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N° 55–2002: ESA at the World Summit on Sustainable Development

6 August 2002

The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) is being held in Johannesburg between 26 August and 4 September. ESA will be present at this important gathering aimed at finding practical responses to the challenges of improving the lives of all human beings while protecting the environment.


In 1972, with the convening of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, the environment became an international issue.

In June 1992 Brazil hosted the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro at which governments adopted Agenda 21, a global action plan for sustainable development. The Earth Summit was attended by 50 000 delegates including 103 Heads of State, 2000 journalists. Agenda 21, containing over 2500 wide-ranging recommendations for action, broke new ground in integrating environmental, economic and social concerns into a single policy framework. The concept of sustainable development was born. By adopting Agenda 21, developed countries, which had benefited immensely from a wasteful and hazardous path of modernisation, would help developing countries combat poverty and avoid that same polluting path.

At the next Earth Summit, in 1997, governments agreed on a programme of action for further implementation of Agenda 21. In December 2000 the UN General Assembly decided to hold a World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, to reinvigorate at the highest political levels the global commitment to sustainable development agreed upon ten years earlier in Rio.

This year's World Summit will be held in Johannesburg between 26 August and 4 September, its main objective being for today’s world leaders to adopt concrete measures and identify quantifiable targets for better implementation of Agenda 21.

In addition to governments, the Summit will be attended by representatives of business and industry, children and youth organisations, farmers, indigenous people, local authorities, non-governmental organisations, scientific and technological communities, workers and trade unions.

The role of space in sustainable development

In the words of the UN Secretary General "At its core, Johannesburg is about the relationship between human society and the natural environment". Society demands and deserves more protection against natural and man-made disasters such as floods, storms, earthquakes, pollution, fires and explosions. There is increasing concern about the implications of global warming. All this is linked to environmental security, which is about controlling diseases, safeguarding the quality of the food we eat and the water we drink, preventing disasters, anticipating climate change and managing natural resources.

Space applications contribute to sustainable development by providing information, measurements and quantifications of natural or artificial phenomena. ESA satellites of today (ERS-2, Envisat) and the near future are ideal tools for global surveillance, since they can provide a continuous, reliable stream of environmental data to monitor the atmosphere, oceans and landmasses, complementing ground-based data.

Space applications facilitate observation, measurement, surveillance and communication, and constitute the core of a global environmental intelligence system capable of modelling, explaining and predicting planetary developments. Thanks to Earth-observing satellites, for instance, it becomes possible to save rain forests, protect and manage agricultural systems, find water and combat desertification.

The International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, initiated in 1999 by ESA and the French Space Agency (CNES) and later subscribed by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is another positive response from the space community to Agenda 21 recommendations. Through this Charter, international space-based resources are immediately deployed to monitor natural disasters and for instance identify both possible and impossible access routes for humanitarian and relief teams.

Space-based positioning systems like GPS and Europe’s Galileo will soon be employed to bolster security of aircraft and airport zones, and to provide a full picture of hazardous goods shipments worldwide.

All these needs are addressed by GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security). This European initiative is led by ESA and the European Commission and involves national space agencies, industry and the scientific community. The objective is to coordinate space programmes and non-spaceborne Earth observation and environmental observation systems with national and Commission R&D efforts and the needs of potential users.

ESA is sending a delegation of experts to the Johannesburg Summit. The concept of the usefulness of space technologies and applications contributing to sustainable development has been included in the draft Plan for Implementation to be finalised at the Summit. An exhibition highlighting the Agency's main programmes will be located in Ubuntu Village, at the heart of the Summit venue.

For further information:

ESA Media Relations
Tel. + 331 5369 7713
Fax. + 33 1 5369 7690

For further information on ESA at WSSD:

Micheline Tabache, ESA International Relations Department
Tel + 33 1 5369 7304
Fax: + 33 1 5369 7626

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