorities. Yet such management is impossible without reliable scientific information on what is happening to the Earth. It is like trying to fly an airplane without instruments or gauges.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the principal United Nations body in the field of the environment, and is expected to be the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment. To accomplish this, UNEP is mandated to analyze the state of the global environment, assess global and regional environmental trends, and provide early warning on environmental threats. In fulfilment of that mandate, and in recognition of rapidly changing circumstances that pose new challenges and opportunities, UNEP has developed this action strategy for environmental observing and assessment. It is being implemented through significant changes in UNEP's operational activities and structure, and a phased programme of activities in partnership with many other organizations.

The broad international political support for UNEPís role in environmental observing and assessment underscores a significant opportunity to increase UNEPís effectiveness. If fully implemented with outside partnerships and funding, this strategic plan will give UNEP an enhanced role within the United Nations system and around the world as the most reliable global source of environmental information. It will enable UNEP to lead more effective efforts to address rising environmental challenges by catalysing and coordinating activities within the international system and by acting in partnership with governments, the private sector, and civil society.


UNEP will provide a wider range of more policy-relevant and timely assessment products, in print and through new information technologies, including:

A short annual report on specific environmental situations and threats, with indicators of status and trends, for global and regional policy-makers;

An integrated global assessment, the Global Environment Outlook report, every 3-5 years, and thematic or sectoral assessments as necessary, for UN bodies, the UNEP Governing Council, environmental ministers, and the public;

Early warnings of emerging issues, and rapid briefings on environmental crisis situations and hotspots, to stimulate and guide international responses;

Integrated data on status and trends in harmonized core data sets, indicators and maps for international decision-making bodies and conventions; and

Coherent environmental information networks and observing systems with many partners, supported by ancillary products and methodologies, to collect and deliver assessment information more rapidly to a wider range of users and to expand public access.


The functional elements of the strategy, and the more focused role for UNEP in implementing them, include:

Assessment and Reporting, with a sharply defined operational role producing integrated global reports, and an expanded collaborative role in thematic assessments, responding to user needs for policy-relevant information and driving the whole information system;

Environmental Observing, with expanded catalytic and partnership roles to ensure a better flow of timely and reliable environmental data, working with global and national monitoring agencies and with new bottom-up monitoring networks to fill critical data gaps;

Data Analysis and Integration, with both catalytic and operational roles to build a reliable and harmonized base of information for decision-making;

Early Warning of emerging environmental threats and risks, and Strategic Oversight of the global environmental observing and assessment system itself to ensure that it works effectively to deliver timely outputs.


UNEP is developing major partnerships in support of this strategy, to create a more efficient global system of observing, assessment, and reporting. These include:

Institutional links with major international assessment centres and processes for global sectoral assessments, such as of climate change, biodiversity, freshwater, the marine and coastal environment, desertification, islands, ecosystems, etc., including those that support the international environmental conventions. These include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), the Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA), and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, among others;

Strengthened links with regional collaborating centres for participatory assessments such as the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) process, enhancing regional capacity for analysis, reporting and informed decision-making affecting the environment.

New partnerships with remote sensing agencies in support of specific observation and early warning systems that significantly expand the base of environmental information; and active encouragement of more participatory, bottom-up approaches to environmental observing.

Development with partners of an Internet-based environmental information meta-system (system of systems). This will bringing together new integrated information frameworks and harmonized, readily-accessible data sets to support assessment and decision-making across the international system, including UNEPís own assessment activities. It will also reduce national reporting burdens.

Stronger links with the scientific community, other UN agencies, policy experts, and users to facilitate UNEPís strategic leadership and ensure the quality and credibility of its assessments.

Internally, UNEP is making a number of changes in its Division of Environmental Information, Assessment, and Early Warning (DEIA&EW) to respond to the strategy, including:

Consolidation -- combining existing separate activities into a single coherent division with branches for:

- assessment and reporting, including Earthwatch, the GEO team, sectoral assessments, and early warning;

- support services, comprising the regional coordinators, GRID centres for data analysis and integration, contributions to global observing systems, and capacity-building activities; and

- environmental information services responsible for the more technical side of information networking, including INFOTERRA, UNEPnet and Mercure.

Regionalization -- strengthening regional capacity building with a network of collaborating centres, and transforming national focal points into integrated environmental information networks, in cooperation with the Regional Coordinators and UNEP's Regional Offices. This will ensure better public access to environmental information, and provide national nodes for UNEP's environmental information network.

Expansion -- expanding Earthwatch for strategic leadership in the UN system; strengthening UNEP's assessment coordination capabilities; creating a capacity to catalyse needed changes and synergies among observing systems at the global, national and grass-roots levels; and expanding regional environment and natural resources information networking activities for independent analysis and reporting, in support of UNEP's assessment and early warning missions.

GLOBAL Earthwatch - collaboration with UN system agencies and scientific community:  FAO, UNESCO, WMO, DESA, etc. and SCOPE, IGBP, WCRP, G3OS, CEOS 
THEMATIC Centres of expertise to implement thematic assessments:  IPCC, WCMC, GIWA, etc. 
Data analysis and integration to support assessments:  GRID-Geneva, GRID-Sioux Fall, GRID-Arendal, etc. 
REGIONAL Regional coordination, inputs and capacity-building: EAP-Asia/Pacific, Africa, LAC, West Asia, ENRIN in CEE, etc. 
NATIONAL National environmental information networks/focal points for access and delivery: INFOTERRA, GRID-Warsaw, GRID-Budapest, etc. 


In summary, the strategy can be characterized in several ways:

a user-driven strategy -- focused around key issues, driven by the needs of policy and decision makers, which determine assessment activities, which in turn guide observation and analysis;

more ambitious strategic goals -- reflecting UNEP's leadership role on the environment within the UN system and its guardianship role for the environment for all life on Earth, including people;

more focused programmes -- reflecting greater clarity about UNEP's role and ability to add value in each element of the strategy; and

flexible implementation -- starting with a few key issues and demonstration products, allowing programme elements to be put in place piece by piece as funding becomes available, within the overall strategic framework.


To implement the strategy in a flexible and dynamic way, programme modules are being developed for each function, designed to produce the specific products described above. Some modules require rapid implementation; others are intended for further development and later implementation. Further modules will be added for additional priority environmental issues as these emerge. Task teams will be assembled as necessary from within the division and from other parts of UNEP to address specific problems and modules.

Together, the strategy and its implementing modules constitute an ambitious but realistic plan, transforming existing activities into a coherent, unified programme and launching bold new efforts.

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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva