Bigger response to global threats essential, says UN

Posted: 24 October 2007

In a new global assessment of the State of the World, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says that governments, businesses and individuals have not given environmental action the priority required despite better scientific understanding that the future of humankind depends on a healthy environment.

The report says that climate change is a key factor in the death of 1.5 million lives over the last two decades from ‘natural disasters’ such as floods, windstorms and extreme temperatures which have affected more than 200 million people.

Changing world graphs (GEO-4)
Changing world graphs (GEO-4)
Over the last 20 years, the human population has increased by a third, global trade has tripled, and per capita income has gone up by 40%. Annual emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, have also increased by one third. Click on image for larger version.

Failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will hit the poorest hardest and impacts will be severe and far reaching, it warns. Impacts include sea-level rise, increased frequency and intensity of heat waves, storms, floods, droughts, changing rainfall patterns and water availability, land degradation, and biodiversity loss.

Together these will threaten settlements and food security. They will also disrupt social relations and contribute to conflict.

But concludes UNEP's Environment for Development Report, (GEO-4), land availability and loss of biodiversity are just as urgent as climate change. If the future 9 billion people on this planet are to be assured of food and clean drinking water, the demand for land will be just as pressing a problem in the coming decades as climate change is now.

Shrinking earth map (GEO-4)
Shrinking earth map (GEO-4)
As the human population grows it has reached the point, the UN says, "where the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available". Click on image for larger version.

It says all the available evidence points to a sixth major extinction event currently underway. Unlike the previous five events, which were due to natural disasters and planetary change the current loss of biodiversity is mainly due to human activities. Global market demand for high value commodities, such as soybeans and bio-fuels, has resulted in substantial ecosystem degradation.

Exporting of vulnerability Vulnerability to environmental change cannot be considered separately from other changes occurring in the current, globalising world, the report says. Vulnerability is concerned with distribution of risks and inequality. In many cases it is the poor, the elderly, children, the women and the indigenous population who are the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental changes. Some of the problems of industrialised countries, or solutions to these problems, are shifted to developing countries, taking with them immediate consequences for the vulnerable groups.

Examples are seen in the import of palm oil as fuel, without considering the consequences for the local population. Other examples are the negative consequences for local employment in the fishing industry by competition of the international fleet and the local health effects due to the transfer of production and the export of wastes.

Fresh water map (GEO-4)
Fresh water map (GEO-4)
The availability of fresh water will decline, according to the UN, who project that by 2025 1.8bn people will be affected by water scarcity. Sanitation is also a major issue, as contaminated water is the greatest single cause of human disease and death. The state of the world's fisheries is also touched on by the report which says many fish stocks are overexploited, while the demand for fish is expected to rise alongside growing populations.

GEO-4 shows that access to clean drinking water is declining. In 2025 approximately 1.8 billion people will face a shortage of drinking water. In the coming decades drinking of contaminated water will continue to be the most important cause of poor health and mortality in the environmental domain.

Two billion people will be confronted with the effects of non-sustainable land use due to soil contamination and erosion, water shortage and salinisation, it says. The competition for land and water among the various sectors such as agriculture, biofuels, nature conservation and urbanization will continue to increase the tension. The GEO scenarios demonstrate a growing competition in the tropics.

Environmental change has also altered disease patterns and increased human exposure to diseases.

Positive steps

However, the report also points to positive achievements over the last 20 years, including a decrease in the consumption of ozone depleting substances. The ozone hole over the Antarctica is expected to recover by 2060, the report says.

The decline in the area of temperate forest has also been reversed with an increase of 30,000km2 between 1990 and 2005.

Commenting on the report, Mike Childs, Campaigns Director at Friends of the Earth, said "It is now clearer than ever that we need concerted international political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt the loss of wildlife and ecosystems.

"This report clearly demonstrates that we also need a step change in understanding that the steady degradation of the world’s environment threatens the well-being of everybody on the planet. Our response to this planetary emergency must be to harness humankind's amazing ingenuity to make the next two decades a time of innovation and determination to create a fairer and greener world."Environmental change has also altered disease patterns and increased human exposure to diseases.

UNEP started to publish the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) reports in 1997. These provide analyses of the global interactions between environment and society.

More news from UNEP here

To download the GEO-4 report, go here