The World is in Peril - And now for the Bad News!

Vancouver, Canada – (GLOBE-Net) – One can be forgiven for a certain numbness following the release last week of the latest Global Environmental Outlook Report by the United Nations Environment Programme which says that major threats to the planet such as climate change, the rate of extinction of species, and the challenge of feeding a growing population are among the many that remain unresolved, and all of them put humanity at risk. Coming just days after the Nobel Peace Prize was co-awarded to the same group of experts that produced this report no one could seriously doubt that climate change is real and that it’s going to affect us all. But the questions remain: Is there anything we can do that will make a difference? The answer is yes – but we had better get on with it.

The Outlook Report (GEO-4), the latest in a sobering series of assessments of global atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity, describes changes since 1987 (the year the Brundtland Commission produced its report, Our Common Future), and identifies priorities for action. GEO-4 - the most comprehensive UN report on the environment was prepared by about 390 experts and reviewed by more than 1 000 others across the world.

It notes progress in tackling some relatively straightforward problems, with the environment now much closer to mainstream politics everywhere, but adds there remain the harder-to-manage issues, the “persistent” problems. “There are no major issues raised in Our Common Future for which the foreseeable trends are favourable,” says the Report, which would cause many to say, why bother?

The answer is clear. Failure to address these persistent problems, UNEP says, may undo all the achievements so far on the simpler issues, and may threaten humanity’s survival. But it insists: “The objective is not to present a dark and gloomy scenario, but an urgent call for action.”

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “The international community’s response to the Brundtland Commission has in some cases been courageous and inspiring. But all too often it has been slow and at a pace and scale that fails to respond to or recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet”.

“Over the past 20 years, the international community has cut, by 95 per cent, the production of ozone-layer damaging chemicals; created a greenhouse gas emission reduction treaty along with innovative carbon trading and carbon offset markets; supported a rise in terrestrial protected areas to cover roughly 12 per cent of the Earth and devised numerous important instruments covering issues from biodiversity and desertification to the trade in hazardous wastes and living modified organisms,” he added.

But, as GEO-4 points out, there continue to be ‘persistent’ and intractable problems unresolved and unaddressed. Past issues remain and new ones are emerging from the rapid rise of oxygen ‘dead zones’ in the oceans to the resurgence of new and old diseases linked in part with environmental degradation. (See companion document “Key Facts from GEO-4”)

On climate change the report says the threat is now so urgent that large cuts in greenhouse gases by mid-century are needed. Negotiations are due to start in December on a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate agreement which obligates countries to control anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Although it exempts all developing countries from emission reduction commitments, there is growing pressure for some rapidly-industrializing countries, now substantial emitters themselves, to agree to emission reductions.

Canada’s Environment Minister in a statement that coincided with the release of GEO-4 said the report indicates that “energy consumption, Climate Change, and clean accessible water are some of the key challenges facing North America, confirming that Canada’s Government is on the right track.”

He added “The Government understands the linkages that the report draws between the environment, health and the economy and is working to ensure that Canadians enjoy a strong economy and a healthier environment. Internationally, we continue to collaborate with other countries, and to work within the UN process to ensure that global environmental priorities are addressed.”

What’s in store for us?

In simple terms GEO-4 says that we are living far beyond our means and that the human population is now so large that “the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available… humanity’s environmental footprint is 21.9 hectares per person while the Earth’s biological capacity is, on average, only 15.7 ha/person” it notes.

It adds that the well-being of billions of people in the developing world is at risk, because of a failure to remedy the relatively simple problems which have been successfully tackled elsewhere. The crisis is not just about climate change, extinction rates and hunger, but includes other problems driven by growing human numbers, the rising consumption of the rich and the desperation of the poor.

Examples include: the decline of fish stocks; the loss of fertile land through degradation; unsustainable pressure on resources; dwindling amount of fresh water available for humans and other creatures to share; and the risk that environmental damage could pass unknown points of no return.

GEO-4 says climate change is a “global priority”, demanding political will and leadership. Yet it finds “a remarkable lack of urgency”, and a “woefully inadequate” global response. Several highly-polluting countries have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. GEO-4 says: “… some industrial sectors that were unfavourable to the… Protocol managed successfully to undermine the political will to ratify it.” It says: “Fundamental changes in social and economic structures, including lifestyle changes, are crucial if rapid progress is to be achieved.”

Among the other critical points it identifies are:

  • Water: Irrigation already takes about 70 per cent of available water, yet meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger will mean doubling food production by 2050. Fresh water is declining: by 2025, water use is predicted to have risen by 50 per cent in developing countries and by 18 per cent in the developed world. GEO-4 says: “The escalating burden of water demand will become intolerable in water-scarce countries.”

  • Water quality is declining too, polluted by microbial pathogens and excessive nutrients. Globally, contaminated water remains the greatest single cause of human disease and death.

  • Fish: Consumption more than tripled from 1961 to 2001. Catches have stagnated or slowly declined since the 1980s. Subsidies have created excess fishing capacity, estimated at 250 per cent more than is needed to catch the oceans’ sustainable production.

  • Biodiversity: Current biodiversity changes are the fastest in human history. Species are becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the rate shown in the fossil record. The Congo Basin’s bushmeat trade is thought to be six times the sustainable rate. Of the major vertebrate groups that have been assessed comprehensively, over 30 per cent of amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are threatened.

  • The intrusion of invasive alien species is a growing problem. The comb jellyfish, accidentally introduced in 1982 by ships, has taken over the entire marine ecosystem of the Black Sea, and had destroyed 26 commercial fisheries by 1992.

  • A sixth major extinction is under way, this time caused by human behaviour. Yet to meet our growing demand for food will mean either intensified agriculture (using more chemicals, energy and water, and more efficient breeds and crops) or cultivating more land. Either way, biodiversity suffers.

  • One sign of progress is the steady increase in protected areas. But they must be effectively managed and properly enforced. And biodiversity (of all sorts, not just the “charismatic megafauna” like tigers and elephants) will increasingly need conserving outside protected areas as well.

  • Regional Pressures: This is the first GEO report in which all seven of the world’s regions emphasize the potential impacts of climate change.

In Africa, land degradation and desertification are threats; per capita food production has declined by 12 per cent since 1981.

Priorities for Asia and the Pacific include urban air quality, fresh water stress, degraded ecosystems, agricultural land use and increased waste. Drinking water provision has made remarkable progress in the last decade, but the illegal traffic in electronic and hazardous waste is a new challenge.

Europe’s rising incomes and growing numbers of households are leading to unsustainable production and consumption, higher energy use, poor urban air quality, and transport problems. The region’s other priorities are biodiversity loss, land-use change and freshwater stresses.

Latin America and the Caribbean face urban growth, biodiversity threats, coastal damage and marine pollution, and vulnerability to climate change. But protected areas now cover about 12 per cent of the land, and annual deforestation rates in the Amazon are falling.

North America is struggling to address climate change, to which energy use, urban sprawl and freshwater stresses are all linked. Energy efficiency gains have been countered by the use of larger vehicles, low fuel economy standards, and increases in car numbers and distances travelled.

For West Asia the priorities are freshwater stresses, degradation of land, coasts and marine ecosystems, urban management, and peace and security. Water-borne diseases and the sharing of international water resources are also concerns.

The Polar Regions are already feeling the impacts of climate change. The food security and health of indigenous peoples are at risk from increasing mercury and persistent organic pollutants in the environment. The ozone layer is expected to take another half-century to recover.

We Can Change Our Future!

GEO-4 acknowledges that technology can help to reduce people’s vulnerability to environmental stresses, but says there is sometimes a need “to correct the technology-centred development paradigm”. It explores how current trends may unfold by 2050 in four scenarios.

The real future will be largely determined by the decisions individuals and society make now, GEO-4 says: “Our common future depends on our actions today, not tomorrow or some time in the future.”

For some of the persistent problems the damage may already be irreversible. GEO-4 warns that tackling the underlying causes of environmental pressures often affects the vested interests of powerful groups able to influence policy decisions. The only way to address these harder problems requires moving the environment from the periphery to the core of decision-making: environment for development, not development to the detriment of environment.

“There have been enough wake-up calls since Brundtland. I sincerely hope GEO-4 is the final one. The systematic destruction of the Earth’s natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged and where the bill we hand on to our children may prove impossible to pay,” said UNEP’s Achim Steiner, who will be speaking on these and other issues at GLOBE 2008 taking place in Vancouver in March, 2008.

The GEO-4 report concludes that “while governments are expected to take the lead, other stakeholders are just as important to ensure success in achieving sustainable development. The need couldn’t be more urgent and the time couldn’t be more opportune, with our enhanced understanding of the challenges we face, to act now to safeguard our own survival and that of future generations” ends.

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) is UNEP’s flagship assessment process and report series. GEO-4 is produced and published by the Division of Early Warning and Assessment of the United Nations Environment Programme.

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