Water shortage and global warming pose highest risks says UN global environment report

The most worrying concerns for the next millennium are water shortage and global warming, and the top priority for action is to integrate environmental concerns into other areas, according to Global Environment Outlook 2000 (GEO-2000) - "the most authoritative assessment ever of the environmental crisis facing humanity in the new millennium", launched by UNEP this week.

“Our present course is unsustainable – postponing action is no longer an option,” said UNEP Executive Director, Klaus Töpfer, launching the report. GEO 2000 is based on contributions from UN agencies, 850 individuals and 30 environmental institutes. It outlines progress in tackling existing problems, points to serious new threats, and concludes by setting out recommendations for immediate, integrated action.

A key finding is that: “The continued poverty of the majority of the planet’s inhabitants and excessive consumption by the minority are the two major causes of environmental degradation. The present course is unsustainable and postponing action is no longer an option.”

“Despite successes on various fronts, time for a rational, well-planned transition to a sustainable system is running out fast,” said Töpfer. “In some areas, it has already run out. In others, new problems are emerging which compound already difficult situations.”

According to GEO-2000, full scale emergencies now exist in a number of fields. The world water cycle seems unlikely to be able to cope with demands in the coming decades, land degradation has negated many advances made by increased agricultural productivity, air pollution is at crisis point in many major cities and global warming now seems inevitable.

Tropical forests and marine fisheries have been over-exploited while numerous plant and animal species and extensive stretches of coral reefs will be lost forever – thanks to inadequate policy response.

In a survey conducted by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment for GEO-2000, 200 scientists in 50 countries identified water shortage and global warming as the two most worrying problems for the new millennium. Desertification and deforestation at national and regional level was also a frequently cited concern.

While most issues raised are well-known, GEO-2000 also identifies newer threats such as:

  • nitrogen’s harmful impact on ecosystems
  • increased severity of natural disasters
  • species invasion as a result of globalisation
  • increased environmental pressures caused by urbanisation
  • decline in the quality of governance in some countries
  • new wars which impact on both the immediate environment and neighbouring states
  • the impact of refugees on the natural environment.

At the core of GEO-2000’s recommendations is a reinforcement of Agenda 21’s call for environmental integration. “The environment remains largely outside the mainstream of everyday human consciousness and is still considered an add-on to the fabric of life,” says the report.

Institutions such as treasuries, central banks, planning departments and trade bodies frequently ignore sustainability questions in favour of short-term economic options. “Integration of environmental thinking into the mainstream of decision-making relating to agriculture, trade, investment, research and development, infrastructure and finance is now the best chance for effective action,” says GEO-2000.

National Governments, international organisations, private sector, community groups, NGOs and ordinary citizens all have a role to play in putting the environment at the forefront of the political agenda, says GEO-2000. “Environmental education, like mathematics, (should be) part of the standard educational curriculum,” says GEO-2000, adding that we must “encourage the media to devote as much attention to environmental issues as they do to crime, politics, sport and finance.”

The full report is linked below.

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