Remote Sensing and Environmental Treaties:

Building More Effective Linkages


There are a number of remote sensing and global monitoring initiatives underway that hold the promise of making significant contributions to the effectiveness of environmental treaties. The following are summaries compiled from material available through project documents and web sites, with links to web pages that contain more information.

If you are aware of other initiatives linking remote sensing and environmental treaties that might be included on these pages, please contact

Earth Observation Summit

Sponsor: Office of the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, U.S. Department of Commerce.


The purposes of the summit, which was held on 31 July 2003, were to: (1) promote the development of a comprehensive, coordinated, and sustained Earth observation system or systems among governments and the international community to understand and address global environmental and economic challenges, and (2) begin a process to develop a conceptual framework and implementation plan for building this comprehensive, coordinated, and sustained Earth observation system or systems. A follow up summit was held on 25 April 2004 in which 44 countries and 23 international organizations created a basic policy for sharing satellite data to promote healthy lives.

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Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS)

Sponsor: US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  (of website)

Partners: All major space agencies


On February 16, 2005, 61 countries agreed to a plan that, over the next 10 years, will revolutionize the understanding of Earth and how it works. Agreement for a 10-year implementation plan for a Global Earth Observation System of Systems, known as GEOSS, was reached by member countries of the Group on Earth Observations at the Third Observation Summit held in Brussels. Nearly 40 international organizations also support the emerging global network. The GEOSS project will help all nations involved produce and manage their information in a way that benefits the environment as well as humanity by taking a pulse of the planet.

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Global Environmental Monitoring (GEM)

Sponsor: European Commission

Implementing Agency: Space Applications Institute, Joint Research Center, Ispra, Italy


The Planet’s surface - whether marine or terrestrial - plays a critical role in the climate system by influencing the cycles of energy, water, carbon and other key biogeochemical components. The terrestrial and marine ecosystems also provide a large range of services (such as provision of food, fuel and fibre) on which our daily lives depend. The Global Environment Monitoring Unit is part of the Institute for Environment and Sustainability at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre. It delivers products and services, derived from the analysis of satellite remote sensing data and numerical modeling, to directly support policies in the fields of Space, Environment and Sustainability, Climate Change and Development Aid.

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Global Monitoring in Support of Environment and Security (GMES)

Sponsor: The European Commission

Implementing Agency: Space Applications Institute, Joint Research Center, Ispra, Italy

Partners: European space agencies


GMES is a joint initiative of the European Commission and the European Space Agency , designed to establish a European capacity for the provision and use of operational information for Global Monitoring of Environment and Security.

In 2008 the foundations and the structuring elements of the European Capacity for Global Monitoring of Environment and Security should be in place and operating. This Capacity is seen to be composed of three modules, which together constitute the functional GMES "system":

1. the production and dissemination of information in support of EU policies for Environment and Security
2. the mechanisms needed to ensure a permanent dialogue between all stakeholders and in particular between providers and users
3. the legal, financial, organizational and institutional frame to ensure the functioning of the system and its evolution.

Many elements of the modules already exist but have been conceived, designed and managed in isolation, thus limiting interoperability and production of relevant information. The coherence, efficiency and sustainability of a shared information system for Europe will be the added value of GMES. It will be achieved by developing compatibility between the existing elements, establishing cooperation between the organizations and filling the gaps where necessary.


Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD)

Sponsor: Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) members and affiliates

Secretariat: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Partners: Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Terrestrial Observing Panel for Climate (TOPC), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Canadian Forest Service (CFS), Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), US Forest Service (USFS), Michigan State University, the University of Maryland, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Virginia.


The sustainable development of forests has emerged as one of the most difficult, serious, and pressing environmental issues of our time. Human-induced changes in Earth's forests have affected natural resource availability, biodiversity, atmospheric composition, and climate. Satellite observations provide a unique source of consistent information about forests over wide areas in a short period of time. Such observations are necessary to begin understanding the complex feedback processes between forests and climate change. They also provide resource managers with the information they need to assess the current state of the forests, weigh the requirements of different uses by multiple stakeholders, and manage forestland resources in a sustainable manner. It is important to recognize, however, that the information provided from satellites complements, but does not replace, the detailed information obtained form aerial photography and ground-based measurements.

Global Observation of Forest and Land Cover Dynamics (GOFC-GOLD) is a coordinated international effort working to provide ongoing space-based and in-situ observations of forests and other vegetation cover, for the sustainable management of terrestrial resources and to obtain an accurate, reliable, quantitative understanding of the terrestrial carbon budget. Originally developed as a pilot project by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) as part of their Integrated Global Observing Strategy, GOFC-GOLD is now a panel of the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS).

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  Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS)

Partners: Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS), Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS), International Council for Science (ICSU), International Group of Funding Agencies for Global Change Research (IGFA), Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC), United nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), and World Meteorological Organization (WMO)


The Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS) unites the major satellite and surface based systems for global environmental observations of the atmosphere, oceans and land. IGOS is:

    • a strategic planning process, involving a number of Partners, that links research, long-term monitoring and operational programs — as well as data producers and users — in a structure that helps determine observation gaps and identify the resources to fill observation needs.
    • a framework for decisions and resource allocation by individual funding agencies, providing
    • governments with improved understanding of the need for global observations through the
    • presentation of an overarching view of current system capabilities and limitations — thereby helping to reduce unnecessary duplication of observations.
    • focused primarily on the observing aspects of the process of providing environmental information for decision making.
    • intended to cover all forms of data collection concerning the physical, biological, chemical and human environment including the associated impacts.
    • based on the recognition that data collection must be user driven, leading to results which will increase scientific understanding and guide early warning, policy setting and decision making for sustainable development and environmental protection; providing opportunities for capacity building and assisting countries to obtain maximum benefit from the total set of observations.

Conceptually, IGOS is based on the simple recognition that the range of global observations needed to understand and monitor Earth processes, and to assess human impacts, cannot be satisfied by a single program, agency, or country — and hence that international cooperation is necessary to provide these observations. Effective monitoring of our planet on a global scale requires cooperation on the same scale. Everyone involved in the provision of Earth observations should understand the overall needs and their respective roles, so that they can address priorities without duplication or omission. Satellite missions and in situ networks require many years of planning, while continuity and coherence need to be assured between national programs. These national programs need to support larger international frameworks, since environmental issues transcend national boundaries and are global in nature.

Such complex activities require integration at many levels. Thus IGOS aims to bring both the strategic framework and the planning processes which are needed to coordinate remotely sensed and in situ observations, from both research and operational programs. IGOS provides an opportunity for governments and international organizations to rationalize programs to achieve new levels of synergy in providing the observations required of our Earth to ensure that we can reliably document significant global environmental parameters and processes.

Increased international co-ordination on environmental issues on a political level is apparent in the various initiatives and treaties which have been implemented over the last few decades — many of which call for systematic observations of the Earth in support of their implementation, such as:

    • Agenda 21 and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development
    • The Convention on Biological Diversity
    • The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, including the recent Kyoto Protocol;
    • The UN Convention to Combat Desertification
    • The Montreal Protocol of the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer
    • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

The above are just a few examples of international collaborative efforts to recognize, define, and address specific environmental problems which pose a common threat to the countries of the world. IGOS might be regarded as a next logical step, providing a planning process by which organizations can collaborate to coordinate their resources in the planning and implementation of the observing systems required to study and monitor these common problems — including support of the associated treaties and conventions.

GOS is a sponsor or partner in a number of the activities listed on this list of related initiatives.

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  Kyoto-Inv - Services for the Kyoto Protocol Implementation

Sponsor: Data User Programme (DUP) of the European Space Agency

Secretariat: Intecs Sistemi, Italy

Partners: Agriconsulting (Italy), NEO B.V. (Netherlands), Dataspazio (Italy), Planetek Italia (Italy), University of Trento (Italy), Telespazio (Italy)



Kyoto-Inv is a project aimed to build nation-wide EO based services for supporting the actors involved in the reporting on land-use change and forestry activities under the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The project is executed in the framework of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Data User Element (DUE) to favour the establishment of a long-term relationship between the User communities and Earth Observation.

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  Kyoto & Carbon Initiative

Secretariat: Earth Observation Research and application Center, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency


The Kyoto & Carbon Initiative is an international collaborative project led by JAXA Earth Observation Research Center (EORC). It forms the continuation of JAXA's on-going JERS-1 SAR Global Rain Forest and Global Boreal Forest Mapping project (GRFM/GBFM) into the era of the Advanced Land Observation Satellite (ALOS). The Initiative also includes the Global Imager (GLI) sensor onboard the Advanced Earth Observation Satellite II (ADEOS-II).

The Initiative is set out to provide data and information support to the UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol and International efforts for a Terrestrial Carbon Observing system, as outlined by IGOS-P. Secondary mission drivers are other environmental treaties (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, UN Convention to Combat Desertification, Convention on Biological Diversity) to which the Initiative can be expected to provide direct or indirect support.

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Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA)

Secretariat: World Resources Institute

Partners: A consortium of conservation organizations and biodiversity-related treaties


The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) is an international work program designed to meet the needs of decision makers and the public for scientific information concerning the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and options for responding to those changes. The MA was launched by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in June 2001 and it will help to meet assessment needs of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention to Combat Desertification, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the Convention on Migratory Species, as well as needs of other users in the private sector and civil society. If the MA proves to be useful to its stakeholders, it is anticipated that an assessment process modeled on the MA will be repeated every 5–10 years and that ecosystem assessments will be regularly conducted at national or sub-national scales.

The MA focuses on ecosystem services (the benefits people obtain from ecosystems), how changes in ecosystem services have affected human well-being, how ecosystem changes may affect people in future decades, and response options that might be adopted at local, national, or global scales to improve ecosystem management and thereby contribute to human well-being and poverty alleviation. The specific issues being addressed by the assessment have been defined through consultation with the MA users.

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Ramsar Wetlands Data Gateway

Sponsors: Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) of CIESIN (Columbia University), Ramsar Bureau, and Wetlands International

Implementing Agency: Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), CIESIN

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance is a treaty focused on wetland conservation. The Ramsar Wetland Data Gateway provides access to multi-level, multidisciplinary, resources, including spatial, tabular, and graphic data, through a common search and visualization interface. It facilitates placing the official Ramsar site database in the context of other relevant data on key issues critical to sustainable management of wetlands and other protected areas, such as environmental pollution, biodiversity, and human land use change. A online mapping tool allows users to view Ramsar sites with a land cover background map, and to retrieve Landsat imagery of the Ramsar wetland and the general vicinity. The website will eventually include an image gallery of remote sensing applications focused on Ramsar sites.

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Remote Sensing and the Kyoto Protocol: A Review of Available and Future Technology for Monitoring Treaty Compliance

Sponsors: International Society for Photogrametry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS) and the University of Michigan School of Engineering


The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change contains quantified, legally binding commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels and allows carbon emissions to be balanced by carbon sinks represented by vegetation. The issue of using vegetation cover as an emission offset raises a debate about the adequacy of measurement and monitoring methodologies, and of current and planned remote sensing systems and data archives to both assess carbon stocks/sinks at 1990 levels, and monitor the current and future global status of those stocks. These concerns and the potential ratification of the Protocol among participating countries is stimulating policy debates and underscoring a need for the exchange of information between the international legal community and the remote sensing community.

On October 20-22 1999, two working groups of the International Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ISPRS) joined with the University of Michigan (Michigan, USA) to convene discussions on how remote sensing technology could contribute to the information requirements raised by implementation of and compliance with the terms of the Kyoto Protocol. The meeting originated as a joint effort between the Global Monitoring Working Group and the Radar Applications Working Group in Commission VII of the ISPRS, co-sponsored by the University of Michigan. The meeting was attended by representatives from national government agencies and international organizations and academic institutions.

Some of the key themes addressed were:

  • Legal aspects of transnational remote sensing in the context of the Kyoto Protocol;
  • A review of current and future remote sensing technologies that could be applied to the Kyoto Protocol;
  • Identification of areas where additional research is needed in order to advance and align remote sensing technology with the requirements and expectations of the Protocol; and
  • The bureaucratic and research management approaches needed to align the remote sensing community with both the science and policy communities.

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Remote Sensing Technologies for Ecosystem Management Treaties

Sponsor: U.S. Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) of the U.S. State Department

Partners: Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) of Columbia University, Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais (IBAMA), Programa para la Conservación de la Biodiversidad y Desarrollo Sustentable de Los Bañados del Este (PROBIDES), and the International Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


This project, which was completed in 2005, focused on the utilization of satellite remote sensing data to improve the effectiveness of ecosystem-oriented multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). These agreements include, among others, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Heritage Convention, and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. These conventions and site designations serve to protect natural resources and biodiversity of international importance, yet they are often constrained by lack of data and information to support implementation. The project tested applications of remote sensing at a Ramsar and Biosphere Reserve site in northeastern Uruguay, and in Laguna Merín, the adjacent transboundary freshwater lake (shared by Uruguay and Brazil) that is threatened by land use practices, agrochemical pollution, and over-fishing. Reports and data are available from the project website.

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Satellite Monitoring as a Legal Compliance Tool in the Environment Sector

Sponsor: UK Arts and Humanities Research Council

Partners: The Centre for Law and the Environment, University College London


In October 2005, the Centre for Law and the Environment, Faculty of Laws (UCL) won a major funded research contract from the Arts and Humanities Research Council worth £308,000. This research which will run until December 2008 is concerned with the potential for using new developments in satellite technology for monitoring and enforcing national, European Community and international laws in the environmental sector. The research will be conducted with the co-operation of the Remote Sensing Unit in the Department of Geography (UCL). The project explores the potential and significance of employing satellite monitoring data as a compliance tool, in the context of step-changes in the resolution capabilities, geographical coverage, and costs of the technology that are currently taking place. This research will draw upon national and international experience to date and assess the opportunities that may be provided to address limitations in conventional inspection and enforcement regimes.

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Terrestrial Carbon Initiative (TCI)

Sponsor: Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS) of the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS)

Secretariat: N/A

Partners: Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS), and International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP)

URL: (See March 2000 IGOS Bulletin, available on-line)

An accurate understanding of the global carbon cycle is central to informed decision-making on climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol have acknowledged the importance of terrestrial systems as carbon sinks and sources and provide a basis for developing emission trading credits that involve substitution and carbon sequestration in forests and potentially in other ecosystems.

Other international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention to Combat Desertification also have direct interest in carbon — both the vegetative and subsoil components. In the light of the above, at its Fourth meeting (Stockholm, November 1999), the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS) partners approved terrestrial carbon as a theme for which a systematic global observation program should be developed under the leadership of the Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS). The Partners also called for TCO to be closely linked to the IGOS Oceans theme of which carbon is an element.

To consolidate and systematize global observations for terrestrial carbon, there is first a need to agree on the observation and modeling requirements; to harmonize the main projects and activities that can contribute to a global observing system; and to identify gaps and ensure their resolution. GTOS has initiated the ‘Terrestrial Carbon Observation Initiative’ (TCO) to achieve these objectives.

The scope of TCO is characterized by emphasis on the current (at the time of observation) spatial distribution of the sources and sinks in terrestrial components of the biosphere; long-term, global observation; and products for seasonal, annual, interannual, and decadal periods. Thus, it encompasses the terrestrial and associated atmospheric parts of the carbon cycle.

Initially, TCO will focus on determining the spatial distribution and temporal trends of terrestrial carbon sources and sinks, i.e. net primary productivity (NPP), net ecosystem productivity (NEP), and net biome productivity (NBP), all measured as mass of carbon per unit area per year. The longer term vision is to establish an operational network of frequent observations and computer models, aimed at documenting and understanding the present state of the terrestrial component of the global carbon cycle in order to support policy formation at the national and intergovernmental levels.

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Treaty Enforcement Services Using Earth Observation (TESEO)

Sponsor: European Space Agency

As a result of the growing concern of the international community about the dramatic environmental problems that affect our planet, some international treaties of primary importance for humanity have been signed during the last decades. These treaties oblige the parties, directly or indirectly, to implement procedures for monitoring and assessing the environment. In this context, Earth Observation (EO) technology may play a significant role, since it has already for many years proven its usefulness for environmental monitoring. In addition, novel capabilities of recently available and scheduled sensors are opening new possibilities for developing more advanced and more efficient tools. There is, therefore, a need for assessing these possibilities within the specific context of supporting the implementation and enforcement of international environmental treaties.

The TESEO activity - Treaty Enforcement Support using Earth Observation - was therefore initiated in order to explore the potential of Earth Observation to support in the near future the implementation of international environmental treaties of European concern. This activity will, additionally, be an important ESA contribution to the detailed definition and early implementation of the GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) plans.

Last Edited: 18 April 2006

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