Commentary: 20 years on - and time runs desperately short

Posted: 4 August 2012

Twenty years after People & the Planet magazine was launched at the first Earth Summit to track progress in averting an environmental catastrophe - as the planet heats and its natural resources are plundered – Don Hinrichsen presents a sobering report card on the hesitant steps so far taken as time runs desperately short. 

The first Earth Summit, held in Rio in 1992, exceeded expectations. It resulted in three major treaties – on climate change, biodiversity and desertification – and issued an action plan, known as Agenda 21, currently adopted by some 178 governments. But despite the optimism of the 1990s and the impressive list of conventions and treaties ratified by governments (listed below), the world is still confronted by the same set of intractable environment and resource challenges.

3 billion people could be condemned to poverty by 2040, warns the UN. Photo credit: Climate Action

These pressures have been exacerbated by continued rapid population growth, especially in the poorest countries – those least able to cope with growing numbers and their needs. In stark contrast to the first Earth Summit, Rio +20 failed to produce any binding commitments and no road map, as demanded by both environmental groups and businesses, on how to tackle the immense and growing gap between consumer demand and the availability of critical resources, particularly food, fuel (hydrocarbons), forests and fisheries.

Craig Bennett, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Friends of the Earth, put it bluntly: “The deal that came out of Rio +20 with woolly definitions, old ideas and missing deadlines doesn’t come close to solving the planetary emergency we’re facing.” For the most part, major trends chartered over the past two decades have been going in the wrong direction, as the following report card highlights.

Growing population

The world’s population continues to accelerate, despite an overall decline in the population growth rate, from 1.65 percent in 1992 to 1.2 percent in 2011. The increasing population base, particularly in the poorest countries, is largely responsible: the population growth rate of developing countries is 2-3 times higher than those in developed economies, many of which are not growing at all.

Absolute population growth
Click on image to enlarge.

World population reached 5 billion in 1987, followed rapidly by 6 billion in 1999 and 7 billion in 2011. The world is on course to add 2.3 billion people between 2011 and mid-century, bringing the total to 9.3 billion people. The UN Population Division projects that, if trends hold, the global population will stabilise at around 10 billion by the end of this century.

Growing towns and cities

By 2011, over 3.5 billion people resided in urban areas. Humankind is rapidly becoming urbanised – more than half the world’s population now live in towns and cities. Urban areas account for three quarters of global energy consumption and close to 80 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

At the same time, megacities, those with over 10 million inhabitants, continue to expand, particularly in developing countries. There are currently 23 urban centres with 10 million or more inhabitants; by 2025 the UN projects the number will increase to 37, with London added to the list.

And though the percentage of people residing in urban slums and squatter settlements has dropped, from 46 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2010, their numbers have increased from 656 million in 1990 to 827 million by the end of 2010. This again is a result of the large increase in the world’s population base and the fact that the status of some slums has improved.

Water resources

During the second half of the 20th Century while the global population more than doubled, freshwater use tripled. Technological advances allowed farmers to tap deeper aquifers and harness more river water from dams and barrages. The result is steadily increasing water shortages affecting some two billion people globally. Rivers are running dry, lakes drying up and aquifers, including fossil aquifers, overexploited with water tables dropping dramatically.

Water progress chart

The main reason for increased water consumption is the enormous quantity withdrawn for irrigated agriculture, currently accounting for 70 percent of all water withdrawals globally. Industry and municipalities account for 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Irrigated areas increased from 94 million hectares in 1950 to close to 300 million hectares by 2005. Humankind is now using more than half of all accessible freshwater at the expense of natural systems and the plants and animals that depend on them.

Despite progress, close to a billion people lack access to potable water and 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation.

Food security

Over the last two decades, food production has kept ahead of population growth: between 1992 and 2012, food production increased by 45 percent, compared to a 26 percent increase in the global population. But this increase has come at the expense of freshwater systems and to some extent forest cover. The increase is also due to an over-reliance on agricultural chemicals, principally fertilizers and pesticides.

Over the last two decades, average meat consumption increased from 34 to 43 kilograms per person, accounting for large areas of tropical and sub-tropical forest converted to pastureland.

Human activities have transformed half of the earth’s land surface, changing climate and reducing biodiversity. Land degradation and desertification now consume some 12 million hectares of formerly productive land every year; the principal causes are salinized and waterlogged agricultural land due to wasteful and inappropriate use of irrigation water and the poor land use practices which speed up the advance of deserts in drylands.

Organic farmer, India
Organic farmer in India ploughing green manure into his fields. Photo © Organic India

On a positive note, land for organic farming, which uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, has been growing by 13 percent per year over the past two decades. It now accounts for close to 400,000 square kilometres of farmland.

Disappearing forests

Forestlands have been decimated over the past half century. According to UNEP, the world’s primary forests have been reduced by 300 million hectares since 1990, an area larger than Argentina.

Tropical forests, in particular, have lost half their area. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that over the decade of the 1990s, 16 million hectares were converted to other uses each year, while between 2000 and 2010, some 13 million hectares were lost on average every year.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo © Google Earth

This not only represents a tragic loss of valuable biodiversity but because forests act as a carbon store, their demise releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere contributing some 12-15 percent to global climate change.

Protecting biodiversity

According to the conservation agency WWF, biodiversity has declined by 12 percent globally and by 30 percent in the tropics over the past two decades. WWF’s Living Planet Index is based on the monitoring of over 2,500 vertebrate species. Each year 52 vertebrate species move closer to extinction, as monitored by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The good news is that the world’s protected areas have expanded rapidly over the past two decades. Currently, 13 percent of the earth’s land area is under some form of protection (amounting to 17 million square kilometres), along with 7 percent of coastal areas and 1.4 percent of the world ocean. This represents a hefty increase of 42 percent in globally protected areas between 1992 and 2010.

The challenge, of course, is to actually managed protected areas – giving them a plan, funding and personnel – so that they are not merely lists on a piece of paper.

Oceans under assault

The world ocean is under increasing assault from multiple threats, most land-based. The number of ocean ‘dead zones’, areas where oxygen levels are so depleted that virtually nothing survives higher than bacteria and micro-organisms, have increased dramatically over the past two decades. There are now 400 such dead zones in the world’s oceans covering some 95,000 square miles, mostly in coastal waters.

Bleached corals, Fiji
Corals become "bleached" when water temperatures rise too high and are sustained for too long. Fiji. Photo © Cat HOLLOWAY / WWF-Canon

Another emerging problem is the accelerated acidification of the ocean, caused in part by the higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the water column due to climate change. The ocean’s average pH has declined from 8.11 in 1992 to 8.06 by 2007. Coral reefs, the rainforests of the sea, are currently experiencing higher ocean temperatures and acidity than at any time in the last 400,000 years. If this trend continues, three quarters of the world’s coral reefs could face annihilation by the end of this century.

Capture fisheries have fared worse over the past two decades. Since 1992, the percentage of over-exploited, depleted or slowly recovering fish stocks increased by 33 percent. Fully exploited fisheries now account for 52 percent of all commercially valuable species. Overall, FAO reports that only some 15 percent of stocks are under-exploited or moderately exploited.

At the same time, mariculture and aquaculture – fish farming in salt and freshwater, respectively – have greatly increased, from 14 million tons in 1992 to 51 million tons in 2010.

Climate change

Globally, carbon dioxide emissions increased by 36 percent between 1992 and 2008 – from 22 billion tons to more than 30 billion tons. Much of the increase was due to the rapid economic growth of China, India and Brazil as these countries developed large infrastructure projects and massive manufacturing capacity. Their carbon dioxide emissions increased by 64 percent over the past two decades, compared to an 8 percent increase in developed countries.

The per capita emissions of developed countries as a whole declined by 18 percent over this period, while in the newly emerging economies of Asia and Latin America, per capita emissions increased by 29 percent. And while China has now become the country with biggest source of total greenhouse gas emissions, its per capita emissions at the moment remain well below those of the United States.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased from 357 parts per million in 1992 to 389 ppm in 2011. It should be noted that when levels reach 400 ppm, climatologists are projecting major and irreversible changes in global climate, including a dramatic increase in severe weather patterns.

Arctic sea ice 2011
Arctic sea ice has shrunk. Diagram shows extent in September 2011.

Meanwhile, global temperatures continue to break records. The ten hottest years on record have occurred since 1998. Eighteen of the last 21 years feature among the warmest since reliable records began to be kept in 1880.
Sea levels have also been rising inexorably - by 2.5 mm per year since 1992. This is due to the fact that sea water expands when heated, coupled to the melting of land-based icecaps in the Arctic, on Greenland and to some extent in the Antarctic.

On the plus side, the world has seen a persistent increase in the number of global conventions and treaties signed and ratified since the 1970s. Since 1992, Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) have increased by some 330 percent. Of the world’s 14 major MEAs – such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ramsar Convention, Kyoto Protocol, Basel Convention – 60 countries have signed all of them, while most countries have signed 9 of the 14.

The problem, of course, is that signing a convention or treaty does not mean that these countries have put in place management plans and actions designed to actually address the main issues. 



Major Multilateral Environmental Agreements

1971, The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
1972, World Heritage Convention provides for the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage.
1973, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, limits trade in endangered species.
1973/78, The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).
1979, The Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, protects countries against air pollution arising from sources outside their borders, often from other continents
1979, The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, conserves terrestrial, aquatic, oceanic and avian migratory species and habitats.
1982, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, sets a comprehensive legal regime for the world ocean, including combating ocean pollution.
1983, Cartagena Convention (Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean, sets out measures to prevent and reduce pollution, seabed activities, dumping and wastes from land-based sources.
1987, the Montreal Protocol of the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer, sets out legal obligations and timetables for the progressive reduction or elimination of certain ozone-depleting substances.
1989, The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, was developed in response to the discovery of toxic wastes in developing countries, imported from developed countries.
1992, Agenda 21 and the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, was intended to be a blueprint for sustainable economic development into the 21st Century. Agreed during the Earth Summit.
1992, The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), provides a framework for future agreements and action to regulate greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.
1992, The Convention on Biological Diversity, aims to conserve biological diversity, and share the benefits of utilising genetic resources.
1996, The UN Convention to Combat Desertification aims to combat desertification and to mitigate the effects of drought through long term management strategies.
1998, The Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent Procedure to Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to the importation of hazardous chemicals.
2001, Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, aims to eliminate or restrict the production and use of persistent organic pollutants.

Don Hinrichsen is a Contributing Editor of this website, former editor of the environmental magazine, Ambio, and author of The Atlas of Coasts and Oceans.