Officials at international groups dealing with some of the world’s
most pressing environmental problems agree that satellite imagery
could be of enormous benefit in implementing environmental treaties.
Less certain, however, is which imagery-based products and services
will prove useful, how they will be developed, and by what means
they will reach end users, particularly in poorer countries, in a
timely, cost-effective manner.

Representatives from four such groups, more formally known as
"Conventions" in diplomatic parlance, met for two days in mid-June
to discuss these and other issues as part of the second users’
brainstorming session, TUBE II, organized by ESA’s TESEO activity.
TESEO, for Treaty Enforcement Support using Earth Observation, was
started last year to explore the potential of satellite imagery in
supporting the implementation of environmental treaties.

Earth observation data will contribute to the ability of
signatories to multilateral environmental agreements to move from
detecting problems to mitigating them, according to Jan Sheltinga,
environmental affairs officer for the Secretariat of the UN
Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The desertification
treaty is designed to stem land degradation in dryland ecosystems,
one-third of the world’s land area, through local programmes and
supportive international partnerships. "Parties to the UNCCD
recognize that strategies to combat desertification and mitigate
the effects of drought will be most effective if they are based on
sound, systematic observation and rigorous scientific knowledge,"
she said. "Earth observation can contribute to this global bank
of technical knowledge, especially when the Parties [treaty
signatories] are identifying strategies to reduce the
vulnerability of affected populations."

"Recent advances in space technology have improved the ability to
use various Earth observation tools for efficient environmental
monitoring and to address issues related to early warning,
especially for drought," she added.

Climate change and the Kyoto Protocol

Another TUBE II participant, the UN Framework Convention on
Climate Change (UNFCCC), was adopted in 1992 as the first step in
addressing one of the most urgent environmental problems facing
mankind. Five years later, many nations took another step and
adopted the landmark Kyoto Protocol with its groundbreaking,
legally binding limitations restraints on greenhouse gas
anthropogenic emissions.

For Claudio Forner, an officer for the MIS programme at the
climate-change Secretariat, Earth observation data could help the
Convention fulfil some of its responsibilities.

"From our perspective, Earth observation data could be a very
useful tool in our meeting the Convention’s needs for assessment,
monitoring and reporting," Forner said. "Parties to the UNFCC
have agreed to a set of duties where such data could be

The most relevant area for satellite imagery to be beneficial,
Forner continued, could be in monitoring and analysing the
dynamics of forests and other land-use related activities where
size is a problem. Satellite imagery could be an important tool
in supporting emissions estimates and the removal of greenhouse
gases. In addition, Earth observation data could be used to
assess the impact of global climate changes.

"There exists a great potential in assessing the consequences of
climate change on ecosystems, urban areas and others," the UNFCC
official added.

Imagery aids the fight against marine pollution

The Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the
Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) was originally established in 1976
under the Barcelona Convention for combating Mediterranean
pollution. As part of its responsibilities, the centre also
promotes regional cooperation to prevent marine environmental
pollution by ships.

A TESEO participant, REMPEC has already worked with ESA for
several years in a pilot project to test the reliability and
timeliness of Earth observation data, according to Admiral
Roberto Patruno, the centre’s director. Satellite data was
received from ESA Earth observation satellites on suspected
pollution sites, such as oil spills or waste discharges, then
relayed to operational centres for verification of the incident.
"Part of our job on spills and other types of pollution is to
distribute the information that we think would be of interest
to our member states," Patruno said. "Satellite imagery is the
kind of tool that can d/td>itely help the decision-making
process in the cases of pollution incidents, provided that we
solve some problems related to the reliability of the data, the
gap of time between the detection of the suspected pollution and
its availability at the operational centres, and the cost of the

In fighting marine pollution, however, fast turnaround times of
relevant information are critical. "Discharges at sea can be
diluted in the water in a very short period of time, sometimes
only hours," Patruno said. "So far as effectively using satellite
imagery, we face a significant time gap — from the time the
satellite detects something to the time the information reaches
the hands of the operational decision-makers."

These types of issues are exactly the sorts of practical problems
in implementing environmental treaties that TESEO is expected to
address. "With TESEO, we are moving in the right direction,"
Patruno added.

Unexpected benefits

Two, possibly surprising, benefits are coming out of the TESEO
process of bringing together space scientists and imagery
researchers together with Convention representatives and end
users, according to Nick Davidson, deputy secretary general for
the secretariat of the Convention on Wetlands.

The first is a better understanding of what Earth observation
techniques and methodologies not to use. "The negative side of
the coin, for us, is as important as the positive — what won’t
yield a usable product," he said.

The second is the collaborative experience of sharing information
with the other environmental Conventions involved in TESEO.

"The coordination among Conventions is developing, and TESEO is a
part of that process," Davidson said. "It’s important to ensure
that a consistent viewpoint reaches national policy makers and
that different Earth observation solutions are not developed for
differing Conventions that might risk conflicting implementations
and confuse decision-makers."

The Convention on Wetlands, also known as the Ramsar Convention
(after the city in Iran where the treaty was signed in 1971),
deals with setting a framework for both national action and
international cooperation for the use of wetlands and related

The biggest issues to be faced in developing practical products
and services that take advantage of the latest advances in
satellite imagery and data-processing techniques may not be
technical, but economic and political, Davidson adds.

"The real challenge is to take remote-sensing data and make it
usable on a variety of scales to support implementation on a
variety of levels and for a variety of purposes — from a
global, supra-national scale for our member states, to a
national level for government decision-makers and down to a
site level for a wetlands manager," Davidson said. "And to
provide these techniques and capacities to aid the decision-
making processes in poorer, lesser developed countries."

UNCCD’s Sheltinga reinforces the point that the challenge is to
add capacity development for end users of Earth observation data
as an integral part of future TESEO-type collaborative processes.

"Parties to the UNCCD are among the poorest countries in the
world," Sheltinga said. "In order for developing countries to
benefit fully from any partnership between ESA, information
service providers and end users, initiatives that aim to develop
the technical expertise of individuals and institutions in
countries affected by desertification are pre-requisites."

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Related Links

* Ramsar Convention

* UN Convention to Combat Desertification

* UN Framework Convention on Climate Change


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