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Mohammed Al Madfaei, deputy manager of Environmental Strategy and Policy Coordination at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, which is hosting the Eye on Earth Summit, tells SciDev.Net about the importance of access to information in the context of the Rio+20 talks.

How did the Eye on Earth Summit come about?

The idea of the summit goes back to 2002 when we launched the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative (AGEDI) at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development as a UN type 2 environmental initiative. I was there and was one of the people that launched the initiative to the world.

It was a response to a need for quality environmental data. Access to updated data and the collaboration of social and environmental data is very important. It’s also important for emerging markets, such as we are in the Gulf.

Why hold a summit on access to data now?

The Eye on Earth Summit is to move it [the initiative] forward, to advance and make people more involved and [enable] more collaboration. It’s not just about what is happening now. The need for access to data was important ten years ago, it’s more important now and will be just as important in the future. And it’s linked to the UN development goals and Agenda 21 – they are all linked to each other.

In the Millennium Development Goals there is one key element for all the goals, and that is easy access to sound data.

For example, there is the goal of cutting poverty by 50 per cent and [the goals of] access to sanitation, education, and so on. You need data to achieve all those goals. Without the data and without updated data you will not be able to achieve anything. Data has been produced in line with the Millennium Development Goals but is everyone getting access to it? 

So you don’t think there is enough access at the moment?

There isn’t enough access. In the past ten years there has probably been more information data produced than was ever produced before. The data is there, but the access to it, the sharing of it, the updating of it, needs to be enhanced. So, one of the outcomes of this summit is to enhance data-sharing, data collection and data accessibility to key decision-makers.

There are always platforms that work that you can use to share that data. I believe it is a human right to have access to relevant data. You can have it published on a website, you can have it published in an annual yearbook. Academics can benefit from the data, decision-makers, students, policymakers need that data either to do proper analysis or to make decisions. So yes, it is a right. 

What are the needs of your own region in terms of data?

We are considered an emerging market and we are focussing on green economies such as the renewable energy industry. We are an arid region with scarce resources – the only natural resource that we are rich with is oil. We lack resources of water, we have water security issues, we have an issue with air quality as we have a desert climate and there are all these sandstorms, so the data is important for us and crucial to make decisions.

We are an oil-producing country yet at the same time we are looking to renewable energies. We have a resource that we can use as well: the sun which we can use all the year round. Plus we know that at some point the oil will finish, in 100 years, 200 years. It’s not an abundant resource. Renewable energy is the future, specially when we have one of the highest carbon footprints per capita in the region. We know that at some point our oil will finish so we need to diversity, so we are interested in environmental technologies and need the data.

At the same time we have a lot of endangered species living in this region, such as dugongs, the Arabian onyx, so we need to preserve our environment. We have rapid advancement in our urban development with all these megaprojects that are under way but at the same time we are limited in our natural resources. So having updated and available data is important for us and our future, in terms of not altering our environment.

We produced a state of the environment report which talks about some priority areas, like biodiversity, water, air, climate change. Abu Dhabi is the first in the region to do a State of the Environment Report, and the first published online. This is one key thing. We hope that other countries issue their own state of the environment reports - it is a kind of data-sharing and collaboration as well.

With regard to the environment, we all live in one area, everybody is linked to the other. For example, a flood somewhere affects other areas, a decline in fish stocks affects other areas. So we are all interlinked.

What do you hope will come out of the summit?

Concretely, we are hoping everyone endorses the Eye on Earth declaration which will go to the Rio+20 Summit. The declaration talks about easy accessibility of environmental data for government and non-government entities. If everybody buys in to this idea then it will happen. I think we can get a global agreement on this. We have a global presence here that can make this summit successful.

Q&As are edited for length and clarity