October 29, 2007

Failure to act on critical environment issues threatens human survival, UNEP warns

Serious, still-unresolved environmental issues such as climate change, degradation of air, water and land, and unsustainable pressure on resources are putting humanity's very survival at risk, says the latest Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4) report, released October 25 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

GEO-4, the latest in UNEP's series of flagship reports, comes out 20 years after the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, widely known as the Brundtland Commission) produced its seminal report, Our Common Future. Prepared by nearly 400 experts and reviewed by more than 1,000 others around the world, it assesses the current state of the global atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity, describes the changes since 1987, and calls attention to priorities for action.

It commends the world's progress in tackling some relatively straightforward problems.

"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," said UNEP executive director Achim Steiner, who is also UN Under-Secretary General.

"Over the past 20 years, the international community has cut, by 95%, 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% of the Earth and devised numerous important instruments covering issues from biodiversity and desertification to the trade in hazardous wastes and living modified organisms.

"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," Steiner continued.

Failure to address these persistent problems, says UNEP, 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."

Concerning 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. Although the current treaty exempts all developing countries from emission reduction commitments, there is growing pressure for some rapidly-industrializing countries, now substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters themselves, to agree to emission reductions.

Climate change is a "global priority," demanding political will and leadership, but the report finds "a remarkable lack of urgency" and a "woefully inadequate" global response.

GEO-4 also warns that we are living far beyond our means. The human population is now so large that "the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available... humanity's footprint [its environmental demand] is 21.9 hectares per person while the Earth's biological capacity is, on average, only 15.7 ha/person..."

GEO-4 analyzes environmental challenges by region, and the current report is the first in which the potential impacts of climate change are emphasized in all seven of the world's regions. For example, 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.

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.

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, adds the report.

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." The real future, it says, will be largely determined by the decisions individuals and society make now.

The report recalls the Brundtland Commission's statement that the world does not face separate crises-the "environmental crisis", "development crisis", and "energy crisis" are all one. This crisis includes not just climate change, extinction rates and hunger, but conflicts and other problems driven by growing human numbers, the rising consumption of the rich and the desperation of the poor.

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.

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."

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