Signs of hope despite Summit failures says Worldwatch report

Posted: 9 January 2003

Despite little action on many critical issues at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the New Year reveals fresh evidence of humanity's capacity to respond rapidly to unprecedented environmental and social threats, says the Worldwatch Institute's annual report State of the World 2003.

coverScaling up recent successes in curbing infectious disease, increasing the income of the poor, and advancing the use of renewable energy, among others, would soon put the world's economy on a more sustainable path, saya the report.

"Building a world where we meet our own needs without denying future generations a healthy society is not impossible, as some would assert," says Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin.

"The question is where societies choose to put their creative efforts. If we can build spacecraft powered by clean fuel cells, we can build cars that run the same way. If we can mine copper and other metals from the Earth, we can mine them from landfills and abandoned buildings. And if we can protect tourists from contracting malaria, we can do it for people who live with the threat everyday."

Healthy economies

The challenge now, reports the 20th edition of State of the World, is to mobilize governments, businesses, and civil society to construct economies that are healthy for both people and the planet.

The report's expert research team documents a host of successes that prove humanity is capable of reinventing the world so that the needs of all are met with minimal harm to the Earth or to future generations. For example:

  • The use of solar energy and wind power have grown by more than 30 per cent annually over the past five years (compared to 1-2 per cent annual growth for fossil fuels) in countries such as Germany, Japan, and Spain thanks to policies that have encouraged their use.

  • A concerted global effort to reduce the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has led to an 81 percent decline in production during the 1990s, and a marked slowing in the growth of the Antarctic ozone hole, which is expected to soon begin healing.

  • The World Health Organization's Global Polio Eradication Initiative has reduced polio cases globally from some 350,000 in 1988 to 480 in 2001.

More recycling

Hot on the tail of these important achievements are emerging successes that could usher in a new era of economic progress that is much less damaging to the world's ecosystems and to human health, says the report.The Netherlands has achieved an 86 per cent recycling rate for cars, and Denmark has put a total ban on aluminum cans in favour of reusable glass bottles, putting into practice a greater vision where recycling replaces today's heavy dependence on virgin materials.Some of the most dramatic changes are occurring in the poorest communities.

Micro loans of as little as US$50 have helped people as poor as the wastepickers of the Payatas landfill near Manila to secure loans for small businesses, land, and housing. And the Community Reinvestment Act has helped push lending in poor American neighbourhoods from an average of roughly US$3 billion per year in the 1980s to US$43 billion in 1997.

Throughout 2001, rapid change was also seen at the national and state levels. Brazil and Germany announced major new commitments to the development of renewable energy, while the State of California defied US government policy by announcing the world's first mandatory limits on global warming emissions from cars.

Global threats

These success stories offer hope that we can address the serious global threats still undermining societies and ecosystems around the world. Among those discussed in State of the World 2003:

  • Malaria claims 7,000 lives every day, and affects human development more profoundly than any other disease.
  • Bird extinctions are running at some 50 times the natural rate due to habitat loss and other consequences of human activity.
  • 5,500 children die each day from diseases linked to polluted food, air, and water.
  • The global rate of ice melt has more than doubled since 1988 and could raise sea levels 27 centimeters (nearly 11 inches) by 2100.
In the aftermath of the Johannesburg Summit, it seems more likely that sustainable economic growth will emerge from the combined efforts of businesses, citizens' groups, and local governments than via consensus-based global agreements, according to State of the World 2003.The World Summit itself yielded roughly 280 partnership agreements among businesses and non-governmental groups, including collaboration among the UN, national governments, NGOs, and the private sector to produce cleaner vehicles, and a "Water for Life" project that work to provide clean water and sanitation to the poor in Africa and Central Asia.

Mobilising religions

The report also notes that disparate communities can be brought together in the service of sustainability to great effect. It documents how environmentalists and religious people are joining forces in an alliance for environmental health and social justice, from the efforts of Buddhist monks in Thailand to combat deforestation, to the climate change campaign of the World Council of Churches.

"We have seen many times in human history that societies are able to learn quickly from experience, and to then act," says State of the World 2003 project director Gary Gardner. "The growing interest in sustainability among diverse sectors of society could provide the energy needed to boost pilot innovations to a global scale."

For more about this report see Worldwatch