What is the state of the Earth’s environment? What are the driving forces that change the functioning of its ecosystems irreversibly and threaten to cease the supply of critical public goods, such as clean air, clean water and a stable climate? Where are we heading? What actions have been taken to improve the situation so far and how effective have these been? What actions could be taken for a more sustainable future? These questions arise for many people all around the world nowadays, but few know (even environmental professionals) where to look for authoritative answers on the state and trends of the global environmental problems. Mass media occasionally offer some answers to these questions, but they are not necessarily systematic and comprehensive.
The foundations for contemporary environmental governance were laid in 1960s-1970s with the main institutions established – the United Nations Environment Programme, national environmental protection ministries and civil society organizations. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972 was the starting point for international collaborative efforts. As a result, hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements have been elaborated, signed, ratified by national governments and at least partially implemented. Today environmental protection ministries (or their equivalents) exist in almost every country in the world, and there are thousands of environmental professionals at work, hundreds of multilateral environmental and cooperation agreements signed and ratified, thousands of environmental laws, programmes and action plans passed in national, federal and local branches of the governments. However, it seems hard to navigate through this plethora of environmental initiatives. Have these four decades of formalized environmental policy been sufficient to change the course of humanity to a sustainable and safe future for current and future generations?
UNEP headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Nora Mzavanadze
One can find answers to all these questions in the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports – UNEP’s flagship series of reports published every few years (GEO-1 in 1997, GEO-2 in 1999, GEO-3 in 2003, GEO-4 in 2007 and GEO-5 in 2012). UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA) facilitates the report-writing process and relies on a network of Collaborating Centers on all continents that lead the assessment and report-writing process. GEO authors come from academia, government or environmental think-tanks. The GEO approach has been replicated for environmental assessments on other geographical scales – regional (e.g. Caucasus Environment Outlook or Carpathians Environment Outlook) or urban (e.g. GEO-Cities Tbilisi or GEO-Cities in Latin America).
The Integrated Environrmental Assessment (IEA) methodology is the backbone of these assessments and makes use of the so-called Drivers-Pressures-State-Impact-Response (DPSIR) framework. GEO reports are traditionally comprised of three distinct parts: (1) a discussion of state and trends across all environmental media – air, water, land, biota (cross-cutting issues, like climate change or chemicals and wastes are often given special attention); (2) a discussion of policy responses and their effectiveness; and (3) a scenario or future outlook component. GEO aims to integrate various forms of knowledge: social and natural sciences’ knowledge, indigenous knowledge, technical knowledge and practitioners’ knowledge. GEO does not generate new knowledge as such, but instead it aims to synthesize the latest knowledge in order to enhance science-policy links.
It is often emphasized that the GEO process is just as important as its contents. It is primarily a participative, collaborative and capacity building process. The GEO process starts with multi-stakeholder consultations and ends up with outreach and capacity building in the regions. Multiple stakeholders are involved at different stages of drafting and review of the report: scientists, civil society organizations, international organizations and governments. The key audience for the report is the international policy-making community (the UN General Assembly, the UNEP Governing Council for GEO-1 to GEO-5 and a new UN body – the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) for GEO-6, specialized UN agencies, environmental conventions, multilateral financial agencies) and national governments. Other important audiences of the GEO reports include regional environmental institutions, the media, civil society organizations and the academic community. GEO reports are also customized for other audiences: youth, business and local governments.
The last GEO report, GEO-5, was launched at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 in 2012. It focused on assessing the performance of multilateral environmental agreements and environmental policies against 90 of the most important global environmental goals (GEGs). According to the report, only four of the GEGs have been achieved by 2012: a ban on the production and use of ozone-depleting substances; removal of lead from petrol; increasing access to improved water supplies and boosting research to reduce pollution of the marine environment. The rest either show some or no signs of progress, are worsening or are the impossible to measure due to lack of data. Apart from the bad news, the policy part of GEO-5 brought into the light environmental policy examples of good practice in many areas across different continents. These are proposed to be transposed and scaled up.
The GEO-6 process was launched in October 2014 at the Global Intergovernmental and Multi-stakeholder Consultation in Berlin. During the months of April and May conferences brought together stakeholders, GEO authors and government representatives for further consultations on priorities and emerging environmental issues. See the figure below on GEO regions and how different and at the same time symptomatic the key messages arrived from different continents. The GEO-6 Europe report is planned to be published in 2016 and launched at the 8th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference in Batumi, Georgia steered by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. The topics of the 2016 conference are two – “greening the economy in the pan-European region” and “improving air quality for a better environment and human health”.
There are two major novelties in GEO-6 with regard to its contents. Firstly, it will come in two formats – conventional on-line and published report and an online e-book with embedded multimedia links. Secondly, for the first time GEO will be done separately in regions and not in one large global assessment (informally known as “the brick”). The authors’ meeting in Nairobi in September 2015 was organized in the format of a book sprint – a process-related novelty. Book sprints refer to an intensive, collaborative and short period given to produce a knowledge output. Skilled facilitators are necessary to ensure that the period ends with tangible outputs. The methodology of the process originates from the information technologies sector: scrum and agile software development.
- For updates about GEO-6 process see this website
- Read a PhD thesis written on GEO process by dr. Laszlo Pinter “Making Global Integrated Assessment and Reporting Matter”
- Read dr. Maria Ivanova’s papers about UNEP as the lead institution shaping global environmental governance governance here and here.
- A link to a book about the influence of the Global Environmental Assessments