Growing awareness, sluggish response

Posted: 28 February 2002

By special arrangement with the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, we are pleased to publish this first in a series of Worldwatch issue briefs to be published in the weeks leading up to the World Summit. In this Gary Gardner describes key lessons learned over the past decade about selected environmental and social challenges, the goals set for addressing those challenges, and progress, if any, in achieving those goals.

This August, ten years after the Earth Summit in Rio, the United Nations will again host a global meeting, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The World Summit provides the world's leaders a historic chance to strike a new deal for an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable world - a chance they cannot afford to miss.

Awareness of the threats to the Earth's ecosystems has grown since Rio, but in many cases, our response to this increased awareness has been sluggish. We are still far from ending the economic and environmental marginalization that afflicts billions of people. The divide between rich and poor is widening in many countries, undermining social and economic stability, while pressures on the world's natural systems continue to mount.

Climate change

What the world learned: In 1996, the scientific panel set up by the United Nations reported that a "discernible human influence" was evident on a changing global climate. By 2001, the group was more definitive: "most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."

What goals were set: At the Earth Summit, 170 nations agreed to voluntary reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. By mid-decade, negotiations were underway for binding reductions in industrial nations, to 6-8 per cent below 1990 levels, leading to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Meanwhile, the U.N. climate panel said that climate stabilization would require emissions reductions of 60-80 per cent.

What happened: Carbon emissions globally increased by 9 per cent between 1992 and 2001. In the U.S., they increased by 18 per cent. The United States withdrawal from the Protocol in 2001, and President Bush's 2002 decision to rely on voluntary, efficiency-driven measures to control emissions, will likely result in further increases in U.S. emissions by 2010.

Species loss

What the world learned: The World Conservation Union "Red List" surveys reported at mid-decade that 13 per cent of fish, 11 per cent of mammals, 10 per cent of amphibians, 8 per cent of reptiles and 4 per cent of birds, were in immediate danger of extinction. Species losses, estimated at 100 to 1000 times the preindustrial rate, led biologists in the 1990s to describe the contemporary era as a mass extinction, the first in 65 million years. Habitat disruption was cited as the leading cause of the declines.

What goals were set: Over the decade, 182 countries became parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, one of the crowning achievements of the Earth Summit. These countries promised to abide by broad guidelines for biodiversity protection, and to develop national strategies for doing so. National governments also made separate promises over the decade to protect important habitat, especially forests.

What happened: The two richest sources of biodiversity-forests and coral reefs-both suffered increased damage in the 1990s. Forested area, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, contracted by 2.2 per cent in the 1990s (a conservative estimate, in part because it includes habitat-poor plantation forests). And the area of coral reefs regarded as seriously degraded rose from 10 per cent in 1992 to 27 per cent in 2000. Meanwhile, only 38 per cent of parties to the Biodiversity Convention have submitted national conservation strategies.

Water scarcity

What the world learned: Policymakers and activists began to question the heavy dependence on dams, irrigation canals, and other large water supply projects. In their place, researchers developed the concept of integrated water management, combining attention to securing supplies with increasing water efficiency, meeting basic human needs for water, and giving water its proper cultural, economic, and environmental value.

What goals were set: Agenda 21, the action plan that emerged from the 1992 Earth Summit, along with declarations emerging from the 1994 and 1998 U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development meetings, all called for the adoption of integrated water management and for greater attention to the water needs of the poor.

What happened: Advances in providing access to clean water and sanitation were impressive in absolute terms, but barely kept pace with population growth; more than 1.1 billion people still lack access to clean drinking water. And water is still widely mismanaged: aquifers, for example, are over pumped in major farming regions to the point that sustained production of as much as 10 per cent of the global grain supply is now at risk. A growing number of major rivers, including the Yellow, Indus, Ganges, and Colorado, now run dry at some point each year. And water planners widely ignore environmental, cultural, and economic values in water planning, leading to waste and degradation on a broad scale.


What the world learned: Malnutrition involves more than a lack of calories: deficiencies of vitamins and minerals can produce mental retardation, blindness, and other developmental problems. And excessive consumption of sugar and fat, a rapidly growing form of poor nutrition, leads to obesity and increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic ailments. Meanwhile, nutritionists recognized that hunger, the most acute form of malnutrition, is often caused by poverty, not simply by insufficient food supplies.

What goals were set: At the World Food Summit in Rome in 1996, 185 countries and the European Union pledged to cut in half the number of people who are hungry by 2015.

What happened: By the Food and Agriculture Organization's own reckoning, the number of hungry people in the world has decreased by 6 million per year since the 1996 Food Summit, far short of the annual reduction of 22 million needed to meet the goal for 2015. Meanwhile, roughly half of adults in many industrial countries are overweight, and many developing countries saw sharp increases in the overweight population. Partly as a result, diabetes cases rose fivefold globally, to 150 million, between 1985 and 2000.

Infectious Disease

What the world learned: Good health requires not only access to medical care, but also a robust natural and social environment. An estimated 80 per cent of all disease in developing countries, for example, is caused by consumption of contaminated water. And air pollution is estimated to cause 5 per cent of the world's deaths each year.

What goals were set: Health goals spelled out in Agenda 21 include universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation, 50 to 70 per cent reductions in deaths from diarrhea and 95 per cent reductions in measles deaths by 1995.

What happened: Deaths from four of the world's six leading killer infectious diseases, including diarrhea and measles, declined over the decade, although by far less than targeted. These gains were more than offset by the sixfold increase in deaths from AIDS. Water and sanitation became more widely available, as noted, but more than 1.1 billion people still do not have access to clean water, and 2.4 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.


What the world learned: Over the decade, researchers showed that education was a high-leverage investment area essential to a sustainable development agenda. Children who go to school generally have improved health and nutritional levels and lower poverty rates over their lifetime. And educated girls are likely to have fewer children and more economic opportunities.

What goals were set: In 1990, 155 nations at the UNESCO-sponsored World Conference on Education for All pledged to provide universal access to primary education, a halving of the global adult illiteracy rate by 2000, and a closing of the gender gap in literacy. A commitment to basic education was endorsed at 10 other major international conferences in the 1990s, including the Earth Summit.

What happened: The number of unenrolled children globally fell from 127 million in 1990 to 113 million in 1998, and the share of the world's adults that could not read or write also declined, from 24.8 per cent to 20.6 per cent. Nevertheless, these achievements fall well short of the goals set in 1990: one of every six adults still cannot read or write, and the number of illiterate women increased over the decade.


What the world learned: The World Bank and other international entities embraced a definition of poverty that looks beyond lack of income to include other essentials for human well-being, especially health and education. But the income measure of poverty is still relevant, and sobering: 2.8 billion people live on less than 2 dollars per day.

What goals were set: World leaders committed themselves to reducing poverty, and the extreme disparities between the rich and poor. In 1998, a joint report by the OECD, United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank pledged to cut income poverty by half by 2015, and to reduce child and maternal mortality, among other goals.

What happened: The share of the world's people living on a dollar or less per day fell from 29 per cent in 1990 to 24 per cent in 1998. Still, 1.2 billion remain under this threshold. Mortality of children under 5 fell from 86 deaths per 1000 children in 1990 to 78 deaths in 1999. Inequality remained the glaring norm: the richest billion receive 78% of world income. Child mortality was more than 19 times greater in low-income than in wealthy countries in 1999.

Consume and dispose economies

What the world learned: Global consumption of metals, minerals, wood, plastic, and other materials increased some 2.4-fold between 1960 and 1995. The "ecological footprint," a conceptual tool that emerged at mid-decade to provide a rough measure of the environmental impact of consumption of materials, food and fuel, showed that 3 Earths would be needed to sustain the entire world at an American level of consumption.

What goals were set: A growing body of researchers proposed cost-effective strategies for reducing materials use by up to 90 per cent in industrial countries. Imaginative suggestions included capturing and reusing factory wastes, designing durables such as copiers and automobiles to be remanufactured, holding producers perpetually responsible for the materials they send into the world, and where possible, meeting consumer needs with services such as mass transit, rather than materials-intensive goods, such as cars.

What happened: Recycling rates increased for household disposables in many countries, but stagnated at 30-50 per cent in industrial countries. Declines in materials use per person, and in material needed to produce a dollar of GNP, were encouraging, but total materials use and extraction of virgin materials continued to climb. A treaty to eliminate use of 10 toxic, long-lived chemicals, and to reduce emissions of two industrial byproducts, was completed in 2001, but has not yet entered into force.

This World Summit Policy Brief #1 was reproduced with kind permission from the Worldwatch Institute. For more information, email: or visit their website at: