United Nations System-Wide


9 March 2000


Concise version - Executive Summary

PART II - Extended Version (this document)
 Vision, Mission and Strategic Goals


 Objectives for UNEP Assessment Functions

 Assessment and Reporting
 Environmental Observing
 Data Analysis and Integration
 Early Warning and Strategic Leadership

 Partnerships for strategy implementation

 Restructuring of UNEPís Programmes

 Activities for strategy implementation

1. This version gives an expanded perspective on the new UNEP Environmental Observing and Assessment Strategy, including the following sections:

- the vision, mission and strategic goals;
- outputs;
- objectives for UNEP assessment functions;
- partnerships for strategy implementation; and
- restructuring of UNEP's programmes.

It highlights the major thrusts of the strategy without attempting to be all inclusive.

A separate document includes activities for strategy implementation, which will be updated regularly as implementation progresses. The activities are assembled in a series of modules which can provide the basis for specific projects or be implemented in a phased manner as funds become available, while still forming parts of a coherent whole.

2. This strategy is the result of an extensive 18-month process, starting with a comprehensive review by a number of outside advisers, and including wide consultation on discussion documents within UNEP and with many outside partners, and the distribution of drafts at the UNEP Governing Council and over the Internet. Background for the strategy, including an analysis of past activities, is available in a Reference Paper (http://www.unep.ch/earthw/unepstrf.htm). The reference paper is based largely on background reports prepared by outside consultant organizations and UNEP. It documents UNEP's mandate in more detail, amplifies the strategic goals for observing and assessment, describes information products and priority issues, places the strategy in the context of other strategies and larger strategic frameworks, and reviews the lessons learned from UNEP's past experience. This strategy resulted from a consensus that major change was needed, and reflects widespread support for its major elements. It provides essential guidance to the UNEP Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning in developing its structure and work programme. Implementation of the strategy is already leading to inputs from a wider circle of partners and governments, the establishment of specific partnerships and the expansion of collaborative activities. Significant support for the first year of implementation has come from the United Nations Foundation/UN Fund for International Partnerships.


3. UNEP must strengthen its role as the leading global environmental authority. It must set the global environmental agenda and provide a timely, credible and reliable source of integrated information about the environmental problems of the planet and human society. It cannot do this alone, but must marshall the efforts of the UN system, other international organizations, governments and civil society, and distil the results into policy-relevant outputs.


4. UNEP's mandate for environmental observing and assessment, set forth in the 1972 Stockholm action plan and renewed in Agenda 21 and the 1997 Nairobi Declaration, is to analyze the state of the global environment, assess global and regional environmental trends, and provide early warning information on environmental threats, based on the best scientific and technical capabilities available. The UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, reporting in June 1998, confirmed this mandate. It recommended that UNEP transform its Earthwatch function into an effective, accessible, science-based system that meets the needs of environmental decision makers and the public. The importance of this recommendation was emphasized by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 53/242 of August 1999.

5. UNEP has a unique integrating role on the environment within the international system, with a mission to focus on linkages among the various environmental issues and sectoral policies. It must provide timely information to meet the needs of environmental decision-makers and the public, and stimulate greater involvement of regional and sectoral stakeholders in environmental assessment processes. Fulfilling this mission, in its role as guardian of the environment for all Earth's peoples, is the aim of this strategy.


6. Four strategic goals are set for UNEP's Observing and Assessment Programme:

a) to strengthening the quality and availability of policy-relevant information and assessments so as to improve local, national and international decision-making that affects the environment;

b) to report globally on the state of the global environment, including the causes of environmental degradation and the impact of policy responses;

c) to catalyse, encourage, and assist the evolution of an improved and more coordinated global observing and assessment system, focused to a greater extent on policy-relevant outputs;

d) to increase regional capacity for environmental data collection, analysis, and reporting as a foundation for the global system.


7. The success of a programme must ultimately be judged by the usefulness of its outputs. The strategy calls for UNEP to provide a wider range of more policy-relevant and timely assessment products, in print and through new information technologies, including:

a) A short annual report on specific environmental situations and threats, with indicators of status and trends, for global and regional policy-makers. Such short, timely reports, together with other targeted assessments and information products (such as the UNEP/EEA concise annual assessments), will keep policy-makers informed of the global and regional environmental situation, particularly where it threatens human health and well-being and environmental sustainability. This is one mechanism for long-term early warning.

b) Periodic integrated global assessments of the state of the environment, such as the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports every 3-5 years, and the 10-year reviews of the state of the world environment, as well as thematic or sectoral assessments as necessary, intended to measure the effectiveness of international environmental management actions for UN bodies, the UNEP Governing Council, environmental ministers, and the public. These include GEO-3 in 2002, the World Resources Reports, and associated products such as GEO for Youth, and the Environment Outlook reports on the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Ocean Small Island Developing States.

c) Early warnings of emerging issues, and rapid briefings on environmental crisis situations and hotspots, to stimulate and guide international responses. These new forms of environmental assessment are made possible by the new information technologies that permit more rapid collection, assembly and distribution of data.

d) Adequate scientific data on the global environment assembled and organized into integrated data on status and trends in harmonized core data sets, indicators and maps for reporting to international decision-making bodies and conventions. These should be derived from global observing systems, partnerships with data producers, and projects such as the new integrated observing system for water quality.

e) 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. Such a network of transparent and accessible Internet-based environmental information systems, in which all partners participate, should be able to provide different types of essential information to all users, stakeholders and decision-makers from global to local levels. This should build on initiatives such as the electronic environmental information meta-system and integrated environmental information services at national level proposed in the strategy. Such systems should incorporate sets of indicators in an integrated information framework.


8. UNEP has been given a broad and challenging mission but, with limited resources, it cannot do everything. Instead, UNEP must define carefully those functions across the whole chain of information flow, from collecting raw data to delivering processed information and policy recommendations, where it has a comparative advantage at the international level and the capability to be effective. This strategy outlines objectives and activities for four such functions: assessment and reporting, environmental observing, data analysis and integration, and early warning and strategic oversight. UNEP will ensure that all these activities are integrated into a single efficient system. The needs of users for reports and early warning information should determine the assessment processes, which in turn should define the data to be collected and analyzed. The appropriate role for UNEP--how UNEP can best contribute significant added value or leverage other contributions--varies greatly from area to area, and this strategy is accordingly specific for each area. These functions are essentially the responsibility of UNEP's Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning (DEIA&EW), but will require collaboration across all parts of UNEP.


9. Environmental assessment involves evaluating the state of and the trends in the planetary environment, its life support systems, and the natural resources on which humanity depends. This has always been an essential function of UNEP, and one of the most important activities for exercising its role in the international community. As the flow of environmental information has increased and the number of actors involved in environmental assessment at local through global levels has expanded enormously, the role of UNEP's environmental assessments and reports has had to evolve. This strategy continues and accelerates that evolution. In particular, integrated assessments are now needed that evaluate the inter-linkages among issues, driving forces, and policy responses. Also needed are assessments that make use of such tools as scenario analysis, modelling, and geographic information system (GIS) analysis. This will provide users with better insights into where current trends may lead, how impacts differentiate by region, and what alternative policies may achieve.

10. UNEP has both a direct operational role in assessment and a catalytic and collaborative role within the international system. In its operational activities, UNEP will:

a) Prepare and publish authoritative global integrated environmental assessments, building on and strengthening the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report and the regionalized, participatory process that supports it.

b) Increase its focus in its own assessments and information products on providing environmental guidance to the key elements of the international system, including the UNEP Governing Council, the Commission on Sustainable Development, and through them ECOSOC and the UN General Assembly; the multilateral financial institutions; specialized UN bodies such as FAO, UNDP, WHO, etc.; and especially the international environmental conventions.

c) Consult regularly and develop partnerships with these groups to determine user profiles and needs for environmental information, to discuss the relevant results from UNEP's assessments and their policy implications, and to analyze the actual use of the reports produced.

d) Give additional emphasis in its own assessments to causes, impacts, and policy responses and to evaluating the adequacy, performance and global environmental impacts of societal responses and development programmes.

e) Develop specific and timely environmental information products for its main target groups: policy-makers, international decision-making bodies, and international environmental conventions, which can also provide the basis for outputs to the media and the general public.

In its collaborative and catalytic assessment activities, UNEP will:

f) Establish partnerships with thematic or sectoral assessment centres and programmes, stimulate the creation of scientific assessment bodies where needed, and participate as appropriate in sectoral assessments targeted to specific policy-making processes. It will both contribute to sectoral assessments and incorporate their insights and findings into UNEPís integrated assessment, strategic oversight, and early warning efforts.

g) Strengthen the capacity of a selected set of well-regarded collaborating centres in developing regions to undertake regional analysis, assessment, and reporting, involving a wider range of scientific and policy expertise, in order to increase significantly the amount of policy-relevant information on regional and global environmental issues.

h) Catalyse consultations and inter-linkages among the international scientific advisory processes involved in assessments of the environment and sustainable development, to improve their coherence and effectiveness.

i) Promote access to environmental information, and facilitate the flow of information between the organization and its partners, through provision with many partners of integrated environmental information services.

11. In UNEP's operational role, its assessment and reporting strategy must be driven by user needs for environmental information of policy relevance, focusing specifically on the needs of the international system. Within that context, it will define the information products (reports, bulletins, electronic services, etc.) able to meet those needs. For example, it might prove useful to provide web or other electronic information access for UNEP's Permanent Representatives to give them status information on the environment and the processes for its assessment in their regions. To be sure of focusing its assessment and reporting activities in this way, UNEP will establish a structured dialogue with each of its target groups within the international system. These dialogues will include regular meetings to understand their information needs and specific efforts to discuss with them the results of UNEPís assessment activities and their implications.

12. In addition to UNEPís own integrated assessment activities, however, there are other global and sectoral assessment and reporting activities relevant to the environment, such as international energy assessments and the scientific assessment processes that undergird the international environmental conventions. UNEP is a partner in sectoral assessments of freshwater, the marine and coastal environment, desertification, islands, ecosystems, etc. UNEP needs to maintain the internal capacity and administrative structures to cooperate effectively with other organizations and to participate actively in such assessments, where appropriate, to ensure that its perspective and an integrated view of environmental issues are incorporated in the assessments, to gain early access to findings and results that can inform its own assessment and reporting activities, and to strengthen its strategic oversight of environmental issues.

13. To support its assessment and reporting strategy, as well as its early warning activities, UNEP needs to significantly upgrade its technical capacity to portray information visually--in maps, multi-media presentations, web sites, and video clips--so as to be able to communicate it to policy-makers and to the media more effectively.


14. To fulfil its mission to analyze and assess the global environment, UNEP depends upon data and information gathered by a wide variety of sources. These sources together constitute the elements of a global environmental observing system. However, UNEP itself neither collects any primary data nor directly manages any observing systems. Moreover, the collection of basic environmental data and information is fragmented and often inefficient: poor data undermine assessment conclusions and lead to bad policy decisions. To improve global environmental information and to fill critical data gaps, UNEP must play a catalytic role in encouraging changes in existing observing systems and in stimulating the development of new systems. This strategy calls for UNEP to:

a) Catalyse more effective data collection and analysis to meet assessment and early warning needs. This is necessary at all levels, not just at the global level. For this, UNEP will engage a wide variety of partners, including other UN system entities, national observing agencies, and efforts within civil society and the private sector, using its convening role and its leadership mandate for the environment.

b) Provide leadership that can help to re-orient existing observing efforts to produce more policy-relevant data. It will support the Integrated Global Observing Strategy and Global Observing Systems, set forth policy-relevant information needs, and build a consensus on critical data gaps and how to fill them.

c) Actively encourage the creation of additional innovative observing efforts, especially those that are bottom-up (and thus have the potential of adding local as well as global value) and those that can provide early-warnings or help to fill data gaps.

d) Work to strengthen regional centres, thematic centres and scientific processes that can assist with observing methodologies, data standards, quality control and harmonization, so as to improve data compatibility.

15. UNEP's efforts to improve observing systems must be driven by its early warning role and by the information needs of policy-makers and assessment processes, within UNEP and throughout the international system (including the global environmental conventions).

16. In exercising its catalytic role for environmental observing, UNEP and its partners need to assess periodically the priority needs for environmental data. This will include identifying weaknesses and gaps in global and regional data sets, and problems of harmonization and quality control. To do this, UNEP needs to engage and maintain a dialogue with observing agencies and organizations, use its convening power to host workshops and other meetings. It will use its moral authority as the environmental conscience of the UN System to suggest priority information needs to observing agencies, such as by addressing specific requests for contributions to monitoring agencies or national governments by or in the name of the Executive Director. UNEP can also form partnerships with observing agencies, host secretariats, and sponsor or endorse new initiatives.

17. A review of past experience suggests that a sustainable global observing system must be built on and closely linked to national and local components. Past experience also suggests that a successful global observing system cannot operate parasitically--it must return useful information to its national and local suppliers of data. The emerging global observing system will of necessity include many different components: remote-sensing systems, a wide range of in situ instruments, and reports from human observers. This strategy suggests phased implementation of activities (modules) designed to catalyse improvements in all three types of systems, tied to specific policy or assessment needs. These activities greatly expand UNEPís existing UN system-wide Earthwatch coordination activities.


18. Reliable assessments require a solid foundation of scientific data that are quality controlled, integrated into coherent and harmonized data sets, and analyzed for their significance in an environmental policy context. Data usually need to be summarized in graphics, maps, tables or indicators to become useful, easily understood information. This process by which data become information is one of the weakest links in the chain of information flow, as its importance is often underestimated and insufficient resources provided for it. A high proportion of existing data is of such poor quality or so difficult to compare that it fails to pass this step successfully. While UNEP will not become a major data compiler except for its own assessments, it will work with partners to facilitate and coordinate improved access to reliable data sets developed and maintained by many organizations. Such data sets should cover the state of the environment, environmental trends, the causes or drivers of environmental change, and the physical, biological, and social impacts of environmental change and degradation.

19. UNEP will therefore play both catalytic and operational roles in data analysis and integration, including assembly of harmonized data sets that are essential to environmentally sustainable development. This strategy calls for UNEP to:

a) Stimulate and establish an expanding base of high-quality, regularly-maintained and commonly-available processed data sets to support its assessment activities and those of other entities. This will require collaborative efforts and partnerships with other international agencies, regional organizations, collaborating centres, national agencies, and civil society groups.

b) Focus the activities of GRID centres on analysis and data integration efforts that support UNEPís assessment role, and on catalysing needed analysis by other groups.

c) Catalyse the development of an integrated information framework for environmentally sustainable development, and promote and seek to make use of advanced modelling and analysis tools and advanced methods of presenting and disseminating information.

d) Make greater use of the potential of the Internet to build an electronic environmental information meta-system, linking in its integrated information framework the distributed data sets and analyses developed and maintained by many groups. With common data protocols and built-in review processes, such a system can become a credible and widely available source of information.

e) Take the lead in coordinating and encouraging the development of a coherent set of environmental indicators for its assessments and reports, as part of the global effort to develop indicators of sustainable development.

20. Environmental assessments and early warnings need a foundation of reliable, readily understandable information. This often must be assembled from many different data sources through processes of analysis and integration, including essential steps of quality control and harmonization. UNEP needs to become a sophisticated user of data and information provided by others, with the capacity to analyze and evaluate its quality and appropriateness for its own use for assessment and early warning. It will make efforts to create more broadly accessible core environmental data sets that can also support other assessment and decision-making processes.

21. UNEP will also strengthen and make more effective use of its own analytic capacity, especially that represented by its GRID centres. It will extend its capacity by out-sourcing analysis, modelling, data integration, and indicator development through cooperative agreements, and engage in limited efforts to increase the capacity for analysis in selected regional centres in support of its assessment and reporting goals.


22. UNEP will take an expanded operational role in building cooperative environmental early warning mechanisms using the latest information and communications technologies, and in strategic leadership of the global environmental observing and assessment system itself. To that end, this strategy calls for UNEP to:

a) Strengthen its own assessment capacity so as to be able to assess and highlight the linkages and interactions among environmental issues and sectoral policies and bring them to global attention.

b) Build collaboration with existing networks in the UN system, intergovernmental and regional organizations, the scientific community, and non-governmental organizations to identify emerging environmental problems and potential crises.

c) Develop specific mechanisms for long-term early warning of significant environmental problems which could result in human or environmental disasters, emergencies or conflicts requiring international action.

d) Strengthen its strategic leadership of the whole global system for environmental observing and assessment and report periodically on the state of the observing system itself, identifying gaps and needed improvements, and organizing feed-back from the later stages of the policy cycle to the observing and assessment tasks.

23. Early warning and strategic leadership are both extensions of the assessment function, but are treated separately in the strategy to emphasize the important role of UNEP in ensuring that the global systems to observe and assess the environment are working effectively. UNEP will continually survey how the international system is responding to environmental issues, and point out gaps or new needs that require attention. Early warning addresses the need to anticipate and avoid environmental crises and to deliver environmental information more rapidly. An important first step will be to establish criteria for identifying issues or areas pertinent to early warning. Separately, UNEP will also link to networks and mechanisms developed by others to allow its decision-makers timely access to information on environmental crisis situations.


24. UNEP has always had a catalytic and coordinating role, and can only implement this strategy in collaboration with many other organizations. Therefore a major product of UNEPís efforts under this strategy will be partnerships that create a more efficient global system of observing, assessment, and reporting. These include:

a) 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;

b) 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.

c) 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.

d) Development with partners of an Internet-based environmental information meta-system, or 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.

e) 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.


25. To adapt to the new strategy, the UNEP secretariat is restructuring its existing observing, assessment and information programmes in the Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning as follows:


26. Many of the previous separate programme elements of the Division of Environmental Information, Assessment, and Early Warning (DEIA&EW) are being consolidated and refocused into a single coherent division with branches for:

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

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

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

Some specific changes include:

a) Long-standing monitoring programmes such as GEMS are being integrated into the Global Observing Systems now being developed on an inter-agency basis.

b) Global and regional integrated data centre activities (GRID) are being refocused as global or regional UNEP centres for data analysis and integration, charged with supporting UNEP's assessment and early warning functions both directly and by catalyzing analysis by other agencies that is supportive of UNEP's mission. National GRID nodes in Eastern Europe are being encouraged to integrate into national environmental information systems.

c) Clear criteria are being established for the variety of centres collaborating in the division's programmes. The DEIA&EW network of partnerships reflects a coherent series of relationships from the global to national levels. UN system-wide Earthwatch Coordination maintains collaboration with over 50 UN system agencies and organizations (FAO, UNESCO, WMO, DESA, etc.), as well as with the international scientific community and global research programmes (SCOPE, IGBP, WCRP, G3OS, CEOS, etc.). UNEP is increasingly building on relationships with international centres of expertise (IPCC, WCMC, GIWA, etc.) to implement thematic assessments. For data analysis and integration to support assessments, UNEP's network of GRID centres around the world provides both an in-house technical capacity and assistance to outside partners. Another level of relationships are involved in regional coordination, inputs and capacity-building (EAP-Asia/Pacific, Africa, LAC, West Asia, ENRIN in CEE, etc.). At the national level, environmental information networks and focal points for information access and delivery are organized through INFOTERRA and national GRID centres (GRID-Warsaw, GRID-Budapest, etc.).


27. As the foundation for UNEP's global assessment role, regional centres for analysis and reporting, such as the GEO collaborating centres and those developed for environment and natural resources information networking (ENRIN), are being strengthened as new funds become available. Such a limited, focused effort to increase regional capacity for independent analysis and reporting, in developing countries and countries with economies in transition, is critical to support UNEP's own regionalized assessment activity and to improve regional decision-making that affects the environment. The successful Environment Assessment Programme for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok is an appropriate model for this effort.

28. The DEIA&EW Regional Coordinators, in collaboration with the UNEP Regional Offices, are being given an increased role in regional information collection on the environment and in stimulating the development of integrated environmental information services, including:

a) Assisting DEIA&EW in overseeing collaborating centres, GRID centres, and other affiliated information activities within the region.

b) Maintaining contact with the national focal points, assisting them to establish partnerships with diverse stakeholders to create integrated environmental information services, and linking them to the UN Resident Coordinators and UNDP capacity building. Where there is more than one UNEP-linked national focal point or centre, their combination or close collaboration should be encouraged.

c) Providing information about environmental situations at the regional level that may require some response from UNEP or the international community.

d) Identifying regional priorities and policy concerns as inputs to UNEP's global assessments.

29. The national focal points established under INFOTERRA are being reoriented to build the partnerships necessary for an integrated environmental information service at the national level, with the assistance of the DEIA&EW Regional Coordinators and the UNEP Regional Offices. They will collaborate with the UN Resident Coordinators and UNDP to provide both national nodes for UNEP's environmental information network (e.g. sources of information for UNEP) and more dynamic national environmental information centres. They will also play a leading role in implementing the public-right-to-know principle and better public access to environmental information, as requested by the UNEP Governing Council (Decision 20/5).


30. DEIA&EW will significantly expand its efforts to catalyze needed changes and synergies among observing and assessment systems:

a) The efforts of Earthwatch coordination to provide strategic leadership in the UN system and with global observing systems provide a model and a nucleus for these catalytic activities.

b) DEIA&EW is extending its Earthwatch catalytic efforts, through the Integrated Global Observing Strategy Partnership and other activities directed at key national or regional environmental observing agencies such as NASA, NOAA, EEA, ISRO and the European Space Agency, to support a significant expansion in the base of environmental information. It is also stimulating and actively encouraging more participatory, bottom-up approaches to environmental observing.

c) UNEP is also strengthening its assessment coordination capabilities to bring more coherence to the many, sometimes overlapping, international assessment and reporting processes.

d) Expansion is underway to reinforce the development of regional centres for analysis and reporting, as described above, and to stimulate the assessment processes delivering timely and relevant products to UNEP's principal users at the international level.

31. Implementation of this strategy will necessitate some increase in staffing and facilities in DEIA&EW. Assessment and reporting will require an expanded and strengthened core assessment staff and adequate travel budgets. Technical requirements to present information visually will require new in-house skills and equipment, closer collaboration with UNEP Communications and Public Information, and more creative use of external services. The work with observing systems will require fairly senior staff dedicated to specific catalytic activities, with adequate travel and workshop budgets and authority to commit UNEP to collaborative activities. To provide the internal capacity required to use data effectively and to understand its limitations, the Division should include several programme officers with specific data and information-related coordination responsibilities, such as for indicators, data frameworks, or sectoral assessments. The wide geographic spread of GRID Centres, WCMC, GIWA, GPA, etc. will also require dedicated staff to coordinate their data and assessment functions and to ensure that regional activities remain integrated into the strategy. 

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