Telecommunications and the Environment:
The way to sustainable development

The problem of the environment

Problem awareness

Global conventions to address a global problem

Summary of the Rio Declaration

The Agenda 21 Programme: The way to sustainable development

The role of telecommunications in environmental protection


The theme "Telecommunications and the Environment" is a particularly important subject which could hardly be more relevant to the world today.

An outsider, and even someone working in an area specifically concerned with the environment, might well ask what telecommunications and the environment have to do with each other.

At first sight the environment, in the broadest sense of the term, would seem to be unrelated to telecommunications. Yet there are very real links between the two. They are in fact more or less inseparable.

It is a generally established fact that telecommunications serve as a tool for development. What kind of development do we mean? The answer is clear: sustainable development. And it is in the context of sustainable development that the link between environmental problems and telecommunications comes to light: environmental protection calls for information in all forms.


While the problem of the environment is as old as mankind itself, actual awareness of the problem has developed gradually, as the damage inflicted on nature has become more and more serious. It is interesting to observe that as early as the end of the 19th century, many people living in highly industrial areas were complaining to the courts of noise, smoke, bad smells and other effects of industrial pollution. There are a fairly large number of judicial decisions on record: in the vast majority of cases, the claims were dismissed on the grounds that the industries were vital for the economic growth of the countries in question and for the satisfaction of individual needs, and that it was perfectly natural that some people should suffer a certain degree of inconvenience.

The awakening of man's ecological awareness can be divided into two, or perhaps three, essential stages.

During the first stage, the degradation of nature was seen as a phenomenon restricted in time and space, harmful in any specific case, but without any serious and irreversible negative impact at the national level, much less at the regional or world level. To the extent that man felt the need to curb acts that were harmful to nature, he did so in the same way as he would try to curb acts affecting other specific kinds of legal property, and not because he felt that his social, economic and spiritual balance was at stake.

Man was not yet aware that the environment was made up of finite, quantifiable and limited elements. He remained convinced that nature had an unlimited capacity for regeneration, despite numerous warnings, particularly from scientists, that this was not true.

It was not until the extraordinary explosion of industrial and technological development during the Second World War and the accompanying deterioration of the biosphere that ecologists finally succeeded in drawing the attention of the international community to the problem.

In this connection, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972, constitutes the symbolic turning point in the growing awareness of a problem which, after scattered attempts to find solutions at the regional level, now acquired an international dimension.

However, the awakening was more intense in countries in which the problems engendered by industrial and technological civilization were particularly acute.

The Stockholm Conference marks the beginning of the second stage. It recognized the relationship between the environment and development, one of the fundamental themes of the report by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. It must be admitted that between 1972 and 1985, the specific incorporation of development and environment problems into economic planning and basic decision-making remained practically non-existent. While progress was made in certain cases, the Earth's environment generally deteriorated throughout the 1980s.

A broad international consensus emerged, however, with respect to the depletion of the ozone layer. Thus, it is no coincidence that during this second stage, the international community joined forces under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to develop international legal instruments to deal with threats to the environment, the first of which concerned the ozone layer: the Vienna Convention, followed by the Montreal Protocol.

While the preparation and adoption of these instruments (between 1985 and 1989) represented progress, they were a far cry from the ambitions and goals of the international community, and an even further cry from its needs.

A series of instruments were therefore adopted that were more comprehensive in their objectives, broader in terms of participation, better able to respond to the needs of the developing countries and, above all, more binding and effective, namely the Basle Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Biodiversity Convention and the Convention to combat Desertification.

These mixed results, coupled with constant improvements in the evaluation of the environment made possible by scientific advances, led to what might be called the third stage, when the United Nations General Assembly convened a United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in order to inject new life into environment and development principles that seemed to have aged prematurely.

One of the great merits of this Conference, held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro and attended by the largest ever number of Heads of State and Government, was to establish for the first time a relationship between the concepts of environment and development.

The Rio Declaration

This Declaration is a basic document setting out the principles which should govern man's relationship with the environment. It establishes guidelines for sustainable development and aims to ensure and provide a guarantee for the common future of mankind, both in the field of the environment and in the field of development, inter alia by urging States to cooperate in a spirit of world partnership based on the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities.

Although it is not legally binding, the Rio Declaration is intended to promote a new form of international cooperation which goes beyond the framework of simple North/South relations.

The Agenda 21 Programme

The Agenda 21 Programme establishes strategies aimed at eliminating the effects of environmental degradation and promoting ecologically sound sustainable development. It contains a complete set of measures for the future, and describes the numerous activities to be undertaken by governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and the private sector.

Over and above its legitimate aims, the Agenda 21 Programme represents an ingenious framework for implementing a new system of relations designed to protect the environment and promote sustainable development. It goes beyond the scope of conventional aid, which no longer provides an adequate basis for relations between rich and poor countries, by replacing conventional approaches by new mechanisms of cooperation.

The entire Agenda 21 Programme rests on the concept of sustainable development, whatever the sector concerned. Since telecommunications constitute a medium and a vehicle for the information on the basis of which human action should, in the normal course of events, lead to the achievement of sustainable development, they form an integral element of that strategy. In a way, telecommunications are to information what rails are to a train.


By carrying information in written, oral, visual and electronic form, telecommunications offer a good alternative to the transport of goods or persons.

In this connection, the study submitted by the Japanese delegation to the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires provides some initial responses to the complex problems of urban congestion encountered in many developed and developing countries.

The study suggests that the need for travel may be, if not totally eliminated, then at least substantially reduced by on-line banking or telecommuting. Quite rightly, it makes the feasibility of such projects contingent on three factors:

  1. Level of development of the telecommunication infrastructure
  2. Dominant means of transport in the country or city in question
  3. Social or business background.

The first benefit from this type of project is to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and in particular CO2, thereby diminishing atmospheric pollution and protecting the ozone layer, which is under serious threat.

The second benefit is the positive effect on the energy situation, through savings in consumption.

In this connection, it should be noted that the French authorities are currently conducting an original experiment, which involves installing sophisticated instruments at key points in several large towns in France in order to measure the rate of emission of greenhouse gases, and in particular CO2 pollution levels. The data collected are transmitted via an electronic system to a central unit and immediately published in the form of bulletins accessible to the public at large.

This experiment was probably prompted by the worrying increase in the number of persons admitted to hospital with respiratory complaints due to air pollution and new allergies for which the allergens responsible have not yet been identified.

These phenomena are not confined to the industrialized countries. They are also encountered with the same level of severity in some developing countries.

Furthermore, with the depletion of the ozone layer, the number of persons suffering from skin cancer is constantly increasing, with the result that urgent measures are required to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases such as CFCs, which are the major culprits.

Telecommunications can make a direct contribution to the implementation of environmental programmes. For example telephony, and in particular rural telephony, through the infrastructure it sets up, aims to provide an impetus for multi-sectoral integrated development, creating lasting jobs, wealth and prosperity.

The first sector to benefit is agriculture. Improved access to the information needed to develop operating, marketing and distribution methods for agricultural produce and manufactured goods will help to stem the tide of migration to towns, keep people settled in their original environment, encourage them to work the land, and hence relieve congestion in often over-populated large towns; and this cannot but in turn accelerate growth of the rural economy, and hence improve the living conditions of the rural population.

Then, of course, come all the other components of integrated rural development, such as the construction of road networks, the provision of public services, the attraction of national and foreign investment for the establishment of various industries, and so forth, in order to meet the needs of the people concerned.

In cultural terms, integrated rural development will mean the opening of more schools, public libraries, youth clubs and cinemas, in other words the creation of all the infrastructure required to promote access to culture and education.

From the social standpoint, the telecommunication network is a determining factor for the construction and operation of basic health centres for local populations. In this connection, it is worth remembering that the International Telecommunication Union and the World Health Organization have recently concluded an agreement under which they will cooperate to improve the living standards of populations in rural areas and isolated regions whose basic health needs are not yet met, by equipping basic health centres with communication and information technologies.

The two parties will institute special working relations between their respective secretariats, with a view to:

Role of remote sensing

Remote sensing embraces all the techniques employed to study the Earth's surface or atmosphere using the properties of electromagnetic waves emitted, reflected or diffused by the different bodies observed. Space remote sensing consists in using data gathered by Earth observation satellites in order to extract physical, biological and human information. The images collected provide an overview of vast areas and, through repeated observations, enable phenomena such as desertification, drought, pollution, land use and urbanization to be monitored.

Africa, whose many problems include desertification, drought and swarms of locusts, could make use of satellite remote sensing and monitoring systems such as SPOT or LANDSAT to combat those phenomena more effectively.

The effectiveness of programmes to combat these troublesome phenomena could be enhanced through the latest telemetry techniques, which allow the distance travelled by anything moving across land or water masses to be measured with great accuracy from a monitoring satellite. This technology could be put to good use in Africa to monitor the advance of deserts, the loss of vegetation, the rise or fall of water levels, by measuring the magnitude of any movements. It could serve as an early warning system, enabling the countries concerned to take appropriate measures in good time to avert impending threats.

In Tunisia, for example, where the National Remote Sensing Centre was set up in 1988, this technique has already made a positive contribution to the improvement of natural resources management.

Example 1: Environment

Remote sensing has made it possible to map areas which are not easily accessible, such as the marine environment. SPOT and LANDSAT images have been used to map the Gulf of Gabes and have shown that plant life is dwindling in one of the country's richest fishing areas. Satellite images are particularly useful for studying desertification, since synoptic, repetitive data are needed in order to study the evolution of such phenomena. Thus, LANDSAT archive images and more recent SPOT images have been used to examine landscape changes in the Menzel Habib region over a ten-year period.

Example 2: Surface water management

Satellite images have been used to produce, for example, digital terrain models and gradient charts for use in studying catchment areas and mapping erosion-sensitive areas as a first step towards identifying possible sites for retention structures. The first such study, carried out in the Beja region as part of the drought control programme for semi-arid areas, may be extended to other parts of Tunisia.

Example 3: Natural disasters

The SPOT satellite emergency programming facility was used to provide pictures of the disaster areas following the floods in central and southern Tunisia in January 1990.

By comparing the pictures with others taken in June 1988, the flood damage could be comprehensively mapped.

In 1993, in cooperation with the United Nations Centre for Urgent Environmental Assistance, the Ministry of the Environment and Town and Country Planning simulated a road accident involving a tanker carrying toxic products. Thanks to telecommunications via a satellite link between the Centre in Geneva and the teams on the spot, the simulation was a complete success.

Example 4: Geographical information systems

Given the complexity of information exchange circuits and the difficulties involved in using conventional paper maps and charts, the Directorate-General of Town and Country Planning is gradually introducing a computerized data exchange system for storing, manipulating, analysing, cross-checking and selecting site-specific information and using it for various mapping purposes.

This geographical information system provides very reliable information on:


Major climatic or meteorological phenomena and natural disasters occur almost daily throughout the world. With the invaluable support of the World Meteorological Organization, national meteorological and hydrological services have, under the World Climate Programme, undertaken a wide-ranging programme covering various fields:

Real-time monitoring of the planet's weather and climate has been in operation since 1963, when the World Meteorological Organization set up the World Weather Watch, comprising the world observation system, the world telecommunication system and the world data-processing system, allowing free exchange of thousands of observations of the world's atmosphere and oceans made available by national meteorological and hydrological services and generated daily by automatic or manned land or maritime measuring stations, satellites, buoys scattered around the oceans and aircraft.

The world telecommunication system fulfils three main functions:

While the results achieved, in particular by the world telecommunication system, are encouraging, there are still vast areas, especially in Africa, for which not enough systematic samples are taken. Additional efforts are therefore required to make the system more effective.

This highlights the crucial role of telecommunications both for monitoring of the climatic system and in other areas, with a view either to averting the devastating effects of the phenomena involved or to taking appropriate remedial measures in good time.

Clearly, since UNCED, the sectoral view of development as an exclusively commercial operation for immediate profit, has now definitely given way, despite some reluctance, for obvious motives, to the idea of multisectoral sustainable development, combining economic growth and social well­being with environmental protection.

As both a medium and vehicle for various forms of information fostering sustainable development, telecommunications are by definition closely associated with any environment-related activity.

Telecommunications have a vital role to play in environmental protection, and this is obviously something we should all welcome, since not one of us can afford to be indecisive or ignore the urgent need to protect our planet Earth from the threats hanging over it and hand it on to the future generations for whom we hold it in trust. With the level of development they have reached, modern telecommunication technologies, which are in the process of taking us from the industrial economy to the information economy, constitute extremely useful tools with which to take up this challenge.

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