Why the Global Environment Outlook matters

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is often referred to as UN Environment’s flagship environmental assessment.  The first publication was in 1997 and was originally requested by Member States. It is a flagship report because it fulfills the core functions of the organization, which date back to the UN General Assembly resolution that established the UN Environment Programme in 1972.

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is a consultative and participatory process to prepare an independent assessment of the state of the environment, the effectiveness of the policy response to address these environmental challenges and the possible pathways to be achieve various internationally agreed environmental goals.  The process also builds capacity for conducting integrated environmental assessments and reporting on the state, trends and outlooks of the environment. The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is also a series of products that informs environmental decision-making for not only governments but also various stakeholders such as the youth, businesses and local governments and aims to facilitate the interaction between science and policy.

Different Groups involved in the GEO process

The diagramme shows the different groups that are engaged in the process, including the UN Environment Secretariat, which convenes the process, through the various advisory bodies, the authors and supporting fellows and finally to the actors from civil society and business.  Through the process we expect that participants will feel that they have been able to appropriately represent their views and they feel empowered to change the environment because they now have the appropriate knowledge on how to do so.  The assessment report itself is the main product of the process and synthesizes data, information and knowledge about the environment with the hope that it will inform future decisions and actions on the environment, leading ultimately to positive change.

What is an Assessment?

Integrated Environmental Assessments (IEA) are a powerful tool to help inform the development of evidence-based environmental policy and decision making.  For IEAs to be most useful, they must be performed in a consistent manner. For this reason UN Environment, in collaboration with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), developed a training manual and guide for performing Integrated Environmental Assessments using the GEO approach .

An assessment involves the social process of undertaking a critical, objective evaluation and analysis of data and information, designed to meet a user’s needs as well as support decision making. It applies scientific knowledge from experts to analyze new and existing information and knowledge, to provide scientifically credible answers to policy-relevant questions (UNEP 2015).

Environmental assessment is the process by which the consequences and effects of natural processes and human activities upon the environment are estimated, evaluated or predicted. Assessments can include within their scope ways to minimize, mitigate or eliminate those effects, and even to compensate for their impact (UNEP 2015).

A good example is UN Environment's flagship assessment reports - the GEO reports  -  which over the past 20 years have examined a wealth of data, information and knowledge about the global environment; identified potential policy responses; and provided an outlook for the future. The GEO assessments, and their consultative and collaborative processes, have worked to bridge the gap between science and policy by turning the best available scientific knowledge into information relevant for decision makers (UNEP 2016).

Typically assessments that have the most impact seem to be those where findings are not only well communicated but where there is also a plan for acting on those findings. These assessments are often produced using a results-based management approach: including a communication and outreach plan as part of the design, making the assessment an integrated part of a larger project as well as communicating the results, discussing action points as wells as follow up to ensure change and progress.

Why do assessments matter?

Assessments validate the importance of the issue being assessed by providing an authoritative analysis of policy relevant information based on scientific questions. Assessments also provide the platform to analyze the benefits, costs and risks of various policy options.  Moreover, assessments, such as the GEO-5 report, provide a fundamental shift in the way environmental issues are analyzed, with consideration given to the drivers of global change, rather than merely to the pressures on the environment. (UNEP 2016)

Assessment frameworks, like the DPSIR (Drivers, Pressure, State, Impact and Responses) framework (used in GEO-5), are used to identify and evaluate the complex and multidimensional cause-and-effect relationships between society and the environment. (UNEP 2016)

Assessments are moving from one-off reports towards continuing assessment processes with regular reporting to provide updates on the changing environmental situation, the effectiveness of policy actions and the policy pathways that can ensure a more sustainable future. Some policy actions might be based on findings from the assessment (enabling the evaluation of effectiveness), but the assessment can also report other policies that influence drivers of systemic change (e.g. perverse subsidies). Continuing assessment generally results in a reduction in the size of reports, because the updates are based on accumulated experience and improved data collection and processing.Indicators are often used to signal the key findings relevant for policy.

An assessment may also need to be tailored according to where the environmental issue is in the policy cycle, in order to be focused on the relevant audience. An emerging issue may need to be documented as important, and then evidence assembled to stimulate action to resolve the issue. An integrated assessment will identify drivers and pressures causing the issue, and then options for prevention and mitigation. For a mature issue, monitoring of progress or recovery will become the focus of the assessment to demonstrate policy effectiveness.