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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 53 - Thursday, 11 September 2008
GEO: An Experiment in Governance
By Michael Williams, External Relations Manager, Secretariat, Group on Earth Observations
With the world becoming ever more interconnected and interdependent, governments are exploring new ways of collaborating with one another on common goals. At the global level, they are pursuing the renewal and restructuring of the 60-year-old United Nations system. In the field of environmental governance, for example, diplomats are debating whether to maintain the current sprawl of stand-alone treaties and specialized bodies or to fold them all into a comprehensive World Environment Organization.

At the regional level, from the European Union to the African Union to ASEAN, neighbouring countries are continually reviewing their governance structures in an effort to better address changing conditions.

Meanwhile, as fresh issues and opportunities for cooperation arise, governments often face proposals for new institutions to manage them. Concern over the large number of existing organizations and mandates, however, has convinced many governments to “go slow” on creating new institutions.

Strengthening Earth observations
One global issue that has recently gained traction is the need for better information about environmental change. Improved Earth observations are essential for tackling global warming, biodiversity loss, resource depletion and other barriers to sustainable development.

Fortunately, new technologies and increased investments in both satellite and in-situ monitoring systems are generating vast quantities of high-quality data and analyses about the Earth system. Joining these national assets together to form an interconnected “system of systems” would enable governments to pool their data and resources, coordinate investments and fill information gaps.

Recognizing this, governments and international organizations have joined forces to proactively build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS. By making diverse monitoring instruments and analytical tools “interoperable,” GEOSS will give decisions-makers greater access to cross-cutting environmental information and decision-support tools.

Collaborating on GEOSS is attractive to the scientific community because the Earth itself is a system of systems. Modellers increasingly seek to “couple” systems to see how, for example, the atmosphere and the oceans interact with one another. Because GEOSS cuts across disciplines, information on climate and water, or on biodiversity and agriculture, can be integrated for a more comprehensive understanding of the complex changes occurring in the global environment.

Collaborating on GEOSS is also attractive to governments. Simply stated, no single government can afford on its own to build and maintain an Earth observation system as comprehensive and ambitious as GEOSS. Collaborating with other governments reduces costs, advances scientific understanding and makes it easier to solve the very real problems that all governments face: a win-win-win proposition. 

Forming a Group
The benefits of collaborating on GEOSS are clear, but what form should this collaboration take? The answer hit upon in 2005 was to rely on an extremely flexible form of governance embodied by the Group on Earth Observations, or GEO.

As suggested by the informal moniker “Group,” GEO has a limited legal identity based on a multilaterally agreed 10-Year Implementation Plan. While GEO has established a small secretariat to facilitate collaboration, its financial and contractual commitments are managed through one of GEO’s Participating Organizations (the World Meteorological Organization). Contributions to the secretariat’s budget are strictly voluntary. The staff consists largely of experts seconded from governments and organizations for two or three years. Overhead is reduced by working in English only and limiting the amount of documentation for meetings.

GEO is an intergovernmental body, but its 75 Members (consisting of national governments and the EC) are joined by 51 Participating Organizations. Although the conclusion of the 10-Year Plan in 2015 does not constitute a sunset clause, it does make it easier to phase out the Group should governments decide that it has completed its mission.

Collaboration on networking the world’s Earth observation systems takes place through specific “Tasks.” Tasks are informal arrangements led and implemented by all governments and organizations willing to participate. Governments and organizations also “contribute” their national systems, instruments, services and tools – known as “components” – to GEOSS.

This flexible and completely voluntary approach is working: a Ministerial Summit held in Cape Town last November “note[d] with satisfaction the numerous contributions and early achievements made by Members and Participating Organizations towards the 10-Year GEOSS Implementation Plan ...”

Free riders and competition
How widely applicable is the GEO model? For many issues, such a voluntary collaboration clearly would not work. In particular, organizations and treaties that confront the problems of free riders and non-compliance may require binding commitments. In the area of sustainable development and environmental change, this is particularly true when it comes to protecting the global commons.

For example, it is unlikely that global releases of CFCs would have been brought under control if the Montreal Protocol had been conceived as a voluntary agreement; some governments may have been tempted to reap the rewards of ozone protection without paying the costs of switching over to ozone-safe chemicals. Or take the public-health example of containing infectious diseases such as influenza; unless all countries firmly commit to collaborating, the disease could find a foothold in an uncooperative country before spreading around the world. The purely voluntary approach of GEO may not work for such issues.

But many governments are clearly pleased to contribute their Earth observation resources to a common effort that supports the global public good. The wealthy nations of the G8, in particular, have repeatedly highlighted the importance of GEOSS in their annual declarations, most recently at their 2008 Summit in Hokkaido, Japan. Emerging economic powers such as Brazil, China, the Republic of Korea and South Africa have also become firm supporters. While potential competition over security issues or commerce cannot be completely ignored, the spirit of voluntary collaboration remains strong. Meanwhile, countries that do not join GEO can still reap many of the benefits, and their preference to free ride on GEOSS does not generate unacceptable costs or disincentives for GEO’s active Members.

GEO, then, is a governance structure that is well suited to its time and purpose. It demonstrates that a light touch and minimal formality may be all that governments need to collaborate on certain ambitious endeavours. As the world community itself moves increasingly towards “interoperability,” it is a model well worth considering.
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