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23 December 2011

Effective Access to Data for Environmental Progress: the Eye on Earth Summit

Making data accessible to all, especially emerging economies, to address environmental and social concerns was the focus of the recent Eye on Earth Summit. Organized by the Abu Dhabi Global Environment Initiative (AGEDI) in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Eye on Earth (EoE) convened 1,000 participants from 39 countries to formulate initiatives to ensure accurate and reliable data to combat food insecurity, water scarcity, and climate change. The conference was hosted by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates.

The Summit, which included three days of high-level discussion plus a Civil Society Forum (see below), emphasized the political dimensions of concerns regarding access to data, especially in the context of sustainable development. Affordability and universal accessibility to environmental mapping and information technology in general were emphasized, especially by participants from the global South. (See SciDev Net’s coverage of the Summit for more information.) The initiatives that were begun at the Summit promote biodiversity, “blue” carbon (stored in marine coastal ecosystems), water, disaster management, urban environment, environmental education, inter-regional data networks, and universal data access.

Remarks made at Eye on Earth by Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), emphasized the need for partnerships for commercial data to increase access to information. Rio+20, according to Mr. Sha, must focus on renewing political commitment for sustainable development through capacity building and the provision of supporting resources. He highlighted the strategic significance of Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) and its newly-established UN Committee of Experts, in terms of the improvement of management and coordination of geospatial data globally. Finally, Mr. Sha underscored the need for published reports bringing together the three pillars (social, economic, and environmental) of sustainable development.

City resilience formed another important focus of EoE, in the context of increased prevalence of national disasters due to climate change. Looking towards Rio+20, the Summit stressed the need of local governments to empower themselves to address national disasters, especially through improving their information systems for early warning. According to SciDev Net, urban areas are responsible for two thirds of global energy consumption and 70% of global carbon emissions; consequently, cities form a primary locus for increasing resilience and fighting climate change.

The necessity of building green cities formed a significant aspect of the remarks made at EoE by former President Bill Clinton, who hailed global movements for equality such as the “Arab Spring” and Occupy Wall Street as indicators of the rejection of the current economic system. “We live in an interdependent world,” he stated, a world which cannot be separated into “haves and have-nots.” Rather, stability and prosperity will be built through increasing equality, a significant aspect of which is financing and implementing tools to combat climate change.

He further highlighted the need to make data accessible for disaster planning and resilience; early warning systems dependent on citizen involvement can help to prevent large-scale damage. He referenced Hurricane Katrina, which decimated the city of New Orleans in 2004, as an example of the effects of climate change in a context of insignificant urban resilience. Outdated information and prevention strategies (levees) could not stop the force of the floods, while damage would have been reduced by 90% if not for the effects of climate change, President Clinton concluded.

In his speech, Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, flagged the accessibility of data as a “global challenge” that must be addressed not only at EoE but also at Rio+20 and beyond. Data sharing and the harnessing of “citizen’s science” can contribute to early warning systems, Mr. Steiner asserted, highlighting the important potential of these endeavours in Africa in particular. He welcomed EoE’s Access4All initiative as a natural ally to the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, one of the two priorities for Rio+20. “Sound policymaking,” Mr. Steiner concluded, “requires sound science which in turn is underpinned by sound, reliable and timely data.”

The Eye on Earth Summit held special sessions for Rio+20 on 12 December, which brought together 16 governments to discuss and endorse the Summit Declaration. This document, which recognized the need for universal access to environmental information in the context of economic and social development, recalled Principle 10 in an explicit focus on Rio+20. The Declaration “aspire[s] to a vision whereby decision-making for sustainable development is empowered by the availability and equitable accessibility of credible, relevant, timely information,” in a manner that explicitly focused on sustainable development.

In advance of the Summit, on 11 December, a Civil Society Forum was held on “greater access to environmental and societal information.” 65 people from 35 countries participated, and the all-day forum included four working groups, which made recommendations on policy, governance, and institutional networking; content and user needs; technical infrastructure; and capacity building, education, and awareness-raising. In its combined recommendations, the forum emphasized a human rights approach to the implementation of Principle 10, affirming access to data as a human right and advocating the expansion of ICT for community and official empowerment. The forum focused on the needs of poor, marginalized, and indigenous communities, and agreed unanimously that access to environmental information and justice must be ensured for all.

Outcomes of the Summit include the Eye on Earth Network and the Watch initiatives, which employ citizen’s science to report on natural disasters, invasive species, etc. In his closing statement, H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary General of EAD, pledged the continued support of his organization and AGEDI to continue the development of global and regional information systems begun at EoE. Eye on Earth Abu Dhabi 2014 will serve as an opportunity for participants to reconvene, to report on progress made towards EoE’s initiatives.

Further information is available online, including selected videos of speakers at Eye on Earth, as well as the Summit’s Twitter feed and handle.

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