RTD info logoMagazine on European Research

N 44 - February 2005
  EARTH AND SPACE   -  Uniting to make a world of difference

As holder of one of the four co-presidencies of the Group for Earth Observations (GEO(1)) the European Union is actively involved in this key global initiative for the planet’s environmental future. RTD info speaks to Achilleas Mitsos, Director-General of Research at the European Commission.

The Group for Earth Observations was launched in July 2003 and is holding its third world summit in less than two years. It is certainly an initiative with the wind in its sails…

Achilleas Mitsos: "There cannot be any question of coming up with a new and bulky super system, managed by a costly international device, which would seek to surpass or replace the diversity of existing or planned systems…”
Achilleas Mitsos: "There cannot be any question of coming up with a new and bulky super system, managed by a costly international device, which would seek to surpass or replace the diversity of existing or planned systems…”
Achilleas Mitsos  – Absolutely. And I would add that it is a remarkable and exemplary case of international co-operation. The GEO meets a universal need that concerns a shared asset, namely the health of the planet we inhabit and that is being changed by the way we live with the risk of profound changes to the balance of ecosystems. Thanks to satellite and aerial observation, but also the increase in ‘intelligent’ in situ observation points – hundreds of thousands of which are continuously monitoring land and sea – science and technology are now able to provide us with an extraordinarily enriched picture of the state of health of our planet. The use of this valuable tool has become essential in making diagnoses, understanding and predicting changes in the Earth’s dynamic processes and taking protective, corrective and security measures wherever imbalances occur.
Developing countries are among those which stand to gain most from progress in Earth observation.
Developing countries are among those which stand to gain most from progress in Earth observation.
The GEO initiative originated with the United States, which suggested setting up a kind of club that would be open to all interested nations. The objective is to give impetus, at the international level, to the development of this instrument that is crucial for a concerted international environmental policy(2). Coming from the Bush Administration that, in other cases, showed itself to be quite reluctant to act on global environmental issues – as in its refusal to apply the Kyoto Protocol – this invitation was very positive. Europe, together with Japan and many other nations, immediately gave it a favourable response.

The first EOS was successfully held in Washington in July 2003. The participants immediately got down to business by setting goals, realistic means of achieving them and a tight timetable for making it all operational as quickly as possible. The second global meeting was held in Japan in April 2004. Everything is now in place for concrete decisions to be taken to start up this vast global co-operation exercise in Earth observation at this third EOS summit organised under the aegis of the European Union.  

Technically, the GEO objective is to create a ‘system of systems’ in line with the acronym GEOSS(3). This is quite an obscure concept, wouldn’t you say?

"Thanks to satellite and aerial observation, but also the increase in ‘intelligent’ in situ observation points – hundreds of thousands of which are continuously monitoring land and sea – science and technology are now able to provide us with an extraordinarily enriched picture of the health of our planet." © ESA
"Thanks to satellite and aerial observation, but also the increase in ‘intelligent’ in situ observation points – hundreds of thousands of which are continuously monitoring land and sea – science and technology are now able to provide us with an extraordinarily enriched picture of the health of our planet."
© ESA
Perhaps, but it is a very pragmatic concept. Earth observation is at present carried out by a huge mix of systems for satellite visualisation and the recording of all kinds of measurements on the Earth’s surface. These devices were created randomly at various locations on the planet, without any coordination, as part of the technological boom of recent decades. We arrived at a situation in which these increasingly necessary tools were being under-employed due to their lack of compatibility – and that is the raison d’être of the GEO.

It would be unthinkable to take a step backwards and develop a new global observation device – a more rational one this time. The only logical way forward is to endeavour to adapt the various pieces of the puzzle so that they fit together better and provide us with richer images and more information.

There cannot be any question of coming up with a new and bulky super system managed by a costly international device that would seek to surpass or replace the diversity of existing or planned systems. This is why we opted for this concept of a ‘system of systems’ designed to enable these systems to inter-communicate and to optimise the co-operation in interpreting and using the data they produce. It is a long and complex task – the very concrete implementation plan we want to see adopted at this Brussels summit must cover a ten-year period – but technically realistic, if all the political, scientific and technical actors play the game. 

What role is Europe playing in the GEO initiative?

Earth & Space week also includes a free exhibition at Brussels Autoworld (at the Cinquantenaire), open to the general public from 10am to 6pm, 12-20 February.
Earth & Space week also includes a free exhibition at Brussels Autoworld (at the Cinquantenaire), open to the general public from 10am to 6pm, 12-20 February.
Europe has invested strongly in this project. It is of particular interest to us as European Earth observation expertise is among the most advanced in the world. It is a field in which the European Space Agency (ESA) member states have provided strong support for developments in both the space component and the terrestrial and ocean infrastructures that provide the many scientific networks with information.   

In addition to the active involvement of several ESA member states in the progress of the GEO’s work, the European Union, represented by the Commission, is a leading player in this vast co-operative effort. It holds the GEO co-presidency, along with the United States, Japan and South Africa. In particular, this motor role reflects the great importance of the GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) Community initiative that is currently being developed. At international level, this ambitious European project is clearly destined to be a key element in the global architecture of the GEOSS objective. 

The Union is very active in promoting the international dimension of the GEO. This is a genuine platform that I would liken to a ‘global public service’ destined to give all nations, rich and poor, the possibility to access the knowledge and tools offered by Earth observation. Humankind as a whole must respond to environmental challenges. In particular, we want the developing world to be a user that is fully associated with the initiative. The GEO also includes the principal international agencies – in particular the UN bodies – involved in international governance, as well as the global scientific programmes that are studying risks linked to changes to the world’s ecosystem. 

 

(1) Group on Earth Observations.
(2) The US proposal was largely a response to the resolutions adopted at the Johannesburg Summit in 2002, as well as the pressing recommendations for sustainable development in the framework of the Evian G8 resolutions (2003). 
(3) Global Earth Observation System of Systems.


  An open club  
  The GEO currently has 55 member states representing the five continents. These include all the economic ‘heavyweights’ : the USA, Japan, Europe (15 states plus the European Commission), Canada, Australia and Russia representing industrialised countries. China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico represent larger emerging countries. Of particular note is the presence of 12 African countries. South Africa, that holds one of the GEO’s four co-presidencies in the person of Rob Adam, the country’s senior official for science and technology, sees itself as something of a standard bearer for the developing world. “Our countries are among those which stand to benefit most from progress in Earth observation. Without it, it would be very difficult for them to overcome the economic, environmental and humanitarian challenges they must face.”

Around 30 international scientific and environmental agencies are also participating actively in the initiative.

 


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