Abu Dhabi meeting tilts towards data treaty support

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The path to a global treaty on access to environmental information has been smoothed at a high-level meeting in Abu Dhabi this week (12-15 December).

One of the aims of the Abu Dhabi meeting is to promote widespread access to environmental, scientific and societal data, which the organisers hope will be reflected in an Eye on Earth Summit Declaration.

The declaration will be part of the input to the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in June 2012, which marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit.

Government delegates are working on a draft of the declaration, and have agreed several changes – including last-minute support for a legally binding global convention enshrining access for all to information on the environment, expanding on Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

The treaty proposal was originated by Brazil last November, and has been followed by proposals from Jamaica and Chile for binding regional agreements on information access and sharing.

The Brazilian delegation is keen on drumming up support for its proposal during the Abu Dhabi meeting, which includes talks at ministerial level.

Gilberto Câmara, Brazilian delegate and director of the country’s National Institute for Space Research, said it was "very important" the idea of the treaty made it into the declaration in Abu Dhabi.

Câmara added that Rio+20 would be only the start of the process of developing the treaty.

"We don’t want a treaty to come out at Rio. We want Rio to start a mandate, which will be tough enough — we know there will be enormous objections but we cannot fail to recognise that although there’s the Principle 10 we need to implement it.

"Of course, the United States doesn’t like it, but it’s part of the game that you push forward. The fact that it will be coming out of the UN process will help it gain recognition."

Agreement came despite opposition from a few delegates. Paul Hofseth, a Norwegian delegate and a senior adviser at the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, told SciDev.Net that a number of countries were critical: "Why negotiate the same thing all over, spend years and lots of manpower that could be better spent negotiating on climate and biodiversity or toxic chemicals?"

Speaking in a personal capacity, he said he thought a new treaty would be "a huge waste of time and money".

Jeremy Wates, who informally headed the civil society coalition that suggested the changes to the declaration, told SciDev.Net: "I am particularly happy that Brazil’s proposal for a global treaty [on the principle 10] has now been acknowledged in the declaration."

Although he worked as secretary general of the Aarhus convention — signed by 40 mainly European and Central Asian countries — Wates did not support delegates who advocated expanding Aarhus into a global pact.

He argued that many countries might feel they had no part in negotiating the Aarhus convention and therefore had less incentive in joining it.

On the other hand, he said, "A global treaty negotiation is immediately starting from common base which is completely inclusive, so all member states will be able to participate.

"For the Rio+20 conference it’s key that this demand for a global treaty is put on the table and we support it all the way."

Another delicate issue in the negotiations for an Abu Dhabi declaration concerned the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) suggestion to include a reference on the importance of scientific observations and monitoring, essentially data collection. It was eventually inserted as "observations" following worries over the use of word of monitoring.

The US delegate suggested some governments might perceive "monitoring" as an external imposition. The EU agreed that "monitoring is definitely out".

Cathrine Armour, programme manager with the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, also argued against inclusion of WMO’s provision because its reference to data collection "falls out of the scope of what we’re trying to achieve".

"Information cannot come spontaneously, so before information you have to have observation". Unless there was continued financial support for data-collecting infrastructures, "all this [talk on data sharing] is going to go to an end rather shortly".

Christian Blondin, director of WMO’s Cabinet of the Secretary General, told SciDev.Net that without continued support for scientific infrastructure there would be no data to share.