Why the Global Environment Outlook matters

Authors: UN Environment

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is often referred to as UN Environment’s flagship environmental assessment.  The first publication was in 1997 and was originally requested by Member States. It is a flagship report because it fulfills the core functions of the organization, which date back to the UN General Assembly resolution that established the UN Environment Programme in 1972.

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is a consultative and participatory process to prepare an independent assessment of the state of the environment, the effectiveness of the policy response to address these environmental challenges and the possible pathways to be achieve various internationally agreed environmental goals.

The process also builds capacity for conducting integrated environmental assessments and reporting on the state, trends and outlooks of the environment. The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is also a series of products that informs environmental decision-making for not only governments but also various stakeholders such as the youth, businesses and local governments and aims to facilitate the interaction between science and policy.

Through the process we expect that participants will feel that they have been able to appropriately represent their views and they feel empowered to change the environment because they now have the appropriate knowledge on how to do so.  The assessment report itself is the main product of the process and synthesizes data, information and knowledge about the environment with the hope that it will inform future decisions and actions on the environment, leading ultimately to positive change.

What is an assessment?

Integrated Environmental Assessments (IEA) are a powerful tool to help inform the development of evidence-based environmental policy and decision making.  For IEAs to be most useful, they must be performed in a consistent manner. For this reason UN Environment, in collaboration with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), developed a training manual and guide for performing Integrated Environmental Assessments using the GEO approach .

An assessment involves the social process of undertaking a critical, objective evaluation and analysis of data and information, designed to meet a user’s needs as well as support decision making. It applies scientific knowledge from experts to analyse new and existing information and knowledge, to provide scientifically credible answers to policy-relevant questions.

Environmental assessment is the process by which the consequences and effects of natural processes and human activities upon the environment are estimated, evaluated or predicted. Assessments can include within their scope ways to minimize, mitigate or eliminate those effects, and even to compensate for their impact.

A good example is UN Environment’s flagship assessment reports – the GEO reports  –  which over the past 20 years have examined a wealth of data, information and knowledge about the global environment; identified potential policy responses; and provided an outlook for the future. 

The GEO assessments, and their consultative and collaborative processes, have worked to bridge the gap between science and policy by turning the best available scientific knowledge into information relevant for decision makers (UNEP 2016).

Typically assessments that have the most impact seem to be those where findings are not only well communicated but where there is also a plan for acting on those findings. These assessments are often produced using a results-based management approach: including a communication and outreach plan as part of the design, making the assessment an integrated part of a larger project as well as communicating the results, discussing action points as wells as follow up to ensure change and progress.

Why do assessments matter?

Assessments validate the importance of the issue being assessed by providing an authoritative analysis of policy relevant information based on scientific questions. Assessments also provide the platform to analyze the benefits, costs and risks of various policy options.  Moreover, assessments, such as the GEO-5 report, provide a fundamental shift in the way environmental issues are analyzed, with consideration given to the drivers of global change, rather than merely to the pressures on the environment. (UNEP 2016)

Assessment frameworks, like the DPSIR (Drivers, Pressure, State, Impact and Responses) framework (used in GEO-5), are used to identify and evaluate the complex and multidimensional cause-and-effect relationships between society and the environment. (UNEP 2016)
Assessments are moving from one-off reports towards continuing assessment processes with regular reporting to provide updates on the changing environmental situation, the effectiveness of policy actions and the policy pathways that can ensure a more sustainable future.

Some policy actions might be based on findings from the assessment (enabling the evaluation of effectiveness), but the assessment can also report other policies that influence drivers of systemic change (e.g. perverse subsidies). Continuing assessment generally results in a reduction in the size of reports, because the updates are based on accumulated experience and improved data collection and processing. Indicators are often used to signal the key findings relevant for policy.

An assessment may also need to be tailored according to where the environmental issue is in the policy cycle, in order to be focused on the relevant audience. An emerging issue may need to be documented as important, and then evidence assembled to stimulate action to resolve the issue. An integrated assessment will identify drivers and pressures causing the issue, and then options for prevention and mitigation. For a mature issue, monitoring of progress or recovery will become the focus of the assessment to demonstrate policy effectiveness.

Regional assessment for Africa

The GEO 6 regional assessment recognises Africa’s rich natural capital – the diversity of soil, geology, biodiversity, water,landscapes and habitats- which if wisely managed, hold the promise to lead the region to a future where ecosystem integrity,as well as human health and well-being are continuously enhanced. It also observes that the economic growth of Africa hingeson the sustainable management of its natural capital that involves reconciling wise stewardship with human development fortoday’s population and future generations. This requires both the protection and valuation of these natural assets, as well as effectively communicating their importance.

Africa’s natural capital is challenged by competing uses, illegal off-take, weak resource management practices, climate change and pollution. This calls for forward looking, flexible, inclusive and integrated approaches in the formulation and implementation of policies. Africa has an opportunity to use its large young population to drive its growth. To that end, low-carbon, climate-resilient choices can develop its infrastructure, accelerate industrialization, increase energy and food production, and promote sustainable natural resource governance.

Regional assessment for Asia and the Pacific

The Asia and the Pacific region has seen rapid economic growth, urbanization and lifestyle changes that are unprecedented. Scientific analysis, however, shows the current approach to development in the region inflicts a significant cost on health and the environment. Soon, development will start to undermine itself. The region is also highly vulnerable to climate change; unchecked, its adverse effects can reverse the recent gains in development.

The region has made significant commitments to mitigate climate change. Almost all the countries submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) targets to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change before the Paris Conference. In fact, there is optimism that larger economies will go further than their INDCs, taking additional transformative measures to lower greenhouse gas emissions and develop resource-efficient

Regional assessment for Latin America and the Caribbean

This regional Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report,the fourth for Latin America and the Caribbean (with the previous GEO regional assessment for LAC published in 2010), places emphasis on identifying some of the most worrying and persistent threats to the region through an environmental lens, but also on the achievements, successstories and opportunities in the region.

There is a clear trend in Latin America and the Caribbean towards addressing pressing issues. These include improving access to water and sanitation, reducing poverty, phasing out ozone-depleting substances and expanding the network of protected areas. However, the region still faces significant environmental challenges characterised by land degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution, vulnerability to climate change, and unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

The governments of Latin America and the Caribbean region have the opportunity to build on existing efforts, and to focus on transformative actions to put the region on the path towards sustainable development. As expressed at the twentieth Meeting of the Forum of Ministers of Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean in March 2016, the rich experience of the region plays a vital role in delivering low-carbon economic growth, resource efficiency and effective ecosystem management.

Regional assessment for North America
The sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) Regional Assessment for North America paints a comprehensive picture of the environmental factors contributing to human health and well-being at the regional level. Backed by a largebodyofrecent,crediblescientificevidence,regional-wide consultations and a robust intergovernmental process, the assessment demonstrates that regional and global multilateral environmental agreements have improved environmental conditions in North America.

The outlook for North America is unfolding in a context of improved environmental conditions. The region has a low environmental burden of disease, rich biodiversity levels and large expanses of natural beauty. Improvements in the last decades have been credited to policies that have sparked technological and behavioural change. Some challenges from interactions across complex systems involving multiple pressures, however, pose risks to human well-being and ecosystems.
North American responses to environmental challenges reflect the diversity, energy and ingenuity of the region. Successes have been achieved largely by focusing on individual sectors and applying a small number of policy instruments. Remaining and emerging new environmental challenges will require further application of proven policy options along with continued innovation.

Regional Assessment for West Asia

In this assessment, the UNEP Secretariat and the authorsprovide an objective evaluation and analysis designed tosupport environmental decision making. Expert judgmentis applied to existing knowledge to provide scientificallycredible answers to policy-relevant questions.
Environmental governance is the mechanism through which peace and resilience can be realized in West Asia. Good governance implies that issues such as conflict resolution, food, water and energy are examined in a holistic framework. Economic, social and environmental spheres must be integrated into a multi-sectoral policy design within the goals of sustainable development.

Sustainable growth in the economies of West Asia will enable progress on food security, sustainable water sources, reduced vulnerability to natural and man-made disasters, reduced risks of climate change, permanent energy solutions and conservation of natural resources. The outlook calls for concerted efforts by governments, civil society and the private sector in West Asia to address environmental challenges in the region.

Regional assessment for the Pan-European Region

The sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) Assessment for the Pan-European region paints a comprehensive picture of the environmental factors contributing to human health and well-being at the regional level. 

Backed by a large body of recent, credible scientific evidence, regional-wide consultations and a robust intergovernmental process, the assessment demonstrates that regional and global multilateral environmental agreements have improved environmental conditions in the Pan-European region. It also highlights the complexity of the interlinked environmental, social and economic challenges now confronting decision makers.

The South African Pork Producers’ Organisation (SAPPO) coordinates industry interventions and collaboratively manages risks in the value chain to enable the sustainability and profitability of pork producers in South Africa.