The last of four scheduled fora on the European Commission’s Global Monitoring for the Environment and Security (GMES) initiative took place in Baveno, Italy on 26-28 November 2003. Organisers say they had planned for around 200 participants. Instead, 300 turned up. Discussions were based largely on the Draft Final Report of the Initial Period of the GMES Action Plan (2002-2003).

The unexpected crowd in Baveno added to the sense of excitement and expectation that accompanies the end of the GMES Initial Period. According to European Space Agency (ESA) Earth Observation Director Jos Achache, “The European Commission and ESA have put a lot of work into the Draft Final Report and I think we all agree that the time for paperwork is at an end. We need to move now into the GMES implementation phase, to deliver on the high expectations we have created.”

What is GMES?

According to European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, GMES is one of the Commission’s flagship initiatives, aimed at enhancing Europe’s technological capacity in the service of EU policy objectives. The kind of advanced environmental monitoring framework that GMES represents has clearly become a top political priority.

At the European level, a number of policy initiatives have already shown convergence on improving access to environmental data. On the global stage, the 2001 Gothenburg Summit on Sustainable Development, the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development and recent meetings of the G8 ministers have all noted the need for the international community to monitor the environment and to improve our understanding of environmental processes. The coordination of global observing strategies received further impetus in July 2003 at the Earth Observation summit in Washington.

GMES is, in simple terms, Europe’s concerted attempt to produce better policy-relevant information. This means bringing data and information providers together with users, to allow them to better understand each other and to agree on how to make useful information available to the people who need it most.

Multiple challenges

In his opening remarks in Baveno, Stefano Caldoro, Under Secretary of the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research (MUIR), said, “The challenges spelled out in the White Paper on European Space Policy include maximising the use of space data in support of sustainable development and environmental protection, as well as using space technologies in support of European security and defence. These very demanding tasks will have to be implemented within a military and civil ‘multi-use’ space framework.”

While GMES does include a strong space component, with satellite-based remote sensing providing an important part of today’s environmental data, ground-based, air-based and ocean-based in situ monitoring systems are also included in the overall GMES concept. Importantly, a significant amount of effort under GMES is being made in the areas of co-ordination and integration of existing capacities.

The Report

The current Draft Final Report makes a number of concrete recommendations for moving GMES forward. Among them are:

  • Begin implementation of GMES priority services;
  • Establish an appropriate organisational and institutional framework for the initiative;
  • Develop a strategy regarding data policies;
  • Implement a European spatial data infrastructure;
  • Develop the required space and in situ observation networks;
  • Organise and fund relevant research and development activities;
  • Establish a strategy for effective international co-operation;
  • Ensure adequate levels of overall funding for the success of GMES.

While most of the speakers in Baveno expressed high appreciation for the work done in preparing the Draft Final Report, there were also many suggestions for further refinement and improvement. However, more than one participant pointed out the need for immediate action.

The European Commission’s Head of Unit for Aeronautics and Space Herbert von Bose said, “We can go on debating for a very long time indeed all of the things that we could add to the report, all of the changes we could make before we have the ‘perfect’ final version, but I would like to point something else out. Space activities, and GMES in particular, are now very high on the political agenda. We have the new White Paper on European Space Policy, recently presented by Mr Busquin, and we also have the new Growth Initiative, in which GMES is cited as a project for immediate initiation.

“What this means is that GMES is now being watched by highly placed decision-makers, and what we all must realise is that there is a window open for us right now. But we also know that these windows open and close. If we wait too long, if we insist on discussing and debating the details for more weeks and months, we may find that the policy-makers have moved on when we finally come to them. This is a good basic document which we can already use to convince the people who need convincing.”

“The point is to get GMES off the ground now,” added Achache. “We can start by working on an initial number of services that we can put in place quickly, using existing monitoring technologies and infrastructure. Once people can see that it works and that it is a valuable programme, we will have secured political support and we can continue to work on perfecting and expanding services and infrastructure.”

Keeping GMES on the right track

A similar concern for action was expressed by the Chairman of the GMES steering Committee Drafting Group Colin Hicks. In an interesting presentation, he described things that would cause GMES to go wrong. Among them, “GMES will fail,” he said, if:

  • Some parties use it to further their own interests at the expense of others;
  • It is driven from the supply side and not by users;
  • It becomes a Europe-only system without international partners;
  • We wait for agreement on everything before doing anything.

GEO and the international component

Representing an important potential international partner, retired US Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, currently Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Co-Chair of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), presented his views on GMES. “It is nice to be here with such a talented group of Earth Observation leaders,” he said. “I have a great amount of respect for the work you’re doing, creating a global strategy in an area of importance to people of all nations. GMES is clearly a critical part of what we in the GEO are trying to do on a global level.”

The GEO was launched at the Earth Observation Summit in Washington in July 2003. It is currently developing on a 10-year plan to set up a comprehensive Earth Observation system or systems. The fact that the second GEO plenary meeting was scheduled to take place in the same venue in Baveno immediately following the GMES Forum was seen as a clear statement about the importance of GMES on the global stage. The next Earth Observation Summit is scheduled to take place in Europe in late 2004.

In closing

In his closing remarks, Umberto Giovine, one of the Italian representatives on the GMES Steering Committee, said, “This fourth forum is the final step in the GMES Initial Period. The Steering Committee will introduce the Implementation Period in 2004. We begin this next phase with a much more promising outlook than we might have expected just a short time ago. The EU Council has just approved a Framework Agreement between the European Community and ESA, under which ESA becomes, in the words of Jos Achache, ‘the Space Agency of the European Union’. Meanwhile, the Commission has adopted the Space White Paper, which it calls ‘an ambitious action plan’. Italy remains ready to contribute to the important tasks of GMES as we move into the Implementation Period. To our Irish colleagues, the next to take up the Presidency, we offer our full support and we say good luck, buona fortuna!”