Is there a future for the global environment?

Imagine if you will a world growing ever more crowded with resource-hungry humans. Add to that dwindling clean water supplies, forest clearance, poisoning and loss of fertile agricultural soils and depletion of one third of available fish stocks, but an increase in national parks, and a reduction of ozone-depleting substances. This is the state of the world today compared to 30 years ago, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) ground breaking Global Environment Outlook-3 (GEO-3) report.

GEO-3 is a unique study that looks at the global policies and environmental impacts over the past 30 years. The culmination of work by over 1000 experts, the report provides a detailed account of what has happened to the global environment since UNEP was created in 1972. The report goes on to provide four alternative environmental policy approaches for the next 30 years, comparing and contrasting the potential future scenarios arising from each one.

A spokesman from UNEP told edie that the GEO-3 report aims to highlight the fact that there are many decisions to be made by governments all over the world that can lead to a reversal in the decline of the global environment. “By releasing this report, we want to ask governments Do you like what you see?” explains the spokesman. As heads of state meet later this year at the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the UN hopes that governments will realise that is it time to act and to implement the agreements and treaties for environmental protection drawn up over the last 30 years.

According to the UN, the state of the global environment includes:

  • human induced land degradation in India causing agricultural productivity losses of around US$2.4 billion annually;
  • around two billion hectares of soil, equal to 15% of the Earth’s land cover, is now classed as degraded as a result of human activities such as artificial irrigation and overgrazing;
  • over 11,000 species of plants and animals are likely to become extinct within the next 30 years, including one quarter of all existing mammals;
  • a billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people still need improved sanitation;
  • each year, consumption of contaminated shellfish is causing an estimated 2.5 million cases of infectious hepatitis, resulting in 25,000 deaths.

However, GEO-3 did not take an entirely pessimistic view of the world over the last 30 years. For example, there has been an increase in the total extent of protected areas such as national parks, showing growth from just less than 3 million square kilometres in 1970 to over 12 million square kilometres today. These areas are proving to be relatively successful in halting problems such as land clearance, but so far are less able to tackle issues such as logging, hunting and grazing pressures.

Even though the size of the hole in the ozone layer continues to increase, the world consumption of ozone depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has been reduced by 85% since the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987. It is expected that the ozone layer will recover to pre-1980s levels by the middle of the 21st century.

GEO-3 concludes that one of the key driving forces for declining environmental quality and human health has been the growing gap between the rich and poor parts of the globe. Currently, one fifth of the world’s population accounts for nearly 90% of the total personal consumption globally, while around four billion people are surviving on less than US$1-2 per day. The main driving force putting pressure on land resources is the escalating human population, with 2200 million more mouths to feed than there were in 1972.

GEO-3 makes it clear that a purely market driven or “markets first” approach to future global development will lead to continued and escalating decline in the environment and dependent human health. The most contrasting scenario to this is a “sustainability first” approach in which not just governments but everyone in the world is involved with far reaching changes in values and lifestyles, form policies and co-operation between all sectors of society.

Suggested actions from GEO 3 include improved policy performance monitoring, strengthening of international environmental legislation and compliance, changing trade patterns to benefit the environment and making global markets work for sustainable development.

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