The interactive global system comprises a noosphere, a biosphere (or zoosphere or organosphere), and a lithosphere (or hylosphere) -- corresponding, respectively, to the realms of human mental and cultural life, all physical life forms, and the rocks, soils, water, air and other elements of the natural inorganic environment.
In the past, decision makers, experts and scientists have worked in isolation, which has resulted in more confrontation between such groups due to a chasm of scientific uncertainty and inadequate information. Technological applications such as satellite remote sensing, computers and telecommunications are allowing and/or facilitating humankind's efforts to monitor the environment at a national, regional and global scale. In recent years, global environmental monitoring is being advocated as necessary in order to understand the characteristics of the increasingly global dimensions of humankind's activities, such as global warming, deforestation and population increase. Such monitoring should facilitate "planetary management".
In 1972, the Stockholm Conference called for an international mechanism for the exchange of environmental information. The Action Plan for the Human Environment adopted by the Stockholm Conference in 1972 includes a global environmental assessment programme, referred to as Earthwatch. It states four aims: to provide a basis on which to identify the knowledge needed and take the steps to find it; to generate the new knowledge specifically needed to guide decision-making; to gather and evaluate specific data in order to discern and predict important environmental conditions and trends; and to disseminate knowledge to scientists and technologists and provide decision-makers at all levels with the best information available, in useful forms and at the right times.
The Earthwatch programme of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) consists at present of four main components; the Global Environment Monitoring System (GEMS), the Global Resource Information Database (GRID), the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC), and the global information system, INFOTERRA (previously the International Referral System (IRS)). In 1975, UNEP established the GEMS/Programme Activity Centre (PAC) to link existing monitoring systems and to catalyze new stations and networks to fill gaps. GEMS/PAC work with the UN, governments and institutions, and its four main interrelated areas are atmosphere and climate, environmental pollution, renewable resources and environmental data. Climate data gathered within the framework of GEMS have spurred international action to save the ozone layer and to mitigate the effects of climate change. Two of the main networks involved are the World Glacier Monitoring Service and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)/UNEP Background Air Pollution Monitoring Network (BAPMoN). The world's glaciers act as a thermometer of climatic change as they advance and retreat, so that the World Glacier Monitoring Service incorporates over 750 glacier stations in 21 countries and has published the first survey of all the world's glaciers and permanent icefields, The World Glacier Inventory. BAPMoN and WMO's Global Ozone Observing System keep track of air pollutants, including greenhouse gases, and of changes in the ozone layer.
FAO, WHO and the GEMS Monitoring and Assessment Research Centre in London cooperate in monitoring environmental pollutants in the air, food and water. The networks involved cover more than 75 countries, whilst in the past two decades the monitoring capabilities of 25 developing countries have been strengthened. In response to the weaknesses exposed in existing radiation monitoring systems and lack of information exchange, following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 WHO, UNEP and other institutions established a global environmental radiation monitoring network (GERMON). UNEP's Ocean and Coastal Areas PAC covers ocean monitoring. The IUCN/WWF/UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre maintains databases on endangered species, critical habitats, parks, protected areas, wildlife trade, and compiles the IUCN Red Data Books on rare and endangered species. UNEP and FAO have collaborated on assessments of global forests, while a desertification atlas was published by UNEP's Desertification PAC and the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC). GEMS supports the publication of biennial environmental data reports, biodiversity status reports and world resource reports, and up-to-date global environmental data.
Global Resource Information Database (GRID) was launched within the framework of GEMS in 1985. GRID uses computer technology to process and analyse monitored data and produce environmental maps and print-outs, which can be used by planners. It is based on environmental geographic information systems (GIS). GRID is being developed into a global environmental information exchange network.
In 1976, UNEP established the International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals (IRPTC) to collect and disseminate information on, and facilitate monitoring of, the toxicity of chemicals.
The Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS) was established in January 1996 by five co-sponsoring organizations. Together with similar global observing systems for climate (GCOS) and the oceans (GOOS), GTOS has been created in response to international calls for a deeper understanding of global change in the Earth System.