Day by day, we see a key challenge to better care for the atmosphere, air, land, water and seas: namely, how to best utilise the mounting data from satellites and monitoring stations in ways that are useful to people and the planet.
As climate change talks came to a close in Durban yesterday, it was a timely reminder that Africa is arguably the continent most vulnerable to climate change on many counts. Gathering high-quality weather and climate data is crucial for the kinds of reliable and timely weather forecasts needed by planners to avert the worst impacts of droughts and floods.
Weather forecasting can also link to micro-insurance schemes, such as those tested in Ethiopia by the World Food Programme, where farmers get financial support when rainfall drops below a threshold and before they are down to their last cow or bag of maize.
Yet by some estimates, about 25 per cent out of the global climate observing system surface stations in east and southern Africa are not working, and most of the remaining stations elsewhere in Africa are functioning poorly.
It is estimated that Africa needs 200 automatic weather stations and a major effort to rescue historical data, much of which remains in paper form rather than digitised.
In respect to rivers worldwide, most data on flows, water withdrawals and the recharge rates of underground aquifers is patchy (to say the least) across rivers basins and freshwater shared by more than two nations. Information on water quality can be even scarcer especially in developing countries.
Only 0.1 per cent of the oceans have been mapped at a scale as detailed as a hectare, and large tracts of the sea floor, such as most of the Antarctic Ocean, have not been mapped at all - we have better data on the surface of the moon.
The Eye on Earth Abu Dhabi 2011 Summit starting tomorrow in a partnership between the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is an opportunity to bridge this gap in humanity's efforts to realise a low-carbon, resource-efficient 21st century green economy.
Some of the data challenges are, as with Africa's weather and climate monitoring, a question of technological capacity and improved networks.
Cities in West Asia can have high air pollution due to the dusty desert environment of the region. As one example, Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi has started to expand its air-quality monitoring network by doubling the number of monitoring stations. This will give city planners access to information on air quality in different development scenarios, allowing them to make more informed decisions when it comes to planning future projects.
Harnessing "citizen" science, including networks of mobile-phone users, is also part of the environmental data debate and a promising area according to Global Pulse, a new initiative sponsored by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. People and their mobile phones could, if encouraged, become an early warning system against droughts and floods, as well as forest fires and wildlife poaching.
In India, Project Suraya - which is linked to UNEP's Atmospheric Brown Cloud initiative - is using customised mobile phones in villages to measure levels of black carbon emitted by cook stoves. The project is also linked to satellites to measure how more efficient stoves could improve public health and provide climate benefits at the same time.
Addressing data challenges and opportunities also hinges on how to encourage greater openness and more regular data sharing between academics, universities and the private sector. Data specialists and policymakers may imagine that they live in very different and perhaps disconnected worlds. The Eye on Earth Abu Dhabi 2011 Summit is an opportunity to build a better understanding and closer relationships.
The potential is profound: as the world looks to Rio+20 in June 2012, 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit set the course of contemporary sustainable development, more intelligent harvesting and management of environmental data is going to be among the keys to how far and how fast a sustainable 21st century can be forged.
Achim Steiner is the United Nations Environment Programme executive director and under secretary general of the United Nations. He will be speaking at the Eye on Earth Abu Dhabi 2011 Summit tomorrow at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre