U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Global Environment Monitoring System assisted the collection and analysis of worldwide environmental information and sought to create international cooperation to limit pollution.

Summary of Event

The international community was jolted into the reality of an impending environmental crisis by the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment Conference on the Human Environment, U.N. (1972) held in Stockholm, Sweden. Organized by Maurice F. Strong, the Stockholm Conference Stockholm Conference, U.N. (1972) successfully impressed on leaders from all areas of the world the need for international coordination of environmental data and the need for international cooperation to resolve conflicts resulting from human expectations and the desire to protect natural resources. The Stockholm Conference made a number of recommendations to the U.N. General Assembly, including those calling for the formation of an agency that would encourage worldwide monitoring of the environment. Global Environment Monitoring System United Nations;Global Environment Monitoring System Environmental policy, international [kw]U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated (1975) [kw]Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated, U.N. (1975) [kw]Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated, U.N. Global (1975) Global Environment Monitoring System United Nations;Global Environment Monitoring System Environmental policy, international [g]Africa;1975: U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated[01810] [g]Kenya;1975: U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated[01810] [c]Organizations and institutions;1975: U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated[01810] [c]Environmental issues;1975: U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated[01810] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1975: U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated[01810] [c]United Nations;1975: U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System Is Inaugurated[01810] Strong, Maurice F. Gosovic, Branislav Tolba, Mostafa Kamal

The first step toward carrying out the Stockholm recommendations occurred in December, 1972, when the General Assembly approved the creation of the United Nations Environment Program United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Maurice Strong became the first executive director of UNEP in recognition of his success as secretary-general of the Stockholm Conference; it was decided to locate the headquarters of UNEP in Nairobi, Kenya. The selection of Nairobi was, in part, a political decision, but U.N. leaders also believed that placing the headquarters in Kenya would establish that developing countries had to be important contributors to worldwide conservation.

It was nearly three years before UNEP began to implement regional and global monitoring. In 1975, a program activity center was opened in Nairobi to be used as the central offices for the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS). GEMS was charged with collecting, collating, and dispensing information on the environment received from hundreds of agencies around the world, and especially from those under U.N. auspices, such as the International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information International Referral System for Sources of Environmental Information (INFOTERRA) and the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC). It was intended that GEMS would stand above all the other environmental agencies. Not only did GEMS have the responsibility for gathering data, it was also expected to generate information by encouraging governments to extend their monitoring systems. GEMS would then advise the U.N. Environmental Fund, also under UNEP’s control, on which international conservation strategies were worthy of financial support.

The scope of GEMS activities proved to be wide ranging. From the beginning, GEMS was involved in securing information about the world’s climate. UNEP created the World Meteorological System, which provided data to GEMS on regional and global climatic patterns. GEMS also assumed responsibility for keeping track of airborne pollution, especially that which went beyond the boundaries of one nation to pollute natural resources in another country. Monitoring sulfur oxides deposited as acid rain was a major undertaking. UNEP placed hundreds of stations around the world to provide information to GEMS on water quality in rivers, lakes, and oceans. In addition, GEMS made suggestions for appropriate levels of pollutants in cities throughout the industrial world. These information-gathering networks became known as GEMS/Air and GEMS/Water. By 1981, GEMS/Air had expanded to the point that most large urban areas were covered, including more than twenty cities in developing countries. The GEMS/Water network began to function in 1979, and by the mid-1980’s, there were more than four hundred reporting stations situated in fifty-nine countries. The major gaps in the GEMS network were in the Soviet Union, Africa, and Central America.

In 1976, GEMS cooperated with the World Health Organization and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization to accumulate information relating to contaminants in various foods. GEMS used the data to establish patterns that could be useful to governments in managing problems as they developed. The network created in this instance became known as GEMS/Food. By 1980, information was provided by twenty-five laboratories located in twenty-three countries. Some of the things that were observed included the amount of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) in mothers’ milk and toxic substances in the marine food supply. The 1972 Stockholm Conference had given much attention to protecting the marine environment, and in 1974, a United Nations-sponsored intergovernmental meeting listed monitoring of ocean pollution among the priorities for GEMS. As it happened, another monitoring agency, UNEP’s Regional Seas Program, collected most of this information.

With its interests so far-flung and its staff quite small, GEMS soon found itself overloaded with material. It became more difficult to manage the accumulated data in useful ways. GEMS had shelves bursting with reports, and many of these reports went unnoticed. Some were already out of date. There were delays in relaying pertinent information to the appropriate scientists and policy makers. As a result, GEMS created a new system known as the Global Resource Information Database Global Resource Information Database (GRID). It was made possible only through extensive outside support, most of which was provided by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) through direct grants and the development of required software. In 1986, the IBM IBM Corporation donated $6.5 million in computer equipment for the project based on a favorable report about GEMS from the World Commission on Environment and Development.

GRID control was located in Nairobi, but its most important centers were in Geneva and in Mississippi. Geneva was the principal computer facility, as Nairobi experienced numerous power failures and lacked the expertise to service computer hardware. After several years of planning and experimentation, GRID became fully operational in 1990. GRID was expected to use the most modern technology possible to help fulfill the responsibilities imposed by the United Nations on UNEP and, in turn, UNEP on GEMS. This, in itself, was an irony, as one of the concerns expressed at Stockholm was the excessive demands on energy resources created by ever-advancing technology. It is anticipated that GEMS will move global monitoring to a higher level of efficiency and sophistication.


The impact of GEMS is not easily assessed, as there is disagreement on this matter among environmental leaders. The program resulted in the acquisition and coordination of vital information with regard to the preservation of natural resources. There has been a considerable impact simply from the fact that UNEP and GEMS have encouraged the creation of monitoring stations and agencies on every continent. Moreover, many new kinds of information have been generated to meet the charge given to UNEP and GEMS by the United Nations. Many countries have used these data to formulate strategies designed to protect air and water quality, dispose of toxic waste, and make appropriate use of land. Many experts believe that GEMS’s impact will be much greater in the decades ahead.

The principal commentator on the GEMS system, Branislav Gosovic, presents a more sobering viewpoint. Gosovic, who served as a staff member of the UNEP Secretariat, contends that not one national or regional environmental policy or law can be directly traced to the activities or influence of GEMS. He is not hostile to the system and, indeed, holds out hope that an effective monitoring network can someday be achieved.

Gosovic points to numerous factors that have diminished the impact expected from GEMS. The most important of these include the decision to locate UNEP, and subsequently GEMS, in Nairobi; the fact that there continued to be a wide gap between information provided by Northern Hemisphere countries and those in the Southern Hemisphere; the small staff provided to GEMS; and the contrast between what government leaders say they are going to do and what they actually produce. Of somewhat lesser significance, but nevertheless detrimental to the program, has been the inconsistency with which most countries request and use the reports available through GEMS.

Locating UNEP/GEMS in Nairobi created serious logistical problems in getting the monitoring system under way. The expertise of support personnel was not sufficient to keep the operation functioning properly. Frequent breakdowns in energy supply, common in developing countries, reduced efficiency. Computer malfunctions, meanwhile, were not as quickly rectified as they would have been in an industrial state.

These technical problems were compounded by the reality that most of the environmental information generated came from Northern Hemisphere countries. This meant that the Nairobi activity center was far removed from the action. Gosovic believes this North-South split negatively affected the impact of GEMS in both hemispheres. It was the major reason that computer centers were established in Switzerland and the United States when GRID was initiated in 1985. Where the environment is concerned, Gosovic is clearly distrustful of the commitment of political leaders in developing countries. This bias has resulted in some criticism of his assessment of the impact of GEMS.

There is no controversy over Gosovic’s contention that, from the beginning, the GEMS professional staff was too small to be truly effective. Three professionals were expected to manage, direct, and coordinate GEMS’s vast network. Given the insufficient technical support available in Nairobi, this proved to be a nearly impossible task. This was another principal reason for the founding of GRID with its much greater reliance on advanced computer technology.

Gosovic has a fairly bleak opinion of the resolve of all political leaders to tackle environmental dangers. It appears to Gosovic that good intentions, if they are that, rarely translate into good deeds. Even when information is requested from, and provided by, GEMS, governments tend to interpret the information in a way that weakens any environmental policies put in place. Whatever efforts governments undertake, these efforts are always at the least possible cost. Laws to regulate the pollution of water and air are often left unenforced, or the implementation of the law is interminably delayed. In industrial and in undeveloped countries, economic considerations generally take precedence. The situation is particularly pernicious in the nonindustrial world, where government leaders seem unable to resist the huge investment promises of the giant oil, mining, and timber cartels. The impact of GEMS, therefore, must continue to be negligible until long-range conservation of natural resources is given priority over immediate economic gain.

Maurice Strong sees the impact of GEMS in a slightly more favorable light. While not seriously disputing most of Gosovic’s contentions, Strong believes that GEMS has fulfilled the goal of emphasizing a global approach in preserving the quality of the human environment. He notes that the World Commission on Environment and Development strongly recommends much greater support for GEMS in the future. Such support might serve to overcome the problems cited by Gosovic. This would also appear to be the view of Mostafa Kamal Tolba, the Egyptian scientist who succeeded Strong as UNEP’s executive director in 1976. Tolba, who held the post until 1992, was the person in charge when most of the UNEP/GEMS information network was put together. He is strongly of the opinion that GRID will enable GEMS to achieve the worldwide impact anticipated in 1975. Global Environment Monitoring System United Nations;Global Environment Monitoring System Environmental policy, international

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrett, Richard N., ed. International Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982. Articles originally presented as lectures at the University of Montana. Part 1 deals with practical and philosophical problems; parts 2, 3, and 4 deal with specific issues in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Each article includes an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackburn, Anne M., ed. Pieces of the Global Puzzle. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1986. Includes essays by Maurice F. Strong and Mostafa K. Tolba as well as other essays by world leaders in banking, industry, and conservation. Provides a time line of major environmental initiatives from 1948 to 1986 and a summary of what these initiatives have achieved. Appendixes, brief index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Botkin, Daniel B., et al., eds. Changing the Global Environment. Boston: Academic Press, 1989. Twenty-seven essays ranging over economic, ethical, and technological questions. All reinforce the need to develop a global vision for the environment. Substantial notes at the end of each essay. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gosovic, Branislav. The Quest for World Environmental Cooperation: The Case of the U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System. New York: Routledge, 1992. The major work on the evolution of GEMS. Written by an insider, it provides an insightful account of GEMS operations from 1975 to 1992. Maurice Strong wrote the foreword. Excellent footnotes, indexes, but no bibliography. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mathews, Jessica Tuchman, ed. Preserving the Global Environment. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Focuses on such issues as deforestation, population expansion, economic concerns, protection of the ozone layer, and the need for international cooperation. Index, but no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolba, Mostafa K. Global Environmental Diplomacy: Negotiating Environmental Agreements for the World, 1973-1992. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. Tolba was the executive director of UNEP from 1976 to 1992. Here he relates the story of the negotiations that led to landmark agreements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations Environment Program. Global Environment Outlook 3. Foreword by Kofi Annan. Preface by Klaus Töpfer. Sterling, Va.: Earthscan, 2002. Traces major global developments and their impacts from 1972 to 2002. Later chapters offer potential policy actions. Includes bibliographic references and index.

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Categories: History