International information sharing: Environmental Data for a Connected World

GEO and GEOSS, UNEP and EUA, EIONET, UNECE and so forth: This is not some random gibberish, but rather a list of institutions that enable easy access to reliable ecosystem data, which is an essential basis for effectively counteracting environmental problems that transcend borders.

Text: Stefan Hartmann and Lucienne Rey

Is it possible to model development scenarios for a region that spans more than 24 different countries, covers an area of 2.2 million square kilometres and has a population of 160 million? This was the initial question asked by EnviroGRIDS, a project designed to analyse relevant conditions in the catchment area of the Black Sea and uncover sources of surplus nutrients such as nitrates or phosphate that pollute the ecosystem. Its biggest investor was the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme.

The EnviroSPACE group of the University of Geneva coordinated this ambitious initiative on behalf of GRID (Global Resource Information Database). GRID is a network of centres supported by the environmental data base of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The main objectives of EnviroGRIDS were to develop methods and specialised knowledge and test them in practice so that data could be shared with other institutes and countries and then processed together.

Anthony Lehmann, EnviroSPACE Lab
Anthony Lehmann, EnviroSPACE Lab

Knowledge is power

“We had very positive experiences working with our partners”, maintain Anthony Lehmann, Head of EnviroSPACE laboratory, and Nicolas Ray, Head of the Environment and Geoprocessing Unit of EnviroSPACE laboratory, who were both responsible for coordinating with over 30 partner institutions. “For many, it was their first experience in a European programme, which really injected a huge dose of motivation into the project.” Still, collecting the required information did not always go smoothly. Nicolas Ray noticed that collaborators from countries that were previously heavily dependent on Moscow had a hard time working independently and wanted stricter guidelines - although their expert knowledge was outstanding. Anthony Lehmann confirms this: “Partners from countries that were previously a part of the Soviet Union also ran the risk of legal consequences if they delivered their data to us.”

Actually, environmental data are often meaningful from a geostrategic perspective. For instance, there are countries on the upper reaches of rivers that feel entirely justified if their neighbours below them do not know how much water is being diverted for their needs. But geopolitics is not the only obstacle to sharing environmental information. “The lower the economic level, the lower the quality of the environmental monitoring is too”, explains Anthony Lehmann. When financial resources are lacking, the collected data may also be sold for money. “This is the worst thing that can happen”, adds the biology and statistics expert.

Nicolas Ray, EnviroSPACE Lab
Nicolas Ray, EnviroSPACE Lab

Geneva - a hotspot for global environmental data

In Geneva, scientific data are not only collected and interpreted, but administrative work is also performed. In fact, the FOEN-funded Secretariat of the Earth Monitoring Group (GEO) is headquartered in the same building as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). GEO organises symposia on pressing environmental topics such as climate change or natural hazards and supports a range of global initiatives. GEO’s central project is the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) - a platform that compiles the environmental data collected around the world. The information gathered as part of EnviroGRIDS is then incorporated into GEOSS as well.

Another Geneva-based institution that provided extensive support to EnviroGRIDS is the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which shared expertise in processing the huge quantities of data that were distributed across computers throughout Europe. “It would have taken a year to interpret all our data on one single computer”, says Anthony Lehmann. “Thanks to the computer network, the work was done in three weeks.”

Europe also collects environmental data

All large emerging countries and industrial nations participate in GEOSS - even though participation is voluntary. However, Europe has binding regulations on handling environmental data. Switzerland became a full member of the European Environment Agency (EEA) on 1 April 2006 as part of the Bilateral Negotiations II. In addition to Switzerland, 28 EU member states, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Turkey, belong to the EEA, which was founded in 1990 and is headquartered in Copenhagen. Furthermore, the EEA cooperates with six countries in the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).

Through the EEA, data on the state of the environment is shared across Europe. The agency works actively with various international organisations for that purpose. The EEA requests data streams on 16 areas of the environment from its members. They are recorded by the EEA’s Environment Information and Observation Network (EIONET). Focuses are clean air controls, protection of the climate, soil and water, biodiversity, waste management, material flows and resource efficiency.

The data harmonisation challenge

Switzerland makes an annual contribution of 2 million Swiss francs to the EEA for its participation. Another million is necessary to provide Swiss data to EIONET. The fairly detailed data are compiled at the FOEN, which transfers them to the EEA. As regards clean air controls, the emissions of more than 10 different air pollutants are measured by the Confederation, the cantons and various cities at 35 different monitoring stations spread across Switzerland.

Through its interaction with the EEA, Switzerland is able to gain an overview of how neighbouring countries collect and work with environmental data. Nicolas Perritaz, the FOEN’s liaison officer with the EEA, points out: “Access to standardised environmental information from all over Europe allows Switzerland to compare the success of its environmental protection measures to those of its European neighbours.”

However, there are some challenges in comparing data, which have to be collected according to generally harmonised criteria. EIONET developed the SEIS concept (Shared Environment Information System), which sets the principles for effective standardised data management, so that environmental data can be transmitted and administered in an efficient and coordinated manner.

Informed citizens thanks to accessible data

Environmental data are not only meaningful to science and administration. In fact, they are also a resource that the public can use to see whether policy-makers are justifying their arguments based on correct figures and whether the measures they introduce are actually yielding the desired effects. As far as international rules are concerned, the Aarhus Convention ratified in 1998 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) stipulates that environmental information must be publically accessible.

In Switzerland, the Federal Council ratified amendments to the Environmental Protection Act on 1 June 2014 in connection with its accession to the Aarhus Convention. The convention requires full data transparency, but also sets out provisions to protect the environment, such as the 1998 measures to reduce cadmium, lead and mercury emissions. Particulate matter containing heavy metals, particularly from industry, is carried and deposited around the world by wind flows and precipitation. Cadmium, lead or mercury levels can be calculated exactly based on data from the annual reporting of individual UNECE members and meteorological data. For instance, it is also known that 4 percent of the some 650 kilogrammes of cadmium that enter Switzerland’s atmosphere comes from Poland and 24 percent comes from Italy, while the largest portion - 52 percent - comes from Switzerland itself. “What is crucial in the UNECE Convention is that the parties, or member countries, commit to taking the legislated measures to reduce emissions”, says Richard Ballaman from the FOEN’s Air Pollution Control and Chemicals Division.

Synergies between national and international efforts

International activities are generally aimed at giving an additional boost to ongoing national and international environmental monitoring efforts. For instance, in March 2013, the Swiss Federal Council adopted the Green Economy Action Plan. Europe developed the “Resource-Efficient Europe” flagship initiative as part of its Europe 2020 growth strategy to give centre stage to the term “resource efficiency”. At the global level, the Natural Capital Declaration (NCD) was drafted in conjunction with the RIO+20 Earth Summit.

What these fields of action have in common is that they are multi-faceted and bundle data on the state of different natural resources and the extent of the pressure on them. But collecting the required data to monitor developments in these thematic areas is quite complicated. Not to mention the fact that the data must be harmonised internationally for the purposes of comparability. Nevertheless, harmonisation also creates synergies since the green economy is similarly defined by UNEP, the EEA and Switzerland.

From knowledge to action

Even the most comprehensive data streams are hardly beneficial to the environment if they are ignored by policy-makers. Nicolas Ray and Anthony Lehmann have also experienced difficulties in introducing changes to environmental protection efforts despite sound data: “While it was quite complicated just to develop our model, it is even harder to convince decision-makers to use it.” Both Geneva-based scientists are now working closely with the International Commission for Protection of the Danube (ICPDR), which was founded in 1994, and the Black Sea Commission, which was founded in January 2009.

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Last modification 11.02.2015

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