Roberta Balstad Miller, Center for International Earth Science Information (CIESIN), Columbia University;
Oran Young, Institute on International Environmental Governance, Dartmouth College;
Jean Meyer-Roux, Space Applications Institute, Joint Research Centre, Italy;
Robert Harriss, Environmental and Social Impacts Group, U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research;
Gerard Begni, MEDIAS France;
Anthony Janetos, World Resources Institute;
Susan Subak, Office of Atmospheric Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency;
David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment and Science,
U.S. Department of State;
Marc Levy, CIESIN;
Jack Estes, Remote Sensing Research Unit, UC Santa Barbara;
John Townshend, Global Land Cover Facility, University of Maryland;
Kal Raustiala, UCLA Law School; and
co-sponsored by the CIESIN, the World Conservation Union, and MEDIAS France

The tremendous proliferation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) over the past 20 years has resulted in over 240 multilateral treaties that cover scores of environmental issues—and more global and regional agreements are on the drawing board.

But to achieve their purpose, these treaties require precise and accurate information about environmental conditions. Remote-sensing technology may allow for dramatically improved monitoring of those conditions as well as have great impact many other areas of foreign policy. Sixty-eight professionals from the remote sensing community and MEA constituencies met for two days at the Wilson Center to discuss enhancing the effectiveness of MEAs through the appropriate application of remote sensing data and technology.


Workshop participants came to a number of conclusions regarding the current potential of remote sensing in relation to MEAs:

  • Remote-sensing creates demand for better environmental law. Remote sensing yields information that conveys environmental changes in a visually compelling way. As a result, it is extremely useful for raising awareness and developing the political support necessary to strengthen MEAs and environmental laws at the national level.

  • Remote-sensing data provide a synoptic view of many environmental trends. Remotely-sensed imagery can provide both snapshots and data over time that address environmental issues at global, regional, and national scales. It can provide these in consistent formats and in ways that complement national-level data collection efforts, which are often lack full resources and are inconsistent from country to country.

  • Remote sensing can contribute to global assessments in support of MEAs. Remote sensing provides timely information on a large and growing number of environmental issues (such as land-use/land-cover change, carbon-monoxide plumes, and the carbon density of ecosystems) that can significantly contribute to global environmental assessments in support of MEAs (such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment).

  • At present, remote sensing is not likely to contribute to compliance verification. In the short term, remote-sensing data are unlikely to play a significant role in MEA compliance verification for three principal reasons:

    1. Sovereignty concerns have generally taken precedence over enforcement of treaty provisions, and therefore contracting parties are unlikely to accept external verification. This may change as environmental issues grow in salience.

    2. Many treaty-specific remote sensing applications are still experimental; these applications will need to be further refined before they will have the credibility necessary for use in compliance verification.

    3. Issues such as guaranteed access to data by all parties, documentation of methodologies, and long-term data archiving have yet to be addressed.


    Workshop participants also made a number of recommendations:

  • Remote-sensing instruments. There is a need to develop a coordinated suite of environmental monitoring instruments with long-term data continuity at appropriate spatial, spectral, and temporal resolutions. Some satellites (such as Landsat) already provide crucial data, and the continuity of the program needs to be maintained. Data archiving services should be developed in parallel. For MEA applications to become operational, the price of land-based remote-sensing data would need to more closely approximate that of meteorological data, which have traditionally been available at low cost on an open-access basis.

  • Institutional arrangements. An international institution should be mobilized to promote coordination at three levels: among space agencies, among space agencies and value-added companies, and among these two groups and MEA constituencies. An existing institution—such as the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS) or the Integrated Global Observing Strategy (IGOS)—may be able to fill this role. This institution would also serve as a focal point for the development of the next generation of operational satellite systems. Given that the costs of such a system are likely to be beyond the means of any single country, a cooperative approach would serve to spread the costs among multiple providers.

  • Awareness raising and training. MEAs constituencies—including secretariats and contracting parties—need to be educated about the capabilities of current and future remote-sensing instruments. They also need to receive training and capacity building in the use of remote sensing data for environmental monitoring.

    Participants agreed that the workshop represented the first step in a dialogue between the remote-sensing community and MEA constituencies, and that further exchanges are needed. CIESIN pledged to foster that dialogue through a new Web site at In response to participants' recommendations, CIESIN will also summarize case studies of treaty-specific remote sensing applications that can serve as a "state-of-the-art" in the field; it will also consult with convention secretariats about their remote-sensing data needs.