The technical and institutional capabilities around the planning, coordination and exploitation of satellite Earth observations have progressed so far since 1992 that the information that they provide is now fundamental to the achievement of the ambitions expressed by the 1992 Rio Summit, and of the conventions and agreements which describe the coordinated action to achieve them. Without the insights offered by satellite Earth observations, there will be insufficient evidence with which to inform our decision-makers on environmental policies, including those aimed at mitigation and adaptation to climate change. We will be unable to set accurate baselines as the basis for future agreements, or to provide the information that countries need to develop their reporting and compliance regimes that govern their participation in these agreements.
Despite all the progress, there remains a number of considerable challenges that must be addressed if the Earth observation community is to realise the full potential of its human and technical resources in supporting informed decision-making in relation to some of the most pressing challenges facing humankind at the start of the 21st century:
Political support for sustained observations: The establishment of GEOSS and GEO recognised that national and regional agencies with responsibility for delivering Earth observations may have to do more with less resources in future, and that efficiencies through international coordination are essential. GEOSS also seeks to educate and inform governments and decision-makers as to the fundamental importance of Earth observation to a well-informed future, and represents the most significant coordinated action to date in this direction.
The ultimate success of GEO in establishing a link between sustainable national development policies and the continued funding of key observation programmes remains to be seen. GEO has sought to tackle a comprehensive programme of coordination, across all spheres, but with limited funds and manpower. GEO represents the best vehicle available to the observation community for the promotion of its capabilities and their societal benefits, and this needs to be recognised and supported if its full potential as a coordination and advocacy body is to be realised. This recognition and support will be dependent on GEO demonstrating its potential to deliver outcomes in support of government needs and the efficiencies of the coordination that it promises.
Further, steps must also be taken to establish a more explicit context for GEO ambitions and activities within the framework of relevant UN agencies (such as the UN Environment Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization, among others), as well as the key conventions and agreements (such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and UN-Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)). The role of GEO and its relationship with these important groups and processes should be more clearly defined and understood – and the support of sovereign governments for GEO, in leading coordination of Earth observation, should be made clear. GEO can thus be confirmed as having a valid and recognised role with the authority of the countries who are making significant investments in the Earth-observing systems. With these matters reinforced, GEO can play an instrumental role in making stronger connections between coordinated action, such as through UN Conventions, and the provision of the Earth-observing systems that present the evidence, the baselines, the reporting and trends for their design and implementation.
Systematic use of observations for more effective and informed coordinated action: A better-managed future requires a better-informed governance framework. History suggests that more specific and quantitative agreements and conventions are most effective in defining international goals and monitoring progress towards them. These agreements will require the use of Earth observation data to be undertaken much more systematically and comprehensively than has previously been the case – with the full potential of satellite datasets being realised for this purpose.
Stronger mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing compliance with important environmental treaties will require reliable and reproducible sources of evidence and information, and satellite Earth observation data should be recognised as an essential tool in this context. The same information can be the basis of informed national action plans which represent the building blocks for the management of societal behaviour globally around key challenges.
Capacity building: Sovereign governments are the signatories to the conventions, and they implement rules and incentives to encourage their populations to address targets of agreements to which they are party (for example in relation to carbon emissions, deforestation, pollution and the use of ozone-depleting chemicals). The reporting to the conventions is the business of these governments, within the guidelines and good practice guidance available, for example as provided by IPCC. Effective engagement of the populations of the developing world, which are the fastest growing in the 21st century, will require extending assistance to their governments in establishing the institutional and technical means by which to undertake reliable and compliant reporting.
This will require assistance in relation to the basic national spatial data infrastructure of these governments and their ability to acquire, manage and exploit spatial data. It may also require assistance in relation to the governance aspects around the development of national monitoring, reporting and verification systems, of the kind required to allow effective participation in future environmental agreements. Such capacity-building measures will be essential if we are to optimise participation in future coordinated action, and to design mechanisms for national participation and reporting that are effective in achieving the goals required on a global scale. The activities underway within the Global Forest Observations Initiative are an example of the challenges ahead, with the aim of supporting countries in the development of their own national forest information systems – which might support their effective participation in the REDD+ initiative as well as emerging carbon markets.
Well-informed environmental policies of governments around the world will require effective information systems and capacity-building support will be an important factor in realising the full potential of Earth-observing systems and their contribution to national policies.
Public good data policies: Satellite Earth-observing systems are expensive to develop and operate. Different governments around the world employ different financial and institutional structures by which to finance them, sometimes including the recouping of a portion of the cost through commercial sale of the resulting data. There is a growing recognition that, for the full potential of the data to be realised – in particular by developing countries – that data that is urgently needed in support of common challenges must be made available on a free and open basis.
This has long been the case for meteorology, where it is recognised that the pressing need for the countries of the world to share information among the responsible national agencies that may help preserve life and property in neighbouring countries outweighs any commercial advantage in selling the data. There is a growing number of sectors where this public good philosophy is being applied – including in support of natural disasters and priority climate change challenges – such as deforestation.
Assuming the tensions in managing an increasing human population, depleting natural resources and degrading environment continue to intensify, so too will the pressure to recognise that the benefits of investing in global observing systems must be shared if the world’s countries are to act in a coordinated way in response to the evidence and trends that they are providing.
All countries must be able to benefit from the use of climate data records. This is an important issue in relation to products that depend primarily upon satellite observations. While Earth observation from satellites is a costly activity to which only a small number of countries are currently able to contribute, the derived information is generally of global utility. To meet the needs of UNFCCC and the other conventions, action needs to be taken to allow global access to these products and to ensure their global utility.
Continued improvements in coordination processes: CEOS is recognised as the primary international forum for coordination of the Earth observation programmes of space agencies worldwide. If space agencies are to mobilise the substantial response demanded by the many societal challenges ahead, then such a coordination role will be increasingly important. CEOS recognises the need to improve its coordination role and activities above the current ‘best efforts’ arrangements.
If space agencies are to supply the sustained and coordinated observations of the many variables required in support of the major multilateral environmental agreements (such as UNFCCC), challenges related to the way in which the Earth observation sector is structured must be addressed. Research space agencies tend to do new things once; operational agencies, while adopting new technologies and useful advances as they become available, do more or less the same things over and over. If continuity is to be ensured, more variables must be classified and recognised as operational, and made the responsibility of an operational agency or supported as operational in other ways. Wherever possible, operational measurements should be specified so that they satisfy the stated needs of the user communities. The establishment of sustained institutional and funding arrangements is fundamental, with ad-hoc approaches being unable to meet user expectations or provide the confidence needed to invest in systems and applications associated with long term data supply. Long-term records are essential in monitoring trends in relation to the environment and climate change.
In recent years, CEOS agencies have aimed to ensure continuity of some key measurements. For example, in ocean surface altimetry, the key agencies (CNES, ESA, EUMETSAT, ISRO, NASA and NOAA) have cooperated to attempt to ensure continuity of measurements so that they may become established as near-operational within some user communities. This remains, however, the exception rather than the rule for research-oriented space agencies, which are neither mandated nor funded to provide operational services. Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security programme is a promising example of how this transition might occur, with the emergence of operational services in support of European environmental policy that are being provided through a partnership of the European Commission and the European Space Agency. The vision is to sustain these observations through provision of operational budgets. Without such initiatives, the resources and mandates of space agencies as they currently stand will be insufficient.
If environmental and climatic changes continue at their current rates into the 21st century, we can expect to see an increasing political emphasis on ensuring that we are as informed as possible in support of mitigation and adaptation to these changes. Governments will also seek to ensure that they are as informed as possible as to the availability of increasingly scarce natural resources. Accordingly, we might expect a significantly higher priority and resources assigned to the kind of roles that GEO and CEOS are providing, or have the potential to provide.