x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

US to share undisclosed environmental data

Delegates praise environmental conference and say they have many things to achieve before they next meet in the capital in 2014.

The conference is over, but the hard work has only started. Visitors to the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
The conference is over, but the hard work has only started. Visitors to the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

ABU DHABI // The US state department has agreed, at this week's Eye on Earth Summit in the capital, to share important environmental data that it had previously not disclosed.

The department's Daniel Reifsnyder said it had agreed to share the information because it was "important to get the info out".

"The US strongly supports this summit and commends the Government of the UAE for its initiative to drive it forward," Mr Reifsnyder said.

"The Eye on Earth demonstrates leadership," and served as "a beacon" for the other countries in the region, he said.

The summit ended on Thursday with the head of the capital's environment agency warning that "talk is cheap".

Paraphrasing a speech by the former US president Bill Clinton at the start of the summit, Razan Al Mubarak, the secretary general of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (Ead), called for action from the leading environment experts present.

"We all know that our commitments require accountability, therefore we are committed to sharing our achievements in two years' time [2014, when the summit returns to Abu Dhabi]," she said.

To most of the delegates from the world's major environmental groups, that accountability means pushing to the public and policymakers the need to change the way we use our resources.

"We're simply taking more than what the Earth can regenerate," said Mathis Wackernagel, the president of the Global Footprint Network, who is working with the UAE to help map the country's global footprint - one of the largest in the world.

"Nature has a budget, and it's an essential fact that we can no longer ignore."

Dr Daniel Edelson, the senior vice president for education at the National Geographic Society, said public understanding of the environment had fallen even as scientific knowledge had increased.

"The public really needs to understand the threats - what is going on, and what the impacts will be - because we need them to make difficult decisions," Dr Edelson said.

While some delegates, such as the renowned British primatologist Jane Goodall, left the summit with renewed optimism, others expressed frustration.

Speaking on the sidelines at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, the chimpanzee expert called the event "very encouraging".

"It was an amazing collection of people who really and truly wanted to work together for the future of this planet," Dr Goodall said. "I leave feeling hopeful and inspired."

But Julia Marton-Lefevre, the director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the future was looking "bleak". "When it comes to our planet we just don't seem to be getting the message," Ms Marton-Lefevre said.

"We know we have a problem, and we need to listen to what we hear."

She said a quarter of the world's mammals were on the brink of extinction. The western black rhino has been officially declared extinct in recent weeks and two other rhino species were teetering on the edge.

"The threat to these species also poses a serious threat to us," Ms Marton-Lefevre said. "Visualise the planet as a human being; if we are to improve the state of our planet, like in the medical world, we need to have the best diagnostics and treatments.

"This is why this summit is to important. We must invest in better data, and more accessible and applied knowledge."

The Eye on Earth Summit, a joint initiative between the Abu Dhabi Government and the UN Environmental Programme (Unep), focused on the importance of environmental sustainability through the access of information.

Even with data sharing at the top of the agenda, experts agreed access to information by itself was not enough.

"We need to move beyond data visualisation because we make decisions with our hearts, not our brains," said Ed Parsons, a geospatial technologist at Google and the president of Conservation International. We don't think in terms of statistics and mathematical graphs; we work with emotion and that's what causes us to change our lifestyles."

Mr Parsons said geospatial data, such as that used by Google Earth, "can be extremely powerful", even more than social-media websites such as Facebook.

The four-day event closed with emotional applause as Rashid Ahmed bin Fahad, the UAE Minister of Environment and Water, signed the Eye on Earth Summit Declaration.

Cathrine Armour, the programme manager of the Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative, launched in 2002, said the declaration was made possible by the hard work of delegates at the summit.

"We were exceptionally fortunate that everyone who came to Abu Dhabi was prepared to commit and reach an agreement about how they can move forward," Ms Armour said.

"Without them deciding they wanted to do that, we wouldn't have had the success that we had."

molson@thenational.ae