Remote Sensing and Environmental Treaties:

Building More Effective Linkages

The rapid growth in the number of environmental treaties since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Environment has been an encouraging sign of international commitment to protecting the environment. The Earth Summit in 1992 provided added impetus to the establishment of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), with the formation of three major conventions: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). MEAs now address almost every conceivable part of the Earth's biophysical systems.

With the proliferation of MEAs comes an attendant need for information related to the health of the Earth's biophysical systems, and for better understanding of the socio-economic processes and government policies that affect the environment. This information contributes to the design of improved policy instruments. Remotely sensed data are critical to understanding the Earth's physical and social systems and the interactions between the two. Although not the only tool for gathering such data, remote sensing complements ground-based methods in the following ways: it provides accurate, objective and comparable data; it can be turned to ecological regions of widely-varying scales; and because it is sensed from space it can present a wide range of relevant data synoptically and without infringing national sovereignty.

MEAs are evolving, open processes, which are continually reviewing implementation and developing new measures to improve effectiveness. Furthermore, there is no sign that the growth in the number of MEAs, especially at the regional level, will let up. Remote sensing can greatly contribute to the ongoing development and refinement of MEAs by assisting in problem definition and catalyzing action. It can also be used by researchers seeking to understand or evaluate regime effectiveness, and assist contracting parties in national reporting processes and other assessments related to implementation.

There is growing interest in the application of remote sensing technology to MEAs on the part of contracting parties to these treaties, convention secretariats, scientists, donors and environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This interest has been sparked in part by the tremendous growth in the suite of observational data products that are now available, both from long-running U.S., Canadian and European Union programs and from more recent comers such as Japan, India, China, Brazil and commercial satellite ventures.

Efforts are underway on a small scale to test remote sensing applications in relation to MEAs, for example to monitor carbon sequestration under the Kyoto Protocol, or to examine land cover changes in the context of the CCD. Yet the demand for tailored applications is potentially much larger. Participants at the Interlinkages conference in July 1999 called for a "harmonization of methodologies, procedures and formats for the gathering and analysis of information required of the Parties to environmental· agreements," and identified remote sensing as "an underutilized resource that should be focused more explicitly on MEA monitoring and implementation" (see Interlinkages web site). Similarly, a recent report prepared for DG-XII of the European Commission called for "greater dialogue between suppliers of earth observation data and services (principally space agencies and value-adding companies) and users of such information (e.g., parties to a treaty)·in order to make parties to treaties more aware of the detailed and tailored capabilities of satellite [earth observation] data and to inform suppliers of users' requirements."

Workshop on Remote Sensing and Environmental Treaties

In response to these calls for dialogue, the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) organized the Workshop on Remote Sensing and Environmental Treaties, which was held 4-5 December 2000. The intent was to bring together actors from the aforementioned communities for a targeted and results-oriented discussion on the applications of remote sensing to enhance the effectiveness environmental treaties. The workshop's goal was to demonstrate the potential for enhancing the effectiveness of MEAs through the appropriate application of remote sensing technology. 

Over two days of plenary presentations and animated breakout group discussions, workshop participants developed the following conclusions and recommendations (for a full set of breakout group recommendations, please see section III of the workshop report (PDF, 484kb)):

Workshop Conclusions
Remote sensing creates demand for better environmental law.  Remote sensing is an unparalleled source of information that convey environmental changes in a visually compelling way. As a result, it is extremely useful for raising awareness and developing the political support necessary to strengthen MEAs and environmental laws at the national level.

Remote sensing data provide a synoptic view of many environmental trends. Remotely sensed imagery can provide both snapshots and data over time that address environmental issues at global, regional and national scales. It can provide these in consistent formats and in ways that complement national-level data collection efforts, which are often under-resourced and inconsistent from country to country.

Remote sensing can contribute to global assessments in support of MEAs. Remote sensing provides timely information on a large and growing number of environmental issues such as land-use/land-cover change, carbon-monoxide plumes, and the carbon density of ecosystems, which can significantly contribute to global environmental  assessments in support of MEAs (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment).

Remote sensing has the potential to contribute to compliance verification.  However, for this to happen, developments need to occur in at least three areas:

1. The perception of environmental issues: Sovereignty concerns have taken precedence over enforcement of treaty provisions, and therefore contracting parties have traditionally been unwilling to accept external verification. Until global or regional threats from environmental change are perceived to significantly affect national interests, states are unlikely to accept strict enforcement of treaties by third parties.
2.  The technology: Many treaty-specific remote sensing applications are still experimental; these applications need to be further refined before they will have the credibility necessary for use in compliance verification.
3.  Data access: Issues such as guaranteed access to data by all parties, documentation of methodologies, and long-term data archiving need to be addressed.

Workshop Recommendations
Remote sensing instruments. There is a need to develop a coordinated suite of environmental monitoring instruments with long-term data continuity at appropriate spatial, spectral, and temporal resolutions. Some satellites, such as Landsat, already provide crucial data, and the continuity of the program needs to be maintained. Data archiving services should be developed in parallel. For MEA applications to become operational, the price of land-based remote sensing data would need to more closely approximate that of meteorological data, which have traditionally been available at low cost on an open-access basis. 

Institutional arrangements. An international institution should be mobilized to promote coordination at three levels: among space agencies, among space agencies and value-added companies, and among these two groups and MEA constituencies. An existing institution, such as the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) or the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS), may be able to fill this role. This institution would also serve as a focal point for the development of the next generation of operational satellite systems (see point above). Given that the costs of such a system are likely to be beyond the means of any single country, a cooperative approach would serve to spread the costs among multiple providers.

Awareness raising and training. MEAs constituencies, including secretariats and contracting parties, need to be educated about the capabilities of current and future remote sensing instruments. They also need to receive training and capacity building in the use of remote sensing data for environmental monitoring.

It was agreed that the workshop represented the first step in a dialogue between the remote sensing community and MEA constituencies, and that further exchanges are needed. One of the recommendations was to transform the workshop website into an on-line resource for anyone interested in the application of remote sensing technologies to the needs of multilateral environmental agreements. That is the purpose of this website. We welcome your contributions. Please contact us at, or Tel. 1-(845) 365-8922. 

Potential Applications of Remote Sensing Technology to MEAs
In their background paper for the workshop, Karen Kline and Kal Raustiala describe several concrete areas where earth observation data could increase the effectiveness of MEAs. These include:

Negotiation: Defining the scope and characteristics of an environmental problem with greater accuracy will help potential parties to an MEA better define necessary and feasible political responses. For example, future protocols to the Desertification convention could benefit from better data about the extent and characteristics of desertification patterns. Similarly, the negotiation of river pollution agreements could benefit from RS data about pollution point sources, and the negotiation of a forest treaty from better data about forest characteristics, such as deforestation patterns and rates.

Compliance and dispute resolution: By bolstering the ability to monitor treaty-relevant behavior, RS can identify instances of non-compliance and deter future non-compliance. Just as important, however, are the potential cooperative uses of monitoring data. For developing country contracting parties with limited capacity to address treaty-related concerns, RS data may help them to better target their resources. Such information can also be used for targeting donor assistance. Should dispute resolution procedures be required in the future, RS could facilitate any verification scheme the might be developed, as would likely attend, for example, the implementation of a true tradable permit system for carbon dioxide emissions under the Kyoto Protocol or for tradable fishing quotas.

Implementation review: RS may be able to provide more accurate and rich data about implementation efforts and their environmental effects, as well as about extant environmental or social factors that interact with implementation efforts, such as land use changes or population growth patterns. This data may help states to understand policy-environment interactions within their own territorial boundaries. It can form the basis of more extensive national reports, and can improve national processes of implementation review.

The broader political process: Image-based data may prove particularly salient and understandable to lay audiences and the general public, thereby catalyzing action. The concept of the Antartic "ozone hole" had a great impact on public opinion relating to stratospheric ozone depletion, and depiction of the hole was likely a significant factor in creating this impact. By fostering greater understanding of particular environmental problems, RS data may raise public concern, which is often one of the most critical factors for regime effectiveness.

Environmental assessment: Many existing MEAs involve environmental factors that could be assessed remotely, such as wetlands preservation, deforestation, and marine and atmospheric pollution emission. Improving the quality and scope of data may significantly improve the quality of assessments.


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