Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 November 2007

Grim facts on a planet in crisis 

A new and massive United Nations report on the state of the world’s environment warns of the dangers of climate change, water scarcity, dwindling fish stocks, pressures on the land and the extinction of species.


The planet is in dire environmental straits and humanity is at risk if the problems are not solved, says a new report on the current state of the global environment.

The United Nations Environment Programme has recently published the fourth version of its flagship Global Environment Outlook, known as GEO4 in short.

GEO-4 is the most comprehensive UN report on the environment, prepared by about 390 experts and reviewed by more than 1,000 others across the world.

The massive report gives details on past trends and future prospects on the atmosphere, pollution, food, biodiversity, water and inequality in the world.  And the picture is grim.

Since 1987 there have been some achievements, but they are far outweighed by the deteriorating situation.

The good news is that the environment is now much closer to mainstream politics everywhere and some straightforward problems are being tackled.

The bad news is that there are “harder-to-manage” issues, the “persistent” problems. And on these, GEO-4 says:  “There are no major issues for which the foreseeable trends are favourable.”

Failure to address these persistent problems may undo all the achievements so far on the simpler issues, and may threaten humanity’s survival, says UNEP. 

Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director, said that in the past 20 years the world has has cut by 95% the production of ozone-layer damaging chemicals; created a greenhouse gas emission reduction treaty; supported a rise in terrestrial protected areas to cover 12%  of the Earth and devised many important treaties and agreements such as on biodiversity, desertification, hazardous wastes and biosafety.

 “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,” said Steiner. Meanwhile, institutions like UNEP, established to counter the root causes, remain under-resourced and weak.

On climate change the report says the threat is now so urgent that large cuts in greenhouse gases by mid-century are needed.

Another problem is unsustainable consumption – people are living beyond our means.  The resources needed to sustain the world’s population 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,” says GEO4.

There is a triple crisis -- the environmental crisis, the development crisis and the energy crisis – all rolled up as one, adds the report.  The causes are population growth, the rising consumption of the rich and desperation of the poor.

This crisis includes climate change, extinction of species, hunger, decline of fish stocks, loss of fertile land through degradation, unsustainable pressure on resources; dwindling amount of fresh water and the risk that environmental damage could pass “unknown points of no return.”

Among the major problems the report highlights are:

** Climate change:  This problem s a “global priority”, but the report 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: that “some industrial sectors that were unfavourable to the Protocol managed successfully to undermine the political will to ratify it.”

** Water will become more scarce.  Irrigation already takes 70% of available water, yet meeting reducing global goals on hunger will mean doubling food production by 2050. Fresh water is declining -- by 2025, water use will rise by 50% in developing countries and 18% in the developed world. 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. There is excess fishing capacity, 250% more than is needed to catch the oceans’ sustainable production.

** Biodiversity: Current biodiversity changes are the fastest in human history. Species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than the rate shown in the fossil record. Over 30% of amphibians, 23% of mammals and 12% of birds are threatened.

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

In a section on Asia, the report identifies priority issues as urban air quality, fresh water stress, degraded ecosystems, agricultural land use and increased waste, including the illegal traffic in electronic and hazardous waste.