US and Canadian environmental improvements are at the expense of global resources

The US and Canada will have to face serious environmental challenges if they are to achieve sustainable development, according to a new report by three major international organisations. The countries’ success in improving their own environments has been at the expense of global natural resources and climate, says the report.

The new report has been produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) and the Canadian-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

The good news is that the two countries have succeeded in stabilising desertification and have reduced the discharge of toxic chemicals into the Great Lakes by as much as 71%. They have also set aside between 11% and 13% of their land as parks and other protected areas, and over 70% of Canada’s wetland resources are now covered by federal and provincial wetland policies.

The US managed to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 31% in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and both nations have reduced non-essential chlorofluorocarbon consumption to nearly zero.

However, lately, progress has slowed, and there are still serious challenges to be faced, say the three organisations. These include actions to counteract the fact that soil and wetland losses are still higher than gains and aquifers are still being depleted.

“While Canada and the US have had notable success in resolving a lot of environmental problems, progress has slowed largely due to increasing consumption by its growing population,” said Brennan Van Dyke, Regional Director of the UNEP’s regional office for North America.

For instance, total energy use in the region grew by 31% between 1972 and 1997. There is also now a consumer lifestyle based on the desire for mobility, convenience, and product disposability.

The countries’ challenges also include changes towards the use of fuel-efficient vehicles, and development strategies that curb urban sprawl. People also need to start connecting climate to individual behaviour, and decision-makers need the political will to introduce improvements, says the report.

“Given the successes of Canada and the United States in the last 30 years, it is a surprise that President Bush himself is not attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development,” said Executive Vice President of the WRI Paul Faeth. “Protecting the global environment cannot be done by the United States alone, but should always be in concert with the rest of the world community.”

However, last week it was revealed that the US citizens and Canadians are only the second and third highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gas emissions. Australians produce on average 35% more greenhouse gases than their nearest rivals in the US (see related story).

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