The United Nations System-wide Earthwatch mechanism is a broad UN initiative to coordinate, harmonize and catalyze environmental observation activities among all UN agencies for integrated assessment purposes.
"Earthwatch" was established at the Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 as a UN System-wide mechanism to "monitor major global disturbance in the environment and to give early warning of problems requiring international action". Coordinated by UNEP, Earthwatch was reinforced through the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro and its Agenda-21 chapter on Information for Decision Making. The organizations participating in Earthwatch have since focused on the priority requirements of Agenda 21 and on the delivery of information for decision-making, following the Secretary General's report to the Commission on Sustainable Development on Agenda 21 (Chapter 40), and UNEP Governing Council decisions in response to the General Assembly resolution on "Strengthening International Cooperation in the monitoring of Global Environmental Problems".
The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg confirmed the need to follow-up on Agenda 21 and to improve not only global data collection and monitoring as such, but also coherence, coordination and transparency among partners within and outside the UN, while limiting overlap and duplication of activities. In the resulting Plan of Implementation, particular emphasis is given to major challenges of the world community for the next 10-20 years in the areas of economic, social, environmental and institutional development such as following the UN Millennium Declaration of September 2000 and adopting the Millennium Development Goals (reduce poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women by 2015). These targets are accompanied by indicators to track the progress in meeting the Goals, which are to be subs-tantiated through UN-wide data collections. In addition to supporting such broad initiatives, the role of Earthwatch is also accentuated by UNEP Governing Council's establishment of consultative process to address the increasing complexity of environmental degradation and the need for enhanced capacity for scientific assessment, monitoring and early warning, while identifing gaps and needs in the current assessment structure and means to address them. Furthermore, the work of Earthwatch is reinforced by the recently established Environmental Management Group (EMG), being a forum for UN agencies and MEA secretariats for enhancing interagency cooperation in the field of environment and human settlements.
The Earthwatch Secretariat is provided by UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA), while led by the Assessment Branch at UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi and supported by DEWA/GRID-Europe since September 2002. Aside from organizing regular meetings and maintaining contacts with UN agencies, an important activity of the unit in Geneva is the development of the Earthwatch website. This tangible and award-winning Earthwatch product gives comprehensive and up-to-date information on all activities related to integrated environment reporting and sustainable development across the UN, and is a major source of information for UN partners, the scientific community, civil society and the general public.
The 8th Earthwatch meeting took place in mid-October (2004), with the aim to revitalize the Earthwatch mechanism in light of today's context and current reality, and to review the added value relative to the many ongoing initiatives and mechanisms related to global observation, monitoring, data and information. The meeting was attended by more than a dozen UN agencies and programmes, all underscoring the need to exchange information as a minimum activity. Several possibilities and opportunities were identified to revitalize the role of Earthwatch. One option identified is to foster a common position of UN agencies with respect to global observation such as addressed through the GEOSS and IGOS mechanisms. Clearly, more cooperation is foreseen with the UN Environment Management Group, which has been established to enhance UN system-wide inter-agency coordination related to specific issues in the field of environment and human settlements. The EMG complements Earthwatch in the area of policy setting, and it was felt that both interagency activities could very well benefit from each other's work, as is already taking place through the EMG website. The role of Earthwatch as a 'one-stop shop' for UN environmental information could possibly be further strengthened by working more closely and directly with partners, and linking to existing or planned activities in this area of 'mapping' activities of environment assessment, reporting and sustainable development. In this way, Earthwatch could help prepare a common, coherent voice for UN agencies, which could further strengthen the UN system as a whole. Translation of the website into other languages was also suggested, making it even more accessible and useful around the world. Also, with the new UNEP series of annual reports, the GEO Yearbooks, the recent start of the fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4), as well as various other global and thematic assessment activities, it was felt that there are now even more opportunities for Earthwatch to strengthen its work. More specifically, joint publications with certain UN agencies in the broad area of early warning was also considered a topic that could be taken up by Earthwatch.