Earth Trends by Martin Khor


Whilst a global economic slowdown may be brewing, this should not detract attention from an even more serious problem:  the crisis of the global environment.  A new report published last week highlighted new evidence of ecological stress and its effects.


Many people have been engrossed by the possibility of global economic slowdown.

The downturn on the stock market indices of the United States last Friday added to fears that the downturn may be imminent.

But there is another set of problems that should received at least equal attention and action.

The global environment is in crisis and may in fact face a meltdown if trends are not reversed soon.

The ecological crisis is not a new phenomenon.  It had been highlighted during the Earth Summit of 1992 where over a hundred heads of governments pledged to do something about it.

The problem is that nothing much has been done, interest in the subject has waned, and the situation has gotten worse.

Last week, the Worldwatch Institute released its State of the World Report for 2001, and it makes sombre reading.

It warns that global environmental trends have reached "a dangerous crossroads

as the new century begins."

Signs of accelerated ecological decline have coincided with a loss of political

momentum on environmental issues, as evidenced by the recent breakdown of global climate talks. 

This failure calls into question whether the world will be able to turn these trends around before the economy suffers irreversible damage.

The Institute laments the fact that governments squandered an opportunity to reverse environmental decline during the prosperity of the 1990s.

"If in the current climate of political and economic uncertainty, political leaders were to roll back environmental laws or fail to complete key international agreements, decades of progress could unravel", it says.

The report puts together scientific evidence showing that many global ecosystems are reaching dangerous thresholds.

The Arctic ice cap has already thinned by 42 percent, and  27 percent of the world's coral reefs have been lost, suggesting that some of the planet's key ecological systems are in decline.  

Environmental degradation is also leading to more severe natural disasters, which have cost the world $608 billion over the last decades, as much as in the previous four decades combined.

Natural disasters resulted in 1998-1999 alone for over 120,000 people being killed and millions displaced, mainly poor people in regions such as India and Latin America.

Unless fossil fuel use slows dramatically, the Earth's temperature could rise to as high as 6 degrees above the 1990 level by 2100, according to the latest climate models. 

Such an increase could lead to acute water shortages, declining food production, and the proliferation of deadly diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

Another sign of ecological decline is the risk of extinction that hangs over dozens of species of frogs and other amphibians around the globe, due to pressures that range from deforestation to ozone depletion.

Other signs of environmental degradation include the following:

** The transportation sector is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions that cause global warming. Road traffic, which accounted for 58 percent of worldwide transportation carbon emissions in 1990, claimed 73 percent by 1997.  And the US uses more than one third of the world's transport energy.

**  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 100,000 underground storage tanks in the United States are leaking.

**  In the United States in the 1990s, nearly 60 percent of wells sampled in agricultural areas contained synthetic pesticides.

**  60 percent of the most hazardous liquid waste in the United States-34 billion liters of solvents, heavy metals, and radioactive materials-is injected into deep aquifers via thousands of "injection wells."

The report says that with many life support systems at risk of long-term damage,  the choice before today's political leaders is historic: whether to move forward rapidly to build a sustainable economy or to risk allowing the expansion in human numbers, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the loss of natural systems to undermine the economy.

Fortunately there is also a set of some good news.

Following the adoption of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, global production of the harmful chemicals called CFCs dropped by 85 percent between 1986 and 1997.

In December, negotiators from 122 countries agreed to a historic legally binding treaty that will severely restrict 12 persistent organic pollutants.

Organic farming, which avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, has surged to a worldwide annual market of $22 billion-and may get a further boost from strict organic farming standards issued by the U.S. government in December.

In many regions, renewable energy is now the most economical and inflation-proof energy source available, and can be installed much faster than the three-year minimum for a natural gas-fired power plant.

But the biggest worry, which the report also brings out, is that there is a lack of political will to tackle ecological problems.

Failure to enforce many existing international environmental agreements is hampering progress on many fronts. 

The report calls for stronger enforcement of treaties, and for increased North-South cooperation, particularly among the environmentally and economically influential countries.

Chief among the worries is that the new US President, George W. Bush, is not environmentally aware and may indeed be environmentally-unfriendly.

"If the U.S. retreats to a more defensive view of global environmental threats, it would create a leadership vacuum," says the report "International negotiators are worried by the anti-environmental rhetoric of the Bush campaign, but hopeful that once in office, the new administration will follow through on the climate treaty and other policies that were launched by the earlier Bush administration a decade ago."

The report is understating the worry about President Bush.  Many environmental groups, and leaders of developing countries, are fearful that Bush is so beholden to corporate interests that he will initiate the unravelling of domestic and international environmental policies and laws.

That just means that everyone with an interest in the environment will have to be that much more vigilent and work harder to get the environmental problems really tackled in the next few years.