Political leaders face historic evolutionary choices

Political leaders around the world have an unrivalled opportunity for making historic, even evolutionary choices regarding economics, ecology, and the fate of the planet as a whole, according to a Washington-based environmental think-tank.

Many life support systems around the world are at risk of long-term damage, caused by factors such as climate change, pollution, and human population increase, says a new report by the Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2001. Environmental degradation is even leading to more severe natural disasters (see story on El Salvador in this week’s bulletin), which have cost the world $608 billion over the last decade, as much as in the previous four decades combined. This means that political leaders have to decide whether to move forward rapidly with the building of a sustainable economy, or whether to risk undermining it by allowing increasing human numbers and greenhouse gas emissions, and the loss of natural systems.

The report states that signs of accelerated ecological decline have coincided with a loss of political momentum on environmental issues, as illustrated by the latest failure of governments around the world to forge an agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Such a state of politics calls into question whether the world will be able to turn these trends around before the economy suffers irreversible damage, says the Institute. In particular, the nine large developing or industrial nations that are the most important players in both environmental and economic terms, hold the key. These ‘E9 countries’ consist of China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Japan, South Africa, and the European Union.

“Governments squandered a historic opportunity to reverse environmental decline during the prosperity of the 1990’s,” said Christopher Flavin, President of the Worldwatch Institute and co-author of the report. “If in the current climate of political and economic uncertainty, political leaders were to roll back environmental laws or fail to complete key international agreements, decades of progress could unravel.”

Even our education systems have contributed greatly to the global environmental crisis, says the report. Education rarely challenges the modern world view, which places nature at the service of humankind and splinters knowledge into disconnected disciplines. “Whether formal education today is capable of standing outside of society and critiquing it in a way that creates a world view grounded in sustainability is unclear,” says co-author Gary Gardner.

One sign of ecological decline described in the report is the risk of extinction that hangs over dozens of species frogs and other amphibians around the world, due to pressures that range from deforestation to ozone depletion. Amphibians could be described as an important barometer of the Earth’s health, being more sensitive to environmental stress than many other organisms, says the report.

Environmental decline is also exacting a toll on people, according to State of the World 2001. Even after a decade of declining poverty in many nations, 1.2 billion people lack access to clean water and hundreds of millions breath unhealthy air. Populations of many third world countries are also pushed to destroy forests and coral reefs in a desperate effort to raise living standards.

“Mobilising the worldwide response needed to bring destructive environmental trends under control is a daunting task,” said Gardner. “But people have surmounted great challenges before, from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, to the enfranchisement of women in the early twentieth. Change can move quickly from impossible to inevitable.”

However, there are some early signs of progress which have emerged in the past year, such as a treaty between 122 countries in December to restrict organic pollutants, and the fact that organic farming has surged to a worldwide market worth $22 billion per year. Iceland has launched a pioneering effort to become the world’s first hydrogen economy, using the fuel to power its transport system, thus slashing greenhouse gas emissions, and the Chairman of the Ford Motor Company also questioned the future of the internal combustion engine.

Other success stories of recent years highlighted in the report, includes that of Danish windpower. The country is now a world supplier of cutting edge technology, accounting for 60% of global wind turbine exports. Within Denmark, there is an aim to cut carbon emissions by 20% on 1988 levels by 2005, and more than 100,000 families now own wind turbines or shares in wind co-operatives. Serious opposition to turbines due to noise and wildlife disturbance has not developed partly because of a requirement for those benefiting from the scheme to live within three kilometres of a turbine.

In order to prevent future failure of international environmental agreements which are currently hampering progress, State of the Worldcalls for stronger enforcement of treaties, and for increased North-South co-operation particularly among the E9 countries. In particular, the Institute is concerned about the effect of the new US administration. “The US has the world’s largest economy and its environmental impact is second to none, so the signal it sends is crucial,” says Flavin.

“The question now is one of leadership,” he added. “Will the United States lead the world to a sustainable economy in the twenty-first century – as it led the way through global crises in the last century? Or will it be left to other countries to show the way to a sustainable economy in the new millennium?”

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