Over 1,000 delegates from around the world, including 20 ministerial delegations, are heading to the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi next week (12-15 December). It is one of the official member-states meetings on the road to next year's UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20.
"This summit is all about science policy and the idea that you have to have better information if you are going to improve the science," says Peter Gilruth, director of the division of early warning and assessment at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi, which is organising the conference together with the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD).
"Ultimately you'd hope that better information would lead to better policies. That's the clear objective," said Gilruth.
As the cost of computer hardware and data infrastructure has fallen, poorer countries can hook up to information networks stored on the 'cloud' without investing in expensive hardware, and even farmers can access information through ubiquitous mobile phones.
"In the past the main barrier to accessing environmental information was considered to be the technology. The barrier is no longer technology but making data accessible," says Cathrine Armour, programme director for Eye on Earth, from the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) .
Environmental knowledge has become critical, yet much of it is hard to access, unusable or simply not available. Data collected by development banks and aid agencies often remains "hidden" in project reports.
Developing countries in particular find it difficult to tackle environmental issues due to competing national priorities, yet environmental damage can be significant.
For example, there is no globally interconnected information network specific to floods.
"Has there been more flooding and more flooding damage, has flooding actually increased in the last 20 years? We don't have good answers to those questions. The information exists in disparate information networks," says Gilruth.
We lack access to information on flooding and flooding damage
Credit: Flickr/Barbara k
And, with an Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) currently under negotiation, "satellite observation provides some information but there are huge gaps not only in the status of biodiversity but also the economic cost of losing biodiversity on a local, national, regional or global scale," says Gilruth.
This is the opposite to climate change, where scientists have an idea of the global impact with some regional examples but little knowledge of what is going on at the local level, which is where farmers need to adapt.
"In the case of biodiversity there is information collected at the local level but it is not overseen at the global level and the actual cost of biodiversity loss is very uncertain. If and when IPBES comes to fruition, it is crying out for an information database," says Gilruth.
Biodiversity is one of the key themes or 'special initiatives' of the Abu Dhabi summit: others include oceans and blue carbon, disaster management, sustainable cities, and water, each with their own specific need for an information network.
Proposals for around 50 special initiatives had been presented to earlier Eye on Earth working group meetings. A shortlist will be discussed at the summit,selected for their significant regional or developing country impact, their potential to contribute globally to science and research and their ability attract the interest of international donors. By the end of the meeting they will be whittled down to a handful for further development.
There is a view that fewer, effective initiatives would be a better outcome than many, under-resourced initiatives; and the few could be replicated by others later.
But selecting the best one is not straightforward. Much information is owned by governments, but some is in the hands of citizen groups and local organisations, which are more difficult to tap into. Civil society groups can be concerned about the misuse of sovereign data by the military, or the commercial or other use of information by private companies that do not necessarily benefit the public.
There are taboo geopolitical areas. Trans-boundary water issues can be politically sensitive and governments may not wish to share data on water flows.
'Oceans and blue carbon' are one of the main themes at the summit
"One of the things we are grappling with is that data is not considered to be part of development infrastructure or one of the building blocks of development," says Armour.
But there are certainly those who believe access to information is a human right: for example, in June a UN report to the General Assembly declared access to the Internet to be a human right.
"If you're going to have this call for a green economy at Rio+20, which is crucial, you are also going to have to justify the direction you take in development, that you have this return on your investment and you are going to need systems of information to support that," says Gilruth.
An Eye on Earth declaration on environmental data and information will be one of the important outcomes of the four-day meeting and will provide input to Rio+20.
"We would like to see a recognition of the importance of environmental data and information and that is an element of Rio+20," said Armour.
Selected special initiatives will be carried forward through AGEDI with relevant partner organisations. "We'd like to see concrete action. We want to be the summit that does not end after three days," she adds.
The meeting hopes to launch a process that will result in common data policy guidelines that development banks and aid agencies can work with. For the UN, a successful meeting would include strong support for developing countries to be able to participate in such information networks.
"In return for making their data available they get some support to build their capacity to manage that data," says Gilruth. "Let's face it, you're not going to be solving global problems if you don't have developing country capacity to manage information, it just won't happen. You won't solve global problems in the North alone."
UNEP stresses that this is not an attempt to build a single centralised database, but a distributed network of partners with each 'node' owning and managing its information which it can then share with others.
No one will dictate to any networks what data they must provide. But the driver of the meeting is the need to share information for regional and global benefit.