GEO needs stronger political and financial support to succeed

Dr. Roy Gibson

Dr. Roy Gibson

Mr. Gibson served as the first Director General of the European Space Agency from 1975-80 and the first Director General of the British National Space Centre from 1985-1987.This editorial is adapted from his keynote speech at the GEO-IGOS Symposium in Washington DC on 19 November 2009. Reprinted from GEO News Issue #7, 19 February 2010.

Read Dr. Roy Gibson’s biography here.

Following last year’s decision by the Integrated Global Observing Strategy Partnership (IGOS-P) to merge its Themes into GEO, it is clear that GEO and its GEOSS must now be regarded as the authentic way ahead for Earth observation. We have neither the time nor the resources to encourage competitors. However, GEO will need to make changes to be worthy of such trust.

The Washington Summit

Calling the Earth Observation Summit in Washington at the end of July, 2003 must have required considerable courage. The atmosphere in administration circles in Washington, at least as perceived from afar, was not at all favorable to an initiative in this field. That it led immediately to the creation of the Group on Earth Observation was a tribute to a few who really put their reputations on the line. We must be grateful to them.

The participants at the Washington meeting were a mixed bunch: there were ministers and senior civil servants from a broad spread of nations, plus the European Commission and international organizations both of the United Nations family and others, such as the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) and IGOS-P. The US Chairman, and he naturally had the determining voice, was wholeheartedly in favor of welcoming everyone and anyone willing to participate in GEO.
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I understand this attitude, but in retrospect I believe it made it difficult for GEO to deliver what most of its originators wanted: strong political leadership. From the start the majority of civil servants pressed for strict economy in the budget, and GEO became financially solvent only thanks to quite substantial donations made by a relatively small number of founding participants. There was no question of GEO having a budget able to undertake work to fill identified gaps. Indeed, I had the feeling that the Secretariat and its Director were being ring-fenced before they had even started work.

There is no doubt that GEO can point to some successes, and we can only admire the devotion of the Director of the Secretariat and his staff (mainly seconded from space agencies). But frankly, I don’t think we are all that much nearer the “system of systems” than we were a few years ago. The creation of GEO was intended to kick-start the effort to develop a global observation system of systems, but the concrete results from the many GEO meetings – even those at ministerial level – have been disappointing, at least to me.

Money talks

One fundamental reason for this, in my opinion at least, is the lack of direct financing. The Secretariat has been obliged to construct a Work Plan from tasks for which there are volunteers willing to undertake work and bear the cost. The original idea, however, was that GEO would seek to develop an agreed set of requirements and would then fund, or aid in financing, those tasks where an appropriate volunteer was not immediately apparent.

“…it is clear that GEO and its GEOSS must now be regarded as the authentic way ahead for Earth observation.”

This does not seem to have happened. For example, it pains me at present to see how the vital ECVs – the Essential Climate Variables – are so patchily tackled, when GEO Participants continue to find money for projects which might be delayed a few years without much suffering. To me it doesn’t really matter who does it, but the ECVs must be tackled, one by one, and with vigor. At the moment there is more cackle than tackle. We need coordinated and sustained measurements for each of the ECVs.

Similarly, the transition from research to operational programmes just does not have any GEO financing apart from what participants are willing to provide – generally in kind rather than in cash. How many times have we furtively calculated the cost of a meeting, compared to the size of the GEO budget?

The Secretariat, already limited in numbers, has also been burdened with the task of servicing a committee structure which must be the envy of many bureaucrats. No doubt the mechanism is becoming more performant compared with the early days when the “open house” policy led to committees with five, six or more volunteer chairmen. But the damage has already been done. Because of the rather cumbersome way in which GEO has been developing, many stakeholders are already resigned to using it to promote their own agendas, rather than attempt to challenge the way things are organized within GEO.

This is noticeable at the level of governments, of space agencies, of international organizations and even scientific groups. Many have seen GEO as a good justification for receiving funding for activities the prime purpose of which is not building GEOSS. But this secondary effect may only be temporary, because there are signs of “GEO fatigue” setting in among both Members and Participating Organizations. There is a noticeable reduction in the rank and standing of governmental representatives at the GEO and ministerial meetings, and a certain reticence on the part of former big players when volunteers are being sought.

Participants in the first International Earth Observation Summit

Participants in the first International Earth Observation Summit

I realize that a lot of work is being put into GEO and that the account I am giving sounds churlish and may indeed be somewhat exaggerated. If this is indeed the case, I will be very happy. However, I feel sufficiently sure that things could and should be improved to burden the GEO community with my worries. GEO can be put back on the right track, but only if participants (principally the governmental representatives) are willing to untie its hands and give it adequate funding and more recognition and status. GEO needs to be linked more directly to the political institutions that are responsible for making, so to say, “global decisions” on the environment, and particularly on climate change.

Political mandates

The Societal Benefit Areas, which were defined for GEO soon after its inception, show the breadth of the original ambition, but they also point to the need of functional linkage with political institutions with responsibilities in these areas. By “political institutions”, I mean those which have been created by treaty, or at least have equivalent teeth. We have enough experience in other fields where satellite observations are crucial – for example, nuclear proliferation – to see that best-efforts institutions can never deliver the necessary clout to implement what may in some areas be unpopular measures, and still less to ensure compliance.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from Europe – occasionally Europe gets it right. More years ago than I like to count, the notion of a European programme for Global Monitoring of the Environment and Security (GMES) was floated. For some time it was more talk than action – though it may be that its supposed existence helped to prompt the US initiative to call the 2003 Summit.

Slowly, and not without difficulty, the GMES programme has started to take shape. The European Commission is providing the funds and defining the requirements. The European Space Agency has been given a clear role, and there is an appropriate role for EUMETSAT. Let me be clear – I am not vaunting the specific contents of the GMES programme, although I believe that it has much more merit than earlier attempts and clearly the resulting observations will make a significant contribution to GEOSS. I am simply pointing to the methodology. The GMES requirements are being defined by an entity which has the money to fund the necessary observations, and the space agencies (funded largely by the same governments) know what they have to contribute and what they have to achieve.

“To me it doesn’t really matter who does it, but the ECVs [Essential Climate Variables] must be tackled, one by one, and with vigor. At the moment there is more cackle than tackle.”

This is a trick much easier to perform regionally than globally, but – in my view – the same basic rules apply. GMES has the necessary coherence to be a success, although we still have to be convinced that the European Commission can continue over the years to find the necessary funding to ensure continuity. Unless it can be made into a legal requirement, the replacement satellites will have to compete every few years with other apparently equally worthy causes.

Earth observation is of course only one element in the complex problematic of climate change, and the tail should not try to wag the dog. Success will in my opinion only come when the political deciders clearly designate responsibilities. We still have too many actors and would-be actors on the stage. If the UNFCCC manages to reach some measure of international agreement, it would be wise for them also to spend some time defining the best way to articulate Earth observation efforts, both in the provision of the necessary data on a continuing basis, as well as in helping to ensure compliance of commitments.

Even independent experts tend to underestimate the complexity of the observation component. A respected French commentator recently published a list of immediate actions which the climate negotiations need to take. Near the top of his list was “The rapid deployment of a network of satellites capable of precisely measuring the level of emissions in each country.” I certainly would not want to argue with the objective, but it will come to nothing – or very little – unless time is spent on setting up an agreed mechanism and funding.

“Success will in my opinion only come when the political deciders clearly designate responsibilities. We still have too many actors and would-be actors on the stage.”

There is no doubt that GEO can play a major role in all this. It could be strengthened, and hopefully Member States could overcome their horror at the idea of a strong GEO Secretariat. Then we could perhaps begin to make some real progress. Funding through GEO might, for example, make it easier to use the product of commercial Earth observation satellites. They could be particularly useful in helping to ensure compliance by providing an impartial verification of national statistics.

Once governments agree to a plan of action which is enshrined in a formally recognised legal document, they will all be expected to instruct their delegations to the various international bodies to act in ways consistent with the basic international political agreement. Space agency governing bodies and the UN family of international organisations would all be expected to act in support of the agreed plan. This is not by any means the case at present, because there is not always a direct link between top governmental agreements and the numerous subordinate bodies, each of which seeks to increase its mandate (or to limit damage by stonewalling) – not always for the benefit of the common cause.

There are a lot of “ifs” in this scenario, but, again, if our political masters decide to be really serious about tackling climate change, then it must be done at all levels. The word will need to be spread to ministries, agencies, and representatives in the governing bodies of international organisations so that we are all singing more or less the same tune. Resources are scarce and essential contributions to the fight must be given priority over other activities – even, perhaps over national egos. The task is manifestly too big for any single country or international organisation to undertake alone – real coordination and collaboration should be the name of the game. But we
badly need a champion to make this change.

“GEO needs to be linked more directly to the political institutions that are responsible for making, so to say, “global decisions” on the environment, and particularly on climate change.”

While we are waiting for this illumination (and probably afterwards, too), we must continue to try to make progress by exploiting to the full such capabilities as we have, relying on informal networks as much as institutions. I fully realise the value of this “progress by stealth and by personal relations”, but the successes it can bring us should not be allowed to obscure the basic need to tighten up the institutional framework.

This brings me to say a final word about the vital role of the individuals who are involved in all this. Much of what I have said referred to organisations, bodies, agencies and institutions – but within each of them are people, individuals. Each is no doubt bound by loyalty to work for the good of the parent organisation, but there are ways of reconciling this duty with the wider duty not to get in the way of the greater common good. Or, to express it clearly: to do one’s personal best not to allow the main international priorities to be delayed or even sabotaged by the short-term ambitions of the individual organisation, government or agency. Each of us has a responsibility to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

Read about Dr. Roy Gibson here.

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