Quality environmental data
for all

   Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan
describes a new environmental data collection initiative specifically sensitive to the needs of developing countries.

At the time of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, it is sobering to reflect that 100 years ago there were 4.3 billion less people on the planet then there are today and their impact on the natural environment was comparatively modest.

Environmental disasters from floods to famines are constantly in the news, and environmental degradation and poverty are subjects of constant debate. Away from the headlines, chain saws are destroying rainforests, dams are silting up rivers and pesticides threaten both wildlife and the soil from which food to feed an ever growing world population must be derived.

A decade ago, world leaders, environmental experts and concerned citizens met in Rio de Janeiro and endorsed Agenda 21 – a roadmap for an environmentally sustainable world in the new millennium. Some progress has been made, but far too little has changed in the way people behave to ensure the fragile future of our planet.

It is not for want of trying. Environmental initiatives abound and debate is constant. Whether it is about water scarcity and pollution, climate change or deforestation, invariably there is disagreement about the data and its quality on which the arguments are based. This data dearth makes it much more difficult for sound policy decisions to be made or for individuals to alter their lifestyles.

United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, wrote in The Millennium Report: “It is impossible to devise effective environmental policy unless it is based on sound scientific information. While major advances in data collection have been made in many areas, large gaps in our knowledge still exist.”

In the United Arab Emirates, we have been acutely aware of the pitfalls of inadequate data for some time, and as a result we have initiated the Environmental Database for the Emirate of Abu-Dhabi, complementing our ongoing preparations for a National Spatial Data Infrastructure.

As a country that takes environmental sustainability very seriously, the United Arab Emirates have made tremendous strides in reducing the flaring of gases from onshore and offshore oilfields. We are getting promising results from research into capturing clean energy from the sun through a new generation of solar panels. Moreover, substantial efforts are being made to protect and preserve our wildlife.

We, therefore, are very sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the United Nations agencies with environmental mandates and others about the quality and extent of available data on which rational environmental decisions can be based.

As a result, the United Arab Emirates wanted to show leadership by launching, following the signing of a letter of agreement with UNEP , a far-reaching initiative to address the issue of improved environmental data called for in Chapters 8 and 40 of Agenda 21. The Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) evolved as a response to a worldwide demand for quality environmental data. AGEDI’s goal is to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries in providing easy access to such data, particularly in developing countries.

Our vision is to have a world in which all people have easy and cost-effective access to quality environmental data and information for decision-making that will enhance their personal well-being as well as that of our planet.

The initiative incorporates a top-down structure for establishing the methodology to identify, track, and compare core environmental data sets, with a bottom-up implementation plan to build local and regional environmental capacities, gather the requisite high-quality data in a systematic fashion, and tune it to address priorities on a local, national and regional basis.

AGEDI’s key elements are:

  • an Environmental Information Infrastructure will build on past successes and address past shortcomings in integrating innovative approaches for data collection, collation, analysis, use and updating;

  • the Earth will be subdivided into relevant environmental regions for data collection and policy action;

  • data will be comparable over time with consistent units of measurement; use will be made of cutting edge approaches, including satellite imaging and advanced information technologies;

  • strategic partnerships between governments, intergovernmental organizations and no-governmental organizations, universities and the private sector will ensure a collaborative rather than a competitive approach;

  • training programmes will build local capacity for consistent data collection, processing and analysis;

  • local communities will be involved in planning for environmental and industrial accidents; and

  • a clearinghouse will be established to ensure that data is made available to everyone who needs it.

One of the challenges that AGEDI seeks to address is the complexity of the different aspects of quality environmental data management.

Take the case of air quality. Issues at the micro level (local community/nation) may be very specific to that geographic region and situation. However, other air quality data may be more relevant for decision-makers at the mezzo (regional environmental system) or macro (international/global) levels. The policy-maker or business strategy manager will need different data in different forms depending upon which level of impact is of most concern.

The top-down/bottom-up structure of AGEDI allows for all three levels of stakeholder to benefit both from its collection of quality data and its balanced approach to providing information to important constituency groups. It is expected to prove especially sensitive to developing countries whose individual needs for quality data are likely to be much more varied across countries, but who are critically important players at the mezzo and macro levels of impact.

The United Arab Emirates is committing $5 million to establish a pilot programme for carrying out these activities in Abu Dhabi, using the environmental challenges of the region to develop a model of best practice that can be adapted and then, we hope, scaled up globally. To facilitate the full programme, we will seek to mobilize additional resources from bilateral and multilateral sources.

Ten years ago, Agenda 21 called for environmental data shortcomings to be addressed. We hope that the initiative we are launching in Johannesburg will finally enable that hope expressed in Rio to be fulfilled  

Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan is Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates and Deputy Chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA).

PHOTOGRAPH: K Sommerer/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Agenda of hope | Changing the paradigm | Only one Earth | Beyond brackets | African renaissance | Unmissable opportunity | At a glance: GEO-3 | Asking the people | Recapturing momentum | Taking the measure of unsustainability | Breaking the grid lock | Training for transformation | Bring big business to account | Out of the changing room | ‘Dear delegates...’ | We need a dream | Two sides of the same coin: before and after Johannesburg| Quality environmental data for all

Complementary articles in other issues:
Tim Foresman: On The Dot (Transport and Communications) 2001
Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan: Oil and rising water (Energy) 2001

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
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