IEA Training Manual - Module 1

3. GEO rationale and IEA framework

The goal of the GEO process is to ensure that environmental problems and emerging issues of wide international significance receive appropriate, adequate and timely consideration by governments and other stakeholders.

The overarching objectives of GEO are, as outlined in the UNEP assessment framework (UNEP/GEO4/CP/doc1/draft1), to:

  • provide access to the best scientific knowledge for international environmental governance and the mainstreaming of environmental concerns into social and economic sectors, and in support of the internationally agreed development goals;
  • facilitate the interaction between science and policy through multi-scaled and multidimensional integrated assessment processes and products of high legitimacy, credibility and utility; and
  • build geographic and gender-balanced partnerships and capacity for environmental assessments.

As an integrated environmental assessment, GEO provides answers to the five key questions illustrated in the step diagram below. Most “traditional” environmental assessments consider the first question; very few take an integrated perspective that considers all five questions.

Figure 1: Key questions to be answered by State of the Environment (SoE) Assessment and Policy Analysis in the IEA Framework.

The world is faced with major environmental challenges, which have complex causes and consequences. This requires a structured process of dealing with environmental issues and their interactions with society, including political processes and the economic system. It needs to use knowledge from a wide range of scientific disciplines and stakeholders, so that integrated insights are made available to decision-makers. This process is referred to as an assessment (Box 2)3.

Box 2: What is an assessment?

An assessment is the entire social process for undertaking a critical objective evaluation
and analysis of data and information designed to meet user needs, and to support deci-
sion making. It applies the judgment of experts to existing knowledge to provide scientif-
ically credible answers to policy relevant questions, quantifying where possible the level of

Integrated Environmental Assessment provides a participatory, structured approach to linking knowledge and action. Over time, GEO has developed an increasingly integrated approach to environmental assessment, the use of indicators and reporting. The “integrated approach” to answering the questions illustrated in Figure 1 above is an umbrella term for:

  • linking the analysis of environmental state and trends with the policy analysis;
  • incorporating global and sub-global perspectives;
  • incorporating historical and future perspectives;
  • covering a broad spectrum of issues and policies; and
  • integrating the consideration of environmental change and human well-being.

Policy-makers often face a growing list of environmental challenges. Many of these are complex, have a direct or indirect effect on human well-being, and require enhanced understanding to support effective response measures and action. The GEO integrated environmental assessment approach has strengthened the accessibility of reliable environmental data and information for improved policy-making at different levels. Today, there is greater investment by the international community and governments in environmental assessments, both in terms of human and financial resources. However, despite the availability of considerable information on state and trends of the global environment, there is still a lack of adequate and relevant data, and there is a loss of capacity of monitoring and data collection systems.

See Exercise 1.3a...

The framework for the integrated environmental assessment being carried out in GEO-4 is illustrated in Figure 2. The diagram recognizes two key domains of the Earth System: human society and the environment. It considers five basic elements: Drivers, Pressures, State and trends, Impacts and Responses. 

Drivers (including demographic changes, economic and societal processes) lead to more specific pressures on the environment (including land use change, resource extraction, emissions of pollutants and waste, and modification and movement of organisms). These pressures lead to changes of the state of the environment, which are in addition to those that result from natural processes. The environmental changes include climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, changes in biodiversity and pollution or degradation of air water and soils. These changes lead to changes of the services that the environment provides to humankind, such as the provision of clean air and water, food and protection from ultra-violet radiation. As a result of changes in services and mediated by demographic, social and material factors, there are impacts on human well-being (health, material assets, good social relations and security). Responses include both formal and informal attempts to either adapt to the changes in environmental services or to reduce the pressures on the environment.

The layering of the global, regional and local levels in the GEO-4 framework emphasizes the fact that drivers, pressures, state, impact and responses are at these different levels, sometimes predominantly at one level, and that the levels also interact. As illustrated by the bar at the bottom of the diagram, changes in human society and the environment unfold on different, short, medium- and long-term time scales. 

Figure 2: The Conceptual
Framework of GEO-4

For training purposes, this resource book uses a graphically simplified framework (see, in particular, Module 5) taking into account experience with GEO-1, GEO-2 and GEO-3, as well as a number of sub-global assessments. While the logic is the essentially the same, the diagram shown in Figure 3 makes it easier in a training setting to navigate through the steps of the analysis from drivers to responses. The basic structure of the diagram is also similar to what has been developed by the European Environment Agency (Smeets and Weterings 1999)4. The same basic elements—Drivers, Pressures, State, Impact and Responses—are illustrated in Figure 3. Since this resource  book focuses on Integrated Environmental Assessment primarily at the national level, it is less critical to show multiple levels, although the assessments would obviously reflect national level implications of global processes, and go into sub-national detail. Figure 3 also shows how the elements of the framework are linked to the questions illustrated in Figure 1.

See Exercise 1.3b...

Figure 3: Simplified analytic
framework for integrated
environmental assessment and

Experience has shown that the entire IEA process requires training accompanied by resources to build capacity in order to improve the skills to develop and use environmental information for decision making. Increased capacity through learning-by-doing can be considered a concrete objective and benefit of a participatory IEA process.

There is also a need for gender mainstreaming in the process and products. This has been addressed by Seager and Hartmann (2005), who show that gender mainstreaming is best understood as a continuous process of infusing both the institutional culture and the programmatic and analytical efforts of agencies with gendered perspectives. They illustrate best practices, assess successes and failures, review four areas of gendered environmental research (i.e., water, poverty, security/conflict, and vulnerability/disaster) and review the treatment of gender in GEO.

Discussion Question

What are important gender aspects of the environmental issue discussed above? Think, for example, about whether some of the drivers have a particular gender differentiation, and whether men and women are differentially exposed to the impacts.

3. There is a considerable amount of literature defining and characterizing assessment processes. See for example

4.    Smeets, E. and R. Weterings. 1999. Environmental Indicators: Typology and Overview. Copenhagen: European Environment Agency.


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