Report of the UNEP Meeting on Early Warning of Emerging Environmental Threats

December 8, 1998, Washington, D.C.

We welcome your feedback and comments.

Table of Contents



Summary Report

Concept Paper

Some Feedback

List of Participants


One of the outcomes of the United Nations reform process is to streamline global environmental policy development and environmental information management issues in acoordinated manner.

As per recommendations of the recent report of the UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, June 15, 1998, UNEP is in the process of developing suitable mechanisms for early warning of significant environmental problems which could result in human or environmental disasters and emergencies requiring international action. As a result, the UNEP's Division of Environmental Information, Assessment and Early Warning - North America organized a meeting of experts from the region for developing guidance for possible UNEP strategies in this field.

The meeting was designed to elicit suggestions on what contributions North Americans might make to UNEP's early warning program. It was pointed out that early warning was highlighted in the Nairobi Declaration and the Secretary General's UN reform proposal and emphasized that UNEP's Executive Director's intention was to mobilize UNEP to carry out the new mandate and to: (1) be able to anticipate and respond immediately and authoritatively to current environmental issues, and (2) over a longer term, alert the world community and the Governing Council to upcoming threats so they could address them appropriately.

Participants expressed strong interest in and support for UNEP's early warning initiative. They said there was a real need for catalyzing and coordinating international efforts along these lines, and they thought that they could make a contribution to UNEP's work. The effort could link a wide range of information networks around the world, give focus to scientific concerns, involve the private sector, and help build capacity for information exchange in developing countries. There was an interesting discussion around the concept of a trip-wire network that is designated to go off when certain criteria are met or violated. As such, it is not necessary to know what has caused the trip-wire to activate. When the trip-wire fires, resources could be rallied to look into the causes and find the remedies.

All participants agreed that the diminishing quantity and quality of the world's freshwater resources were urgent problems requiring international attention. Professor Molina spoke out on the need to alert the world to new changes taking place in the lower atmosphere due to combustion of fossil fuels and biomass burning. Others indicated that sustainable health of human and ecosystem, forest fragmentation, toxic wastes, misguided land use, climate change and signs of urban environmental deterioration should be addressed.

They felt that UNEP highlighting urgent and longer-term problems would be a valuable service to the international community. The information could be provided in a number of ways - announcements by the Executive Director, periodic action-oriented UNEP reports, and publications.

Several participants suggested the UNEP should see itself and perform more as an action-oriented educator that would identify issues, publicize them internationally, and inspire governments and others to take action on them. UNEP could publicize them and bring them to the attention of the public, governments, and the Governing Council. UNEP would encourage other UN agencies, governments, the scientific community, and the private sector to collaborate in this work. It would convene scientific panels and other gatherings to perfectthe data and draw conclusions about actions. But UNEP should be wary of trying to be a major data collector itself, although it could encourage coordination and collaboration by others in the collection effort. UNEP's focus would be on calling attention to urgent matters, seeking solutions, and promoting international action to address the early warning issues identified.

This report contains the summary of discussions and the concept paper on early warning of emerging environmental threats sent to participants. Dr. G.P. Patil of the Pennsylvania State University sought comments of some of his colleagues and received over 50 responses in a matter of couple of days. A sample of some feedback received is reproduced in this report as well.

I am grateful to all those who participated in the discussions and made valuable suggestions. It would have not been possible to organize this meeting without dedication, enthusiasm, and creative skills of Ms. Dawn Buehner who spent long hours in collection, compilation, and dissemination of relevant materials. My special thanks to Wayne Mooneyhan and Liz Pentecost for providing access to the excellent meeting facility of the University Space Research Association in Washington D.C.

Ashbindu Singh
Regional Coordinator
Division of Environmental Information,
Assessment & Early Warning - North America

December 8, 1998
University Space Research Association (USRA)
Suite 801
300 D Street SW
Washington, D.C.
(Metro: Federal Central SW)


9:00     Coffee

9:15     Welcome and Remarks: Professor Mario Molina (Chair)

9:20     Introduction of Participants

9:30     UNEP and Early Warning of Environmental Threats:
                Dan Claasen/Ashbindu Singh

10:00   Early Warning of Environmental Threats:
                Scope of Activities: John Townshend

10:30   Coffee Break

10:45   Remarks by Representative of Agencies and Experts

12:30   Lunch

1:15     Discussions

4:00     Adjourn

Summary Report


The meeting was attended by representatives of North American agencies, members of the academic community, foundations, private sector, and staff members of UNEP. Results of discussions are summarized below:

1. Summary of Issues

2. What does Early Warning mean?

3. Strategic Goals

4. Key Emerging Environmental Threats

5. Implementation Issues

6. Changing landscape in which UNEP operates

7. Internal changes within UNEP

UNEP needs to make internal changes to organize itself and collaborators. Abstract goals and objectives of strategic planning must be translated into concrete action. Focus on what could be implemented with existing resources.

UNEP needs to prioritize its strategic goals and define ways in which the success of these goals can be measured.

8. Contributions from North American Agencies to UNEP

UNEP could help North American agencies in internationalizing their activities and also, at times, let concerned governments believe in information provided by outside sources.

North American agencies could provide to UNEP:

Some specific examples include:

A Concept Paper on Early Warning of Environmental Threats

1. Objectives:

The objectives of this expert group meeting are to:

2. Background

The Nairobi Declaration on the Role and Mandate of the United Nations Environment Programme, (7 Feb. 1997) set the following goals for environmental monitoring, assessment, and reporting:

The UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements Report to the Secretary-General (June 15, 1998) emphasized that:

The main roles of the United Nations in the field of environment and human settlements are to:


3. Issue Context

Common global environmental issues are:

The fundamental issue is how to identify and alert the world community of emerging environmental problems within and outside this cluster?

Recent mandate requires UNEP to develop an explicit and distinctive approach needed to deal with the Early Warning of Emerging Environmental Threats (EWEET). This has significant implications for UNEP such as the adequacy and depth of UNEP's analytical capabilities in this field, clarity of role of UNEP, nature of partnerships; i.e., government, scientific institutions, private sector and NGOs. There are issues related to participation and consultation with governments, financial resources, expertise/staffing, and other institutional implications. Significant risks are associated with scientific credibility of information. In many cases, environmental threats are caused by the underlying political and economic factors in the countries involved.

UNEP will need to have more active interaction and cooperation with parties capable of acting upon such cases. It is increasingly becoming clear that UNEP needs a major rethinking of its EWEET strategy. Maybe it is not critical what UNEP is doing but what it is not doing but should be doing. UNEP needs to leverage its activities in a partnership with a host of players. This requires UNEP to engage the major stakeholders in a continuous dialogue and strategy formulation.

4. A Review of UNEP Activities

All current and past UNEP activities in the field of environmental monitoring, assessment, and reporting are summarized in following categories:

4.1 Earthwatch Coordination: UNEP was named as Task Manager for Earthwatch by the UN IACSD and, in this capacity, provides a system-wide coordinating mechanism that includes some 24 focal points within the UN Secretariat and Regional Commissions, 13 specialized agencies, eight environmental convention secretariats, the Bretton Woods Institutions, the WTO, and three Global Observing Systems.

4.2 Reporting: UNEP has been producing the state of the environment reports largely based on the compilat ion of expert opinion and existing data provided by governments. U NEP is a funding partner for the biennial World Resources Report, along with WRI, UNDP, and the World Bank. UNEP initiated the biennial Global Environment Outlook (GEO) Report in 1997 highlighting regional environmental issues using regional consultative processes and a network of collaborating centers around the world. In addition, a number of reports have been published related to various topical environmental issues.

4.3 Assessments: UNEP has conducted a number of sectoral assessments, namely:

4.4 Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS): A leading internationally coordinated effort to ensure that data on environmental variables are collected, GEMS-Air and GEMS- Water, in an orderly and adequate manner. GEMS provided valuable data on air and water quality.

4.5 INFOTERRA: Initiated in the early 1970s as an information referral service system and has 176 national focal points around the world.

4.6 IRPTC: A database on International Registry of Potentially Toxic Chemicals.

4.7 Global Resource Information Database (GRID):Provides an environmental data management service for UNEP. By using a network of cooperating centers, GRID archives, collates and disseminates information in digital format which has been extracted from maps, satellite images, statistical tables, and other sources within and outside the UN system. The basic applications for users of GRID, in addition to its data management function, are:

4.8 ENRIN: Environmental Resource Information Network (ENRIN) is a regional/sub regional network to catalyze capacity building.

4.9 Sponsor: UNEP is sponsor to IPCC and Ozone Assessment Panels. UNEP is a funding partner, along with WWW and IUCN, to the World Conservation Monitoring Center (WCMC) responsible for the maintenance and updating of Protected Areas Database. UNEP also sponsors three Global Observing Systems (collectively referred to as the G3OS) which are to concentrate not only on data and information, but also on how it can be used to better understand and address global change issues. The three observing systems are sponsored by several UN bodies and the non-governmental scientific organizations, ICSU, and are currently under consideration by, among others, CEOS (the Committee on Earth Observing Systems) in which national space agencies take part.

5. Nature of Early Warning of Environmental Threats

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of threats/hazards/disasters.

5.1 Type A: Low Probability and High-Impact Events

5.2 Type B: High Probability and Slow-Impact Events

5.3 Type C: High Probability and High-Impact Events

Damages due to disasters (the following damages occur due to disasters):

Environmental damages:

The popular media attention is concentrated on loss of life and property. There is little prospect for preventing many of the disasters from occurring although much could be done to reduce their severity. Many impacts could be mitigated through better vulnerability and risk assessment, predictive modeling, information dissemination, and policy development.

6. Approach

Early warning is a result of environmental observations, assessment, and monitoring functions. Early detection, assessment, and communication of results to governments for prompt effective response require the ability to watch environmental problems as they occur. However, the nature of environmental problems per se calls for applying different approaches. For example, the strategic questions related to the early warning of the loss of biodiversity are:

However, the assessment methodology related to biodiversity is significantly different than adopted for Ozone depletion and Climate Change (table).

Table: Comparative Characteristics of the Nature of Assessments


Climate Change


Relatively well-defined problem

Some uncertainty

Difficult to quantify and measure due to distribution over large areas; mostly in developing world

Industry had Technical solutions

Limited technological solutions

Limited technological solutions; higher land productivity may reduce demand for cultivated areas

No major lifestyle changes

Major life style changes are possible

Direct impact on local (poor) people

Reversible process

Slow but reversible process (Source and sink issues)

Irreversible process; Loss of natural heritage, animal extinction

Effects of ozone depletion were measured through satellites then causes were established

Effects predicted through GCMs and then causes established

Cause and effects are relatively well known; Biodiversity loss due to poverty and pressure on land.

Hardly any developing countries participation in the assessment process

Limited developing countries participation in the assessment process

Developing countries participation must in the assessment process

6.1 Type A: Low Probability and High-Impact Events (Disasters)

UNEP could raise global awareness related to the environmental impacts of disasters; e.g., loss of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emission due to forest fires. UNEP could catalyze actions for identification of potential areas at risk, say, due to forest fires, drought, and floods. However, location of areas at risk needs ability to analyze and derive products produced from multiple sources. No single source exists for access to such information.

At the global scale, an excellent model is NOAA's effort in the development of the WWW-based disaster information server and the provision of rapid access to relevant satellite data and information products. Another example is worldwide monitoring of earthquakes and volcanoes by the USGS.

6.2 Type B: High Probability and Slow-Impact Events

UNEP is dealing with such issues through IPCC, ozone assessment and POPs panels. UNEP's role could be further strengthened to quantify the potential consequences of climate change and climate variability for human health, natural ecosystems, and economic activity. UNEP could catalyze analysis of the effects of global change on the natural environment, land and water resources, human social systems, and biodiversity; and assess current trends in global change, both human-induced and natural, and project major trends for the subsequent years.

6.3 Type C: High Probability and High-Impact Events

Most of the environmental problems falling into this category come through the cumulative effects. Cumulative effects arise from a large number of small human activities in a given region or from disturbance in the environment from a single repeated activity. Hence, a long-term observing system and trend analysis needs to be carried out for identification of emerging issues.

UNEP could play a leading operational role in this type of long-term early warning of significant environmental problems which could result in environmental disasters or potential conflicts requiring international action.

Strategy Elements

In order to implement the mandate in this field, UNEP needs to consider the following:


North American institutions have developed enormous assets in terms of remote sensing data, information system, and knowledge base to contribute to early warning disaster preparedness and, for that matter, mitigation, response, and study of global environmental changes. In the era of globalization, the results of such work should be effectively communicated and used by others. UNEP could work as a conduit to bring to bear an international focus, which could not readily be achieved by acting nationally. Hence, support by North American agencies of such activities through UNEP helps them to fulfil their own goals and provides a global outreach.

What could North American Agencies contribute?

Some Feedback received by Dr. Patil

Sir Robert May

Sir Robert was pleased to hear of your involvement in the forthcoming UNEP Division of Environmental Information, Assessment, and Early Warning North America panel meeting.

Although we have no references or reference materials that we can offer on this specific issue, no doubt much is readily available on the Web. However, this is an area of concern to our Environment Agency and the person to contact there is:

Caroline Hager
tel: 441454 624096
fax: 441454 624319
email: Caroline Hager


I hope this is of some help.

Robert Clay,
Private Secretary to the Chief Scientific Adviser,
Sir Robert May, UK

Bruce Jones, EPA

Regarding issues and early warning, I think there are three things to consider (and probably others). First, it is useful to think of "canary-in-the-cave" kinds of monitors that are strategically located on continents and on island around the world. But the idea is to monitor things that are of regional, continental, and global significance. And the spatial distribution of these monitoring sites should be as such that if you see a pattern, you should be able to tell whether it is likely an atmospheric problem, or a local problem influencing the site, etc., when combined with other spatial data.

So with biophysical information (e.g., land cover, topography, wetland distribution, etc.) combined with a distributed "site" network, it is possible to discover potential casualty. It is also possible to assess future vulnerability as well. And this leads into item 2, looking at landscape conditions and establishing vulnerability to losses in ecological goods and services. I know this sounds surprising (because of the spatial scale and dimension), but landscape information (pattern and processes), can in fact provide an early warning of things to come. If we had had landscape data in the 1960's and 1970's in the Pacific Northwest, we would have been able to anticipate the decline of the Spotted Owl and other interior forest species.

So the landscape indicators and data can tell us whether ecological resources are becoming more or less vulnerable to declines associated with both natural and anthropogenic disturbance and stress. In this way, it can provide an early warning. I think this is fundamental underpinning of the Regional Vulnerability Program that Rick Linthurst has initiated, but it has not been put in the "early-warning" category.

But the whole idea is to find areas that are vulnerable (related to a particular ecological resource of interest), and to reduce their vulnerability before it's too late. I think this would be a nice framework for the UNEP to consider globally.

Finally, there are some recent applications of remote sensing data to measure processes that provide some evidence of response to climate change.

Marvin Zelen, Harvard

A suggestion, which is only appropriate for developed countries, is to have a surveillance system of birth defects. An increase in birth defects is usually a signal that something in the environment is creating problems.

C. Patten, Georgia

Sick people run fevers, and I think so do "sick" ecosystems. I came to this conclusion more than 15 years ago when our environ models of a marine ecosystem showed speeding up of processes and shortening of residence times of matter in the compartments. This was never published but I took it as a measure of elevated ecosystem "temperature" (fever). Different subsystems were differentially affected. As a result, I now see the increasing pace of society and people trying to keep up as a manifestation of the same kind. So, look for speedup of processes for early warning of something amiss. That would be my recommendation.

L. Orloci

Subject: Re: UNEP Panel Meeting

Is there a database of materials of this sort on the Internet? I should think the establishment of a database should be first priority. The database should be public, free access, containing facts and abstracts as it were, describing findings and sources for more details. Systematically arranged, such would help one navigate in the field even if it is not one's first research interest.

List of Attendees

Professor Mario J. Molina, Chair
Department of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences
Room 54-1320
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA 02139
Tel: 617-253-5081
Fax: 617-258-6525

Professor John R. Townshend, Co-Chair
Department of Geography
University of Maryland
Room 1113 LeFrak Hall
College Park, MD 20742
Tel: 301-405-4558
Fax: 301-314-9299


Dr. Earnest D. Paylor II
Program Scientist, Solid Earth and Natural
Hazards Program
Program Manager, Pacific Disaster Center
Office of Earth Science
Code YO
NASA Headquarters
300 E Street SW
Washington, D.C. 20546
Tel: 202-358-0851
Fax: 202-358-2770


Richard Witmer, Chief
National Mapping Division
U.S. Geological Survey
516 National Center
Reston, VA 20192
Tel: 703-648-5748
Fax: 703-648-5792



Dr. Robert S. Chen
Deputy Director
61 Route 9W
Palisades, NY 10964
Tel: 914-365-8952
Fax: 914-365-8922


Dr. Holly J. Butler
Environmental Systems Research, Inc
2070 Chain Bridge Road, Suite 180
Vienna, VA 22182
Tel: 703-506-9515
Fax: 703-506-9514


Dr. Charles Hutchinson
NASA Headquarters
300 "E" Street SW, Room 5S32
Washington, D.C. 20546
Tel: 202-358-0762
Fax: 202-358-2770


Martha Maiden, Program Integration
Manager, EOSDIS External
Earth Science Systems Program
Office, Code 170
Greenbelt, MD 20771
Tel: 301-286-0012
Fax: 301-286-1671


Janice Sessing
International Relations Specialist
1315 East West Highway
SSMC3, Room 3620
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Tel: 301-713-2024, Ext. 110
Fax: 301-713-2032


Andrew S. Fraser, Manager
GEMS/Water Programme
National Water Research Institute
867 Lakeshore Road
Burlington, Ontario
Canada L7R 4A6
Tel: 905-336-4919
Fax: 905-336-4582


Professor Ganapati P. Patil
Department of Statistics
Pennsylvania State University
421 Thomas Building
University Park, PA 16802
Tel: 814-865-9442
Fax: 814-863-7114


Dr. Philip Ardanuy, Director
Remote Sensing and Applications
Raytheon ITSS
4500 Forbes Boulevard
Lanham, MD 20706
Tel: 301-794-5000
Fax: 301-794-7106


Dr. Jingli Yang, Head
Center for Global Change Studies
Raytheon ITSS
4500 Forbes Boulevard
Lanham, MD 20706
Tel: 301-794-5291
Fax: 301-794-7106


Dr. Arun Kashyap, Associate Director
Global Environment
The Rockefeller Foundation
420 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10018
Tel: 212-852-8394
Fax: 212-852-8461


Professor David Rapport
Ecosystem Health Department
University of Guelph
205 Blackwood Hall
Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1G 2W1
Tel: 519-824-4120, Ext. 8476
Fax: 519-763-4686


Janet Gamble
401 M Street SW
Mail Code 8601D
Washington, D.C. 20460
Tel: 202-564-3387
Fax: 202-565-0075


Phil Ross
Chief Statistician
401 M Street SW
Washington, D.C. 20460
Tel: 202-260-0250
Fax: 202-260-8550


Gary Man
Program Coordinator
Asia and Pacific Program
U.S. Forest Service
Washington, D.C.
Tel: 202-273-4740
Fax: 202-273-4749


Tom Brennan
OES/ENV Room 4325
U.S. Department of State
2201 "C" Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520
Tel: 202-736-7111
Fax: 202-647-5947
Email: tbrennan@state.gov


Larry W. Roeder
IO/PPC, Room 4334A
U.S. Department of State
2201 "C" Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20520
Tel: 202-647-5070
Fax: 202-647-9722


Bill Mansfield
5633 Lambeth Road
Bethesda, MD 20814
Tel: 301-657-4110
Fax: 301-907-3915
D. Wayne Mooneyhan (USRA)
920 Tungtree Drive
Picayune, MS 39466
Tel/Fax: 601-798-4889


Dan Claasen
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Environmental Assessment,
Information and Early Warning
PO Box 30552
Nairobi, Kenya, Africa
Tel: 254 2 623231
Fax: 254 2 624309


Rohit Khanna
United Nations Environment Programme
Global Environment Facility (GEF)
1775 K Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20006
Tel: 202-331-9140
Fax: 202-331-4225


Ashbindu Singh
Regional Coordinator
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Environmental Assessment,
Information and Early Warning
EROS Data Center
Sioux Falls, SD 57198
Tel: 605-594-6107
Fax: 605-594-6119