Environment Conventions and agreements

Posted September 2000

Observation requirements of the three Rio Conventions in the light of the Terrestrial Carbon Observation Initiative

René Gommes
Senior agrometeorologist
FAO Environment and Natural Resources Service (SDRN)

1. Introduction

Overview of the three "Rio conventions", together with the Montreal Protocol, to reduce the substances that deplete the ozone layer. The Rio conventions derive from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio, Brazil, in 1992

The three Rio Conventions, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD) and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC and KP, the Kyoto protocol) have in varying degrees developed from a set of precursor agreements dealing with such aspects as wetlands (Ramsar, 1971), transboundary air pollution (1979) , the trade of endangered species (CITES, 1993) etc.

The Rio Conventions encompass many aspects of the previous agreements, directly or indirectly; they also share a number of objectives, institutional aspects and technical issues. Among others, next to the common goal of improving sustainable use of natural resources, as well as the will to co-operate with other conventions1, legislation and reporting to the Members through the Secretariats of the Conventions, we can also list the exchange of information and technical data, research and data collection, as exemplified in the sections below.

There is, however, far less unity regarding some technical aspects, for instance the observations that are, or will be required for the operationnalization of the Rio Conventions. This includes in particular monitoring of implementation. Most analysts agree that the basic texts are currently not explicit enough regarding observations, and that much negotiation work is still required before systematic and dedicated observations will be implemented.

This note makes the case that carbon observations are likely to assume a fundamental role for the three Conventions alike, albeit for different reasons: while carbon plays an immediate and quantitative part under UNFCCC, some forms (in particular soil carbon), constitute a very useful indicator for both the CCD and the CBD.

Although it is likely that additional Protocols and amendments will continue to be needed - as happened with the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer - the Terrestrial Carbon Observations Initiative, which is currently being developed, has the potential to constitute a strong basis which will be equally relevant for all Rio Conventions.

2. References to Observations and Data in the basic texts

The issue of data collection and exchange is specifically referred to in the basic texts. This includes, for CCD, articles 16 and 18 (respectively), for CBD articles 7 and 18, and essentially articles 4 and 5 of the FCCC.

2.1 Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol

FCCC is particularly explicit in articles 5 (Research and systematic observations) and 4 (Commitments) where the document states that "all Parties shall promote and co-operate in scientific, technological, technical, socio-economic and other research, systematic observation and development of data archives related to the climate system and intended to further the understanding and to reduce or eliminate the remaining uncertainties regarding the causes, effects, magnitude and timing of climate change and the economic and social consequences of various response strategies" (4.1(g)).

In article 10(d), the Kyoto protocol provides some additional views: "all Parties shall co-operate in scientific and technical research and promote the maintenance and the development of systematic observation systems and development of data archives to reduce uncertainties related to the climate system, the adverse impacts of climate change and the economic and social consequences of various response strategies, and promote the development and strengthening of endogenous capacities and capabilities to participate in international and intergovernmental efforts, programmes and networks on research and systematic observation, taking into account Article 5 of the Convention".

While the points above clearly recognise the value and need of systematic observations, little is said about the parameters that are to be observed. CBD and CCD mention that indicators of biodiversity and desertification are relevant, Some discussion documents prepared for the Conference of the Parties to CCC(COP-5) add useful information, for instance document FCCC/SBSTA/1999/CRP.3 on Research and Systematic Observations. The discussion document, which provides UNFCCC reporting guidelines, is subdivided, next to other sections, into Meteorological and Atmospheric Observations, Oceanographic Observations, Terrestrial Observations and Space-based Observations.

Countries are requested to make specific reports to the Conference of the Parties regarding the status of their national programmes for systematic observations. In particular, they are invited to examine to what extent their observations conform to GCOS, GOOS and GTOS monitoring principles and relevant best practices.

The section covering terrestrial observations is worth mention in extenso: "Parties should describe their participation in GCOS and GTOS programmes for terrestrial observations including the Global Terrestrial Network-Glaciers (GTN-G), Global Terrestrial Network-Permafrost (GTN-P), and the Global Terrestrial Network-Carbon (FLUXNET), and other networks monitoring land-use, land cover, land-use change and forestry, fire distribution, CO2 flux, and snow and ice extent. Additionally, a general description of programmes for hydrological systems should be given. Parties should describe to what extent the observations correspond to the GCOS/GOOS/GTOS climate monitoring principles (…) and relevant best practices".

The wording "land-use, land cover, land-use change and forestry, fire distribution" provides a direct link to the above mentioned common denominator.

2.2 Convention to Combat Desertification

CCD stresses the need to systematically collect data in Article 10 (National action programmes), the purpose of which is to identify the factors contributing to desertification and practical measures necessary to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought. Under point 10.4, CCD stresses the need to "strengthening of capabilities for assessment and systematic observation, including hydrological and meteorological services".

On subregional action programmes (Article 11), the purpose of which is to "provide support for the harmonious implementation of" above-mentioned "national action programmes", the priority areas include (11.e) "scientific and technical co-operation, particularly in the climatological, meteorological and hydrological fields, including networking for data collection and assessment, information sharing (…)".

Article 16 focuses on Information collection, analysis and exchange: "the Parties agree (…), to integrate and coordinate the collection, analysis and exchange of relevant short term and long term data and information to ensure systematic observation of land degradation in affected areas and to understand better and assess the processes and effects of drought and desertification. This would help accomplish, inter alia, early warning and advance planning for periods of adverse climatic variation (…).

The article then proceeds with operational considerations such as networking institutions, facilitating the systematic observation and exchange of information, including the need for compatible standards and systems, and station geographic distribution.

16.c stresses bilateral and multilateral programmes which aim at defining, conducting, assessing and financing the collection, analysis and exchange of data and information, including, inter alia, integrated sets of physical, biological, social and economic indicators.

2.3 Convention on Biological Diversity

CBD is far less specific than CCC and CCD on data collection and exchange. Article 7 (Identification and Monitoring) commits Parties (7b) to "monitor, through sampling and other techniques, the components of biological diversity" as well as (7d) to "maintain and organise, by any mechanism" the data "derived from identification and monitoring activities".

The International Expert Meeting on Building the Clearing-House (June 1997, Bonn, Germany) recognised "that the objectives on the Convention on Biological Diversity require more than facilitating access to existing data and information, but also needs, inter alia, the active collection of new data and information".

Needless to say, it is mainly biological information which is referred to under CBD, together with the abiotic factors which have a determining effect on biodiversity, legislation etc. According to a World Conservation Monitoring Centre report2 the information requirements fall into the four categories of ecosystems, species, genes and sites. The information relevant to the other Rio conventions fall mainly under the last category and include site details, ecology, land use, etc.

Many "data" will eventually be converted into biodiversity indicators, which are regarded essentially as tools for the adequate management of biological diversity at local and national levels, for regional and global overviews of the status and trends of components of biodiversity, in the context of the ecosystem approach and the three objectives of the Convention (UNEP/CBD/COP/5/3, 25 February 2000). The same document emphasises the classical subdivision into pressure, state and response indicators.

It is also worth noting that the draft decisions of CBD CoP-5 include a section requesting the Executive Secretary to Identify possible formats, protocols and standards for the improved exchange of biodiversity-related data, information and knowledge (…) and convene an informal meeting on this issue.

3. Some characteristics of data/observations required under the Rio Conventions

3.1 Some differences

It is clear from the section above that the three Conventions are bound to have different approaches in term of data collection, as this is linked with several factor such as:

3.2 The common denominator(s)

Listing common data and observation requirements is not easy. We can consider that, given the more encompassing nature of climate and CCC, most observations under CCC will also be relevant for the other Conventions. There is also an obvious need for the Secretariats of the Conventions to increase concertation of their efforts in data collection.

On the macro-level, we can list the observation requirements as follows:

To summarise the bullets above, we can tentatively categorise the joint observation requirements of the Rio conventions as follows:

4. Conclusions

The three Rio Conventions have largely overlapping observation requirements covering the spectrum from purely biological/ecological measurements to purely geophysical ones. Unfortunately, beyond the recognition of the relevance of systematic observations there is little co-ordination between the Conventions as yet regarding operational details.

CCC is probably the most advanced convention in terms of (1) existing background observations and networks (e.g. forest and agricultural statistics, GTOS/GCOS/GOOS, FLUXNET, IGBP), (2) comprehensiveness of the variables to be observed, (3) the practical arrangements made for the observations and (4) legal commitment of Parties to carry out systematic observations.

Most observations to be made under CCC and the Kyoto Protocol will be of immediate relevance to the other conventions; it appears that carbon constitutes one of the very "central" variable that could provide a de facto common denominator between the observations carried out under the three Rio Conventions.


1Refer, for instance, to a CCD document prepared for the 3rd session of the Conference of the Parties held in Recife from 15-26 November 1999 on the "Review of activities for the promotion and strengthening of Relationships with other relevant conventions and relevant International organizations, institutions and agencies".

2T. Johnson et al., 1998 : Feasibility study for a harmonised information management infrastructure for biodiversity-related treaties, WCMC, Cambridge, UK, 70 pp.

3 Note that the term applies at different scales, from genes to organisms to ecosystems.

4It is to be noted that the characterisation of spatial scales as "micro", "meso" and "macro" differ widely between the biological/ecological communities and, say, the climatological practice. The "biological scale" is typically one order of magnitude smaller than the geophysical one. For instance, an ecologist may refer to the climate of a soil, a tree bark or the fur of animal as "micro-climates", while a climatologists will reserve the term for a landscape unit, for instance a valley or the sun-exposed side of a mountain.

5Including agricultural environments.

6Soil carbon is a major constituent of soil colloids which play a role in maintaining soil structure as well as adsorbing nutrients. As such, loss of soil carbon is a good indicator of soil degradation.

For more information, e-mail: René Gommes@fao.org

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