Eye on Earth Summit Wrap


SCIDEV.NET CONFERENCE SERVICE PRODUCTION

This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.


Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre/ Flickr

The Arab world has always been renowned for two of humanity’s greatest qualities — modesty and hospitality. At the Eye on Earth Summit, in Abu Dhabi (12–15 December), these two qualities have been present in abundance.

Modesty, in the gentle urging of UN nation states to come together to share environmental data through the Eye in Earth Declaration, announced on 15 December, and now being taken forward to Rio+20 summit; and hospitality in that the world’s environmental data should be hosted on an open source internet platform — data available for all to use to help understand the state of the planet and planetary resources and to help predict future scenarios of sustainability or environmental disaster.

Almost every session at the summit brought together existing data sets. Marton–Lefavre, director general IUCN, Sylvia Earle, oceanographer, explorer, CEO Mission Blue, and Jane Goodall, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, talked of the shocking status of biodiversity and eco-system decline on both land and sea.

Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network talked about declining global resources and the impacts on the world economy, and Najib Saab, a publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development) talked about the state of water resources in the Middle East and public access to information.

But, a loud statement came from many of the sessions at the summit on our current knowledge of environmental data and protesting our lack of action by governments in light of it, eloquently expressed by Sylvia Earle: “I can forgive ignorance but not with our eyes wide open … the science is new, and the policy hasn’t been done yet.”

If the UN nation states do decide to share environmental data, as urged by the summit, then we will eventually begin to fill in the gaps in unknown global information on biological and physical resources and of earth systems, but will we do anything about avoiding the potentially disastrous scenarios of the future? And who will police the use and misuse of this evidence and the predicted scenarios that result?

Calls for a World Environment Organisation (WEO) that can administer, have oversight over and mitigate environmental impacts of world trade are on the Agenda for Rio+20. The evidence is clear we are at the ‘turning point’, what governments decide today will impact on humanity’s long term future. Another theme that came through at the summit was that of environmental data and the role of global business, in particular Google’s and Microsoft’s involvement in the environmental data revolution. As Ed Parson from Google stated: “From the earliest days of Google Earth back in 2005 we have been very interested in making environmental information more accessible which is what is behind Eye on Earth.” Over one billion people have downloaded Google Earth, so that now people can even access environmental information in their bedrooms. Likewise, Stephen Emmott from Microsoft talked about their development of new tools to analyse and enable action in relation to huge existing data sets.

One wonders whether caution needs to be considered in relation to business and access to global environmental datasets. When I talked about the conference with a fellow passenger on my way home from the conference, he pointed out if big business can access the data, they may also be able to abuse it. He pointed out that we might give industrial fishing companies access to where the global hotspots for marine biodiversity are, or pharmaceutical companies access to important but critically endangered species — indeed business could continue to take Sterns “business as usual approach” once the global data is available. One wonders whether global business needs a declaration of responsible action for sustainability, similar to that being devised by the International Council of Mining and Metal.

Tracy Irvine

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