Jaap van Woerden Ashbindu Singh and Volodymyr Demkine

Numerous international and regional organizations, government agencies, and scientific bodies have launched a variety of environmental indicator initiatives encompassing different areas of the environment. The UN and other international agencies have developed a number of different sets of environment-related indicators distinguished by certain objectives.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook (GEO) project was initiated in response to the environmental reporting requirements of Agenda 21 and to a UNEP Governing Council decision of May 1995 that requested the production of a comprehensive biennial global state of the environment report. UNEP initially produced the GEO report about every two and a half years starting in 1997 (GEO1, GEO2 [GEO 2000], and GEO3) and now plans to publish GEO4 in 2007 because the report cycle has been changed to 5 years. GEO carries out integrated environmental assessments, provides global and regional overviews of the state of environment, develops an outlook using scenarios, and suggests options for action. The assessment report is prepared through a participatory process and complemented with educational and training material, comprehensive databases, and other information systems. Other outputs of the GEO project include regional, subregional, and national integrated environmental assessments, technical and other background reports, a Web site (www.unep.org/geo), products for young people (GEO for Youth), and a core database, the GEO Data Portal (geodata.grid.unep.ch).

GEO is a largely science-driven assessment based on sound facts and figures. Data and indicators have been at the very basis of the GEO assessment and reporting activities. Major data issues are addressed by one of the working groups established at the beginning of the GEO process, the GEO Data Working Group. The use of data for scientific analysis and for illustrations in the GEO reports has been, to a large extent, a process of learning by doing. However, the pragmatic approach has been backed by various attempts to frame the major core data sets and indicators. This has resulted in a living GEO Core Data/Indicator Matrix (UNEP 2005a), which lists the key indicators for the major global environmental issues and the data sets and sources from which they can be obtained or derived.

At the twenty-second session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GC/GEMF) in 2003, governments asked UNEP to prepare an annual Global Environment Outlook statement to highlight significant environmental events and achievements during the year and raise awareness of emerging environmental issues identified by scientific research and other sources. It aims to bridge the gap between science and policy and to make environmental information easily accessible to policymakers and other readers. The Year Book presents, in a clear and timely manner, an analytical overview of issues and developments that, for better or worse, have most influenced the environment during the year and may continue to be major factors in the years ahead.

Keeping abreast of environmental issues as they unfold, the Year Book is released early every year between the comprehensive GEO reports. The GEO Year Book 2003, the first in the annual series, was launched at the eighth special session of the GC/GMEF on March 29, 2004 (see www.unep.org/geo/yearbook/yb2003). The second edition, the Year Book 2004/5 (see www.unep.org/geo/yearbook/yb2004), was launched at the twenty-third session of GC/GMEF in February 2005. In addition to giving overviews of major global and regional environmental developments and emerging issues, the GEO Year Books present a small number of GEO indicators showing major headline trends for the themes being addressed under the broader GEO assessment process. Although the availability of reliable, up-to-date global data sets still limits the choice, the core set of indicators selected for this report aims to give a consistent, quantitative overview of major environmental changes on an annual basis. The GEO indicators are selected from a wider set of data and indicators that have been used in integrated environmental assessment practice over the years to illustrate major environmental issues, as summarized in the GEO Core Data Matrix, with some seventy indicators, and is backed by the comprehensive online GEO Data Portal with currently more than 450 variables.

The major starting point of the indicators selected for inclusion in the GEO Year Book is to show one or two solid quantitative trends—a handful at most—for the major environmental issues addressed through the GEO assessment process. The indicators are presented, where possible, at the global and regional levels and as a time series for up to several decades. The illustrations (graphs, maps, and tables) are extracted from a core database with more detailed and comprehensive data captured in the GEO Data Portal, which, in turn, is based on a harmonized and accepted data strategy and method and supported by the GEO Data Working Group in close cooperation with reliable and authoritative data holders (examples of such indicators are shown in Figures 21.1, 21.2, and 21.3).

Thus, the GEO indicators present a selected set of headline environmental trends, which are not assumed to be comprehensive. The selected indicators are a mix of environmental pressures, states, impacts, and responses, but they do not intend, nor are they able, to capture all aspects of all global and regional environmental problems. The underlying data that are used to compile the indicators come from internationally recognized sources and are readily available for recent years for most parts of the world or at least are expected to become available in the near future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the GEO indicators overlap with those under Goal #7 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on the environment. Both sets share the starting point of focusing on a consistent, harmonized set of environmental indicators, with solid statistical data as time series for most regions or countries of the world. Unlike the MDGs and the set of indicators resulting from extensive consultations and agreements, the GEO indicator set is less fixed and can be adapted regularly. The GEO indicators also expand on certain additional or specific environmental issues of relevance to MDG-7.

Figure 21.1. Renewable energy supply index by sector and global total, 1990—2002 (1990 = 100) (courtesy of the GEO Data Portal, compiled from International Energy Agency).
Figure 21.2. Number of parties to multilateral environmental agreements, 1971-2004 (courtesy of the GEO Data Portal, compiled from MEA Secretariats).
Figure 21.3. Protected area coverage of large marine ecosystems (LMEs), 2004 (courtesy of the GEO Data Portal, compiled from UNEP-WCMC 2004).

However, across-the-board presentation of the key global and regional aggregated trends for many environmental issues is severely limited by the lack of comprehensive and good-quality underlying data, mainly statistical data collected at the country level. Although some progress in data gathering and global observation is being made, data gaps and shortcomings are still profound. In addition to the need to show trends, it is equally important to mention that certain environmental issues that deserve headlines cannot be highlighted adequately by means of indicators, at least not yet. Currently, this holds true for environmental problems such as marine pollution, urban issues, and land degradation. For still other issues, such as freshwater use and forest cover change, at this stage only a snapshot of1 or 2 years or just a few regions can be presented, not comprehensive yearly trends. Despite great effort to build up a sound set of key environmental indicators, as in many other core sets, the current GEO indicator collection may seem somewhat sketchy and can be said to be unbalanced with respect to the selected themes and issues. Several indicators are merely proxies of the real issues that they reflect. Related to the magnitude of the issue, there are more proxy indicators on climate change as compared to other priority areas. Because of the lack of good underlying data, some important environmental issues are missing at this stage. For example, there are no comprehensive indicators on urban environmental issues, no land indicators besides forest cover, and no direct climate trends; also, water quality cannot yet be illustrated adequately.

The first GEO Year Book (2003) contained seventeen indicators structured along themes and issues, as shown in Table 21.1 (UNEP 2004).

All indicators were updated in the second GEO Year Book (UNEP 2005b), and several new ones were added: renewable energy, consumption of hydrochlorofluorocarbons and methyl bromide, marine protected areas, water quality, and urban air pollution. At the same time, indicators on glacier retreat, population affected by disasters, and forest cover change were omitted.

The value of the inclusion of the GEO indicator set in the GEO Year Book lies predominantly in the illustrated overview of global and regional trends of major environmental issues portrayed by means of a varied but easy-to-understand set of graphics. All indicators are shown in visual form (charts, maps, and tables) combined with a short descriptive text in order to convey the message in a compact and straightforward manner. Thus, the set provides a concise picture of the global environment, complementing the more detailed information provided through the comprehensive GEO assessments and their regular reports. The lack of sufficient and sound data makes it impossible to complete the picture for all environmental issues, but the progress in global observation and monitoring and in scientific methods is encouraging and is expected to result in better sets of GEO indicators each year (Figures 21.4 and 21.5 show examples of GEO indicators).

In the coming years, the GEO indicator set will be revised, updated, and expanded where possible. More and better data will become available, and methods to develop simple indicators from complex data will become more sophisticated.

Notwithstanding the expected progress, a lot remains to be done. There still is a

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