GEO-3 reports on our future world

Posted: 29 May 2002

Over 70 per cent of the Earth's land surface could be affected by the impacts of roads, mining, cities and other infrastructure developments in the next 30 years unless urgent action is taken.

Latin America and the Caribbean region is likely to be the hardest hit with more than 80 per cent of the land affected, closely followed by Asia and the Pacific region.

Meanwhile more than half the people in the world could be living in severely water-stressed areas by 2032 if market forces drive the globe's political, economic and social agenda.

West Asia, which includes areas such as the Arabian Peninsula, is likely to be the worst affected with well over 90 per cent of the population expected to be living in areas with "severe water stress" by 2032.

These are just some of the striking findings from the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook-3 (GEO-3) report. The study takes a unique look at the policies and environmental impacts of the past 30 years. It then outlines four policy approaches for the next three decades and compares and contrasts the likely impacts on people and the natural world.

GEO-3 reports that improvements have occurred in river and air quality in places like North America and Europe. The international effort to repair the ozone layer, the Earth's protective shield, by reducing the production and consumption of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is another notable success. But generally there has been a steady decline in the environment over the last 30 years, especially across large parts of the developing world.

The declining environmental quality of planet Earth and the apparent increase in strength and frequency of natural hazards such as cyclones, floods and droughts are intensifying peoples' vulnerability to food insecurity, ill health and unsustainable livelihoods, says the report. The poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, both within societies and in different countries and regions, are particularly vulnerable.

GEO-3 1972-2002: past and present

  • Land - The main driving force, putting pressure on land resources, has been the growing global population. There are 2,220 million more mouths to feed than there were in 1972.

  • In the Asia and Pacific region, the area of land under irrigation has risen from under 125 million hectares (ha) in 1972 to over 175 million ha. Excessive and poorly managed irrigation can degrade soils through impacts such as salinization - a build up of salts. Over 10 per cent, between 25 and 30 million ha, of the world's irrigated lands are classed as severely degraded as a result.

  • Soil erosion is a key factor in land degradation. Around 2 billion ha of soil, equal to 15 per cent of the Earth's land cover or an area bigger than the United States and Mexico combined, is now classed as degraded as a result of human activities.

  • Overgrazing is causing 35 per cent of soil degradation; deforestation, 30 per cent; agriculture, 27 per cent; overexploitation of vegetation, 7 per cent and industrial activities, 1 per cent.

  • A feature of the past 30 years has been the rise of urban agriculture. It is practised by most households in South East Asia and Pacific Islands. About 30 per cent of the Russian Federation's food comes from 3 per cent of suburban land. An estimated 65 per cent of Moscow's population engage in urban agriculture, up from a fifth in the early 1970s.

Freshwater

  • Around half of the world's rivers are seriously depleted and polluted. About 60 per cent of the world's largest 227 rivers have been strongly or moderately fragmented by dams and other engineering works.

  • Some 80 countries, amounting to 40 per cent of the world's population, were suffering serious water shortages by the mid-1990s. Around 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion to improved sanitation, mainly in Africa and Asia.

  • Water-related disease costs are high: Two billion people are at risk from malaria alone, with 100 million affected at any one time and up to 2 million deaths annually. There are about 4 billion cases of diarrhoea and 2.2 million deaths a year, equivalent to 20 jumbo jets crashing everyday.

  • Intestinal worm infections afflict 10 per cent of people in the developing world. Around 6 million people are blind from trachoma, a contagious eye disease. Some 200 million are affected by schistosomiasis which causes bilharzia in humans.

Satellite image of smoke from Indonesian forest fires, October 1997. Credit: UNEP

Forests and Biodiversity

  • The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that forests, which cover around a third of the Earth's land surface or 3,866 million ha, have declined by 2.4 per cent since 1990.

  • The biggest losses have been in Africa where 52.6 million ha or 0.7 per cent of its forest cover has gone in the past decade.Global production of roundwood reached 3,335 million cubic metres of which around half was for fuel, especially in developed countries.

  • Mangrove forests, natural sea defences, nursery grounds for fish and prime nesting and resting sites for migratory birds, are threatened by impacts such as over-harvesting for timber and fuel wood, tourism and coastal developments. Up to 50 per cent of recent mangrove destruction has been due to clear cutting for shrimp farms.

  • The loss and fragmentation of habitats such as forests, wetlands and mangrove swamps have increased the pressures on the world's wildlife.

  • Twelve per cent or 1,183 of birds and nearly a quarter or 1,130 mammals are currently regarded as globally threatened.

  • The introduction of alien species from one part of the world to another has emerged as a significant threat in recent years alongside climate change. Alien species often have no natural predators in their new homes and can out-compete native species for breeding and feeding sites.

Coasts and oceans

  • By 1994, an estimated 37 per cent of the global human population was living within 60 kilometres of the coast. This is more than the number of people alive on the planet in 1950.

  • Globally, sewage is the largest source of contamination by volume with discharges from developing countries on the rise as a result of rapid urbanization, population growth and a lack of planning and financing for sewerage systems and water treatment plants.

  • Other threats to the oceans include climate change, oil spills, discharges of heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and litter. Sedimentation, as a result of coastal developments, agriculture and deforestation, has become a major global threat to coral reefs particularly in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and South and Southeast Asia.

  • Just under a third of the world's fish stocks are now ranked as depleted, overexploited or recovering as a result of over-fishing fueled by subsidies estimated at up to US$20 billion annually.

Atmosphere

  • Depletion of the ozone layer, which protects life from damaging ultraviolet light, has now reached record levels. In September 2000, the ozone hole over Antarctica covered more than 28 million square kilometres.

  • Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main gas linked with global warming, currently stand at 370 parts per million or 30 per cent higher than in 1750. Concentrations of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and halocarbons, have also risen.

"GEO-3 is neither a document of doom and gloom or a gloss over the acute challenges facing us all," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UNEP, at thge launch of the report in London in May. "It is the most authoritative assessment of where we have been, where we have reached and where we are likely to go. The facts in the report underline the huge amount of knowledge that has now been accumulated about the condition of Earth...

"We now have hundreds of declarations, agreements, guidelines and legally binding treaties designed to address environmental problems and the threats they pose to wildlife and human health and well being. Let us now find the political courage and the innovative financing needed to implement these deals and steer a healthier, more prosperous, course for planet Earth...

"Environment for Development is UNEP's motto, for without the environment there can never be the kind of development needed to secure a fair deal for this or future generations. We need concrete actions, we need concrete timetables and we need an iron will from all sides. It cannot be the responsibility of politicians alone. We are all shareholders in this enterprise. Only then can the promises made in Rio turn into a reality," said Mr Toepfer.

Link to the GEO-3 Report.