ED's statement at the 26th International Symposium on Remote Sensing of the Environment in Vancouver, 25 March 1996.


Robert G. Bisset
Media/Information Officer
Information and Public Affairs
United Nations Environment Programme
PO Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: +254-2-623084
Fax: +254-2-623692
Email: Robert.Bisset@unep.no


Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell
Executive Director
United Nations Environment Programme at the
The 26th International Symposium on Remote Sensing
of the Environment
Vancouver, 25 March 1996

It gives me great pleasure today to address this 26th International Symposium on Remote Sensing of the Environment and 18th Symposium of the Canadian Remote Sensing Society. After my years with the Canadian Atmospheric Environment Service although I hasten to say not as an atmospheric scientist -- the sheer magic of what you do has not diminished.

As one of the co-sponsors, I am pleased that this Symposium will consider the diverse facets of remote sensing of the environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

For us, in the United Nations Environment Programme, this initiative has important significance. For what you do is fundamental to our continuing endeavour to understand what is happening around us and devise new and creative ways to support the development of environmental policies. Policies that will guide our public and private institutions in our common quest for sustainable development. So while many of your sessions will address the what and how -- the technical details of data sources, distributed computing, expert systems -- I want to take my few minutes this morning to talk about why -- why what you do is important.

In 1948, the noted astronomer Fred Hoyle wrote, "Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside is available ... a new idea as powerful as any other in history will be let loose."

That photograph is now available, and with it the understanding that the world we live in is both finite and interconnected.

With the development of remote sensing technology, we have begun to understand the extent to which we have started the destruction of the very resource base on which we survive. We have also begun to recognize that stemming this rot may well constitute the biggest challenge that we face as we enter the next millennium.

Degradation has affected 43 million hectares of irrigated land. We face today the prospect of the extinction of one quarter of all the earth's biological biodiversity in the next 20-30 years. In fact, between 100 to 300 species may become extinct every day. 16.8 million hectares of forests are felled every year and without remedial measures, 2.4 billion people will be unable to obtain their minimum energy needs from the forests.

Our atmosphere every year absorbs 99 million tonnes of sulphur oxides, 68 million tonnes of nitrous oxides, 57 million tonnes of suspended particulate matter and 177 million tonnes of carbon monoxide. Climate change has become a threatening possibility with more than 3 billion people or 60% of the world's population will be threatened by sea level rise.

Soil degradation and shortage of water, fueled by increasing population pressures have created millions of environmental refugees. Accelerated destruction of forests has led to the silting of rivers, irreversible loss of genetic diversity and increased low-level flooding which in several cases has trans-national implications. The list goes on.

Yet there are aspects of our planet that no image from the outer space can reveal. Can it reveal the 1.1 billion people living in absolute poverty? Can it show a world in which illiteracy is still rampant, handicapping a billion people? Can it uncover a world in which nearly 13.5 million children under five die each year from malnutrition and 35,000 children die every day from environmentally related diseases?

Human society is saturated with both poverty and affluence split by extreme inequity. In the industrialized nations and among the elite in many developing nations, standards of conspicuous consumption in housing, furnishings and clothing have soared. For example, aerial photographs of favored suburban locations in many countries are richly jeweled with sparkling blue swimming pools. Meanwhile, thousands sleep and die on the streets of Calcutta. The cardboard, tin and scrap squatter settlements of Latin America grow prodigiously. Nearly seven million households are still inadequately housed in the United States.

Every signal from the natural world tells us that we humans are treading too heavily on this earth.

There are no 10 easy ways to save the planet -- only a few different ways to learn to live within its bounds. Although remote sensing can help measure the quality and quantity of natural resources and can assist the decisions that must be made, the justice and solidarity that must follow from these decisions may be in the hands of other protagonists who are not present here today. These well-marked lines of demarcation can appear frustrating to those whose task is to monitor the state of the world's environment.

I want to leave you with three messages this morning. The first has to do with the importance of the output of your work -- the link between science and policy. The task in which you are engaged can guide and influence choices on how we conserve our environment. In fact, monitoring the environment and disseminating the data constitute the foundation on which countries make projections for their future development.

Global inventories and monitoring are thus not an option to keep the world of scientific research busy. They are a vital necessity. Environmental information is critical to our security, and is increasingly serving as a negotiating tool in the resolution of international conflicts. UNEP, in its convening and negotiating role, relies on accurate information as a backdrop for achieving international agreements.

Remote sensing will be increasingly relied upon into the 21st century for habitat inventories, extensive ecological mapping and to providing evidence of environmental change and emerging environmental issues.

At any one point in time, a multitude of orbiting satellites provides synoptic coverage of the globe at regular intervals, supplemented by a wide array of specialized airborne sensors. Each year, the number, nature and sensitivity of these sensors increases, tracking the behaviour of environmental parameters in the atmosphere, the oceans and on land.

Since the early 60's, satellites such as the Trios series of meteorological satellites, have increasingly provided feedback on the dynamics of the earth's environment. From the 1970's, images acquired by high spatial resolution earth observation satellites, such as Landsat and SPOT, first became widely available to the global research community. They continue to revolutionize natural resource management and utilization today.

Increasingly, active sensors such as radar are providing new insights into the nature and dynamics of tropical and other areas of the planet.

Throughout the 80's and 90's, remote sensing has increasingly been used in an operational manner with many and varied applications involving improved food production and security; sustainable management of natural resources; environmental characterization, monitoring and protection; early warning and mitigation of natural resources; topographic mapping and improved communications and navigation.

It is unfortunate that the best high resolution imagery is still shrouded in military secrecy and not available for public use. Many more applications of great economic, social and environmental benefit to society could be developed if these barriers could be overcome.

Now, after more than three decades of extensive use of remote sensing, it is important to ask ourselves how well the information and data emanating from this source has been factored into our policy decisions concerning the health of our environment.

The development of remote sensing capacity has often been driven by economic, industrial and strategic imperatives, and the capacity to analyze and use the information effectively has not always kept pace. Our scientific capacity in most parts of the world is too limited to make full use of the technological potential available, and that capacity is developing too slowly to close the gap. Some other strategy is needed.

It is well to remember here that most of us have been conditioned to view the challenge of sustainable development as deriving primarily from the absence of data. This may be true for some global environmental problems such as conservation of biodiversity and climate change for which the absence of data poses serious difficulties of both definition and prediction. But in other fields we have not too little data but too much, exceeding our capacity to digest and use it.

The use of environmental data cannot be reduced to description alone. We need an explanation for described behaviour or phenomena. I know that description can be immediately more gratifying than a sustained effort to derive understanding from a disciplined body of knowledge.

Yet, information without context is not knowledge. Information relative to questions of sustainable development is in abundant supply. Wisdom is not. And wisdom, soundness of judgement, is ultimately a prerequisite for sustainable development and the requirements for survival.

And now I come to my second point.

It is clear that remote sensing specialists will have to move away from a mere description of trends towards understanding and explaining the cause and effect continuum. Otherwise the effect of the data they generate on policy making will be marginal. This will require a closer interaction with other scientific disciplines and with broader observation and assessment programmes. It also will require more interaction with the users of environmental information.

It has been my contention that good environmental management is not a technical exercise separate from everyday economic and political life, or something tacked on after the fact of development, but that it can only come about when environmental values are embedded within political and economic systems.

Sustainable development can only happen when people define their own problems and take control of their own environments. In many cases sustainable development has no hope of realization where the problem is defined at the wrong scale, either too grandly or in too limited a way, or where relevant stakeholders are excluded from participation.

This failing is no-where more apparent than in the manner in which the data generated by remote sensing is disseminated. There is a need for a bottom-up approach here. The information generated should be relevant to the real needs of the people. People should no longer be considered as passive recipients of information but as active participants in the entire process. Users have to be encouraged to become producers as well.

A whole new strategy is therefore needed for the applications of remote sensing. Instead of focusing on sophisticated high-cost outputs for scientists, the time has come to emphasize low-cost widely distributed imagery. This would be the "Model-T" approach to the mass market.

There are millions of farmers, foresters, fishermen, planners, local governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, students and common citizens with practical problems where suitable remote-sensed images would be a real help in support of environmental management. Even illiterate people can understand pictures, and many of them know their own lands and resources so well that ground truthing is no problem. There is enormous potential for small businesses to develop providing processed images for local use. People should pick up the latest image of the local crop situation as readily as they buy the local newspaper. Remote sensed images of various environmental parameters should become as familiar as the daily weather map, forming public opinion on environmental issues and motivating necessary changes in behaviour. (And if you doubt me -- watch the energy of children as they leave the big-screen performance of The Blue Planet.)

This approach would allow us to leap-frog the lack of scientific capacity in developing countries, and bring the benefits of remote sensing directly to the users where it can make the most difference. It will require a new strategy for the availability and distribution of imagery, and extensive capacity building exercises. In any case, data from remote sensing inventories must be open and accessible and not enclosed within the temples of Science.

Once the purvue of developed nations only, earth observation satellites themselves are now increasingly being brought into operation by developing nations with specific requirements for environmental data. These countries and their specific space programmes need to be more closely integrated in any scheme to enhance our remote sensing capabilities.

And thirdly, I want to highlight the issue of complexity and integration.

For far too long we have focused our intellectual energy on single- discipline analysis, ignoring how one discipline affects and is affected by another. We can no longer afford such narrow thinking. We can no longer exclude or exempt certain segments of society from responsibility for environmental quality. We have to and must integrate such varied disciplines as science, engineering, economics and law as we seek solutions to the wide range of complex questions before society.

Air quality issues interlink with health, energy and economic problems. Endangered species issues entail questions of habitat, land use, employment, recreation, commerce and ethics. An issue may arise over air pollution but evolve into an issue of energy policy or of industrial economics. A water pollution issue maybe transformed into a public health issue.

Environmental issues are being revealed as more complex and comprehensive than first perceived. To explain the inconsistencies and the multiple character of environmental issues we must realize that data generated from any one sensor will not give us complete information. We have to move towards a greater integration of platforms and sensors.

We also need to integrate new data flows resulting from remote sensing into the assessment process for the state of the environment. Such environmental reports support effective decision-making, and provide a bridge between science and practical management. That is why UNEP is embarking on a new initiative in State of Environment Reporting: the Global Environmental Outlook initiative. Unlike past reports on the environment, this one will be forward looking, emphasizing the dynamic nature of the global physical, biological and human systems. It will lay the foundation for our next major State of the Global Environment Report in 2002.

Encompassing a biennial report series and an international participatory assessment process, this report will provide an overview every two years of major global environmental concerns, emerging issues and their causes and impacts. It will also focus on possible international policy options to address them. The first issue of this landmark report series will be available in January 1997.

As part of a framework for long-term global collaboration, a network of approximately 20 assessment centres, which are multidisciplinary institutes supporting environmental policy setting at national, regional and global levels, will become the production engines of this report series.

Four international working groups have met to develop policy- relevant, integrated assessment and forecasting methodologies, using models and scenarios, and integrating and harmonizing existing development information efforts. These will require a constant flow of data on trends in various environmental, economic and social parameters.

UNEP's regional offices have been harnessed to stimulate region- based consultative mechanisms. This will encourage debate between science and policy as well as help deduce policy implications from scientific assessment findings, identify possible responses and build consensus on international priority action required.

The Global Environmental Outlook is being developed within a global participatory assessment process. And it is our hope that it will provide a mechanism for continuous, regionally-distributed, scientific and policy consultative process to keep under review the state of the global environment.

We believe that remote sensing will play a fundamental role in the future of the GEO process since it is uniquely placed to contribute harmonized global data for monitoring environmental progress.

So, what you do has increasing relevance as we approach the millennium. But to be effective your strategy needs to accommodate users and your work integrated with the work of other partners.

Speaking of new partners -- let me end with the very convincing words of a poet.

     If the Earth were only a few feet in diameter, floating a
          few feet above a field somewhere, people would come from
          everywhere to marvel at it.

     People would walk around it, marvelling at its big pools
          of water, its little pools and its water floating between the

     People would marvel at bumps on it, and the holes on it,
          and they would marvel at the very thin layer of gas
          surrounding it and the water suspended in the gas.

     The People would marvel at all the creatures walking
          around the surface of the ball, and at the creatures in the

     The People would declare it precious because it was the
          only one, and they would protect it so that it would not be

     The ball would be the greatest wonder known, and
          people would come to behold it, to be healed, to gain
          knowledge, to know beauty and to wonder how it could

     People would love it, and defend it with their lives
          because they would somehow know that their own lives,
          their own roundness, could be nothing without it.

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