Can We Realise a Green Economy? It's All in the Numbers Wed, Dec 14, 2011

Day by day, we see a key challenge to better care for the atmosphere, air, land, water and seas: namely, how to best utilise the mounting data from satellites and monitoring stations in ways that are useful to people and the planet.

More intelligent harvesting and management of environmental data is going to be among the keys to how far and how fast a sustainable 21st century can be forged.

By Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

This article first appeared in the National Newspaper Abu Dhabi on 12 December 2011

Africa is arguably the most vulnerable Continent to climate change on many counts-gathering high quality weather and climate data is therefore crucial for the kinds of reliable and timely weather forecasts needed by planners to avert the worst impacts of droughts and floods.

Good weather forecasting can also link into micro-insurance schemes, such as those tested in Ethiopia by the World Food Programme, where farmers get financial support when rainfall drops below a pre-determined threshold and before they are down to their last bag of maize or cow.

Yet by some estimates about 25 per cent out of the Global Climate Observing System surface stations in east and southern Africa are not working and most of the remaining stations elsewhere in Africa are functioning in a less than desirable manner. Around a fifth of the 10 upper air network stations are in a similar state.

Overall it is estimated that Africa needs 200 automatic weather stations and a major effort to rescue historical data, a significant amount of which remains in paper form rather than digitized for deployment in modern forecasting and climate super computer modeling.

In respect to rivers globally most data on flows, water withdrawls and the recharge rates of underground aquifers are patchy (to say the least) across rivers basins and freshwater shared by more than two nations. Information on water quality can be even more challenging especially in developing countries.

Only 0.1 per cent of the oceans have been mapped at a scale as detailed as a hectare, and large tracts of the seafloor, such as most of the southern ocean, have not been mapped at all-we have better data on the surface of the moon.

The situation brings into sharp focus some of the key challenges in terms of better managing the atmosphere, air, land, water and seas: namely data gaps, access to data and how best to utilize the mounting volumes from satellites to monitoring stations in ways that are useful to people and the planet.

The Eye on Earth Abu Dhabi 2011 Summit taking place in mid December under the patronage of the United Arab Emirates President, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is an opportunity to accelerate and bridge this crucial gap in humanity's efforts to realize a low carbon, resource efficient 21st century Green Economy.

Some of the data challenges are, as with Africa's weather and climate monitoring, a question of technological capacity and improved networks.

Cities in West Asia can have high values of air pollution due to the dusty desert environment of the region. Environment Agency -Abu Dhabi has embarked on an effort to expand its air quality monitoring network by doubling the number of monitoring stations.

This will give city planners access to information on air quality on different development scenarios, allowing them to make more informed decisions when it comes to planning future projects.

Harnessing 'citizen' science, including the networks of mobile phones users, is also part of the environmental data debate and an area identified as a promising opportunity by Global Pulse, a new initiative by Ban ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General.

The public and their cell phones could, if encouraged, become early warning systems of droughts and floods, as well as forest fires and wildlife poaching.

In India, Project Suraya- which is linked to UNEP's Atmospheric Brown Cloud initiative- is using special cell phones in villages to measure levels of black carbon emitted by cook stoves.

The project is also linking to satellites with the aim of measuring how more efficient stoves are simultaneously improving public health while providing climate benefits in the atmosphere.

Addressing the data challenge and opportunities also hinges on how to encourage greater openness and more regular data sharing between academics, universities and the private sector.

The oil and gas industry for example carries out Environmental Impact Assessments, including in the Gulf region, which in turn generates large amounts of data on species such as dolphins, as well as whole ecosystems such as coral reefs and seagrass beds.

But much of this vital data is often lost to researchers and policymakers for a range of reasons from privacy considerations up to the fact that such surveys and the underlying raw data is often not standardized.

Data specialists and policymakers may imagine they live in very different and perhaps disconnected worlds. The Eye on Earth Abu Dhabi 2011 Summit is a real opportunity and a bold initiative to build better understanding and closer relationships to realize the benefits of tighter collaboration.

The potential is profound: As the world looks to Rio+20 in June 2012, 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit that set the course of contemporary sustainable development, more intelligent harvesting and management of environmental data is going to be among the keys to how far and how fast a sustainable 21st century can be forged.

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