Future Is At Risk
By Steve Connor
26 October, 2007
landmark assessment by the UN of the state of the world's environment
paints the bleakest picture yet of our planet's well-being. The warning
is stark: humanity's future is at risk unless urgent action is taken.
Over the past 20 years, almost every index of the planet's health has
worsened. At the same time, personal wealth in the richest countries
has grown by a third.
The report, by the United
Nations Environment Programme (Unep), warns that the vital natural resources
which support life on Earth have suffered significantly since the first
such report, published in 1987. However, this gradual depletion of the
world's natural "capital" has coincided with unprecedented
economic gains for developed nations, which, for many people, have masked
the growing crisis.
Nearly 400 experts from around
the world contributed to the report, which warns that humanity itself
could be at risk if nothing is done to address the three major environmental
problems of a growing human population, climate change and the mass
extinction of animals and plants.
The report is the fruit of
five years' work by leading scientists and is the fourth in a series
since the publication in 1987 of Our Common Future by an international
commission into the state of the global environment chaired by the former
Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
Achim Steiner, the executive
director of Unep, said that the objective of the latest report was not
to present a "dark and gloomy scenario" but to make the case
for an urgent call to action. However, the dire state of almost every
aspect of the planet's wellbeing points to 20 years of missed opportunities.
Mr Steiner said yesterday
at the launch of the report that it was illuminating how over the past
20 years the financial wealth of the planet has soared by around a third.
"But at the same time it is sobering: much of the 'natural' capital
upon which so much of human well-being and economic activity depends
– water, land, the air and atmosphere, biodiversity and marine
resources – continue their seemingly inexorable decline,"
Meanwhile, the political
response to the growing emergency has been limited. "Without an
accelerated effort to reform the way we collectively do business on
planet Earth, we will shortly be in trouble if indeed we are not already,"
Mr Steiner said.
"There have been enough
wake-up calls. I sincerely hope this is the final one. The systematic
destruction of the Earth's natural and nature-based resources has reached
a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged
– and the bill we hand on to our children may prove impossible
to pay," he said.
The fourth Unep report since
the seminal 1987 report of the Brundtland Commission reveals a stark
continuation in the environment's decline. The environmental "footprint"
of humanity has increased dramatically in 20 years, with a rising population
and increased use of energy, land and other natural resources.
Unep's Global Environment
Outlook (GEO-4) states that the human demand on the planet now means
we are living beyond our means. The present footprint is equivalent
to 22 hectares per person, whereas the natural carrying capacity of
the Earth is less than 16 hectares per person, the report says.
The world economy has at
the same time boomed, with the global GDP per capita rising from about
$6,000 (£2,920) to just over $8,000. But this increased wealth
has been geared towards the developed world and has come at an enormous
cost to the environment. Available freshwater stocks have declined dramatically
since the 1980s, in west Asia, for instance, from 1,700 cubic metres
per person per year, to 907 cubic metres today. By the middle of the
century, this is likely to fall still further to 420 cubic metres per
person per year. Over the past 20 years, the proportion of fish stocks
in the world that have collapsed has doubled from 15 per cent to 30
per cent. At the same time the proportion of fish stocks that are deemed
to be overexploited has risen from 20 per cent to 40 per cent.
The intensity with which
agricultural land is farmed has also increased, and with it the burden
of soil erosion, water scarcity, nutrient depletion and pollution. In
1987, a hectare of cropland yielded 1.8 tons of produce, but due to
intensification this has now risen to 2.5 tons.
Energy consumption in developed
nations has risen significantly. In Canada and the US, for instance,
the demand for energy has grown by 19 per cent since 1987. Concentrations
of carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas, are about a third higher
than they were 20 years ago.
Species of animals and plants
are estimated to be going extinct at a rate that is about 100 times
faster than the historical record, largely as a result of human activities.
Biologists have now classified 30 per cent of amphibians, 23 per cent
of mammals and 12 per cent of birds as threatened.
A growing human population,
which is expected to reach nine billion by the mid-century, will place
increasing pressure on land, water and biodiversity. Land will have
to be more intensively farmed, or more land will have be cultivated.
"Either way, biodiversity suffers," the report says.
Against a background of continued
degradation of the land and oceans, of population increases and of species
extinctions, lies the spectre of climate change – one the biggest
threats facing humanity in the 21st century. There is now "visible
and unequivocal" evidence that global warming is causing further
impacts on the global environment, the GEO-4 report says.
Mike Childs, the campaigns
director at Friends of the Earth, said the report made it clear we need
concerted international political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
and halt the loss of wildlife and ecosystems. "This report clearly
demonstrates that we also need a step change in understanding that the
steady degradation of the world's environment threatens the well-being
of everybody on the planet," he said.
"Our response to this
planetary emergency must be to harness humankind's amazing ingenuity
to make the next two decades a time of innovation and determination
to create a fairer and greener world."
Twenty years of environmental
Since 1987, when the landmark
UN report Our Common Future (overseen by Gro Harlem Brundtland, right)
warned of the need for concerted action to secure humanity's future,
the state of the global environment has declined in numerous ways.
* The availability of fresh
water had declined dramatically. In west Asia, for instance, available
fresh water has fallen from 1,700 cubic metres per person per year to
907 cubic metres, largely due to pollution and demand.
* Levels of carbon dioxide
have risen by a third and energy demands of countries such as the United
States and Canada are nearly a fifth higher than in 1987.
* In 1987, about 15 per cent
of global fish stocks were classified as collapsed, and 20 per cent
were overexploited. Now 30 per cent have collapsed and a further 40
per cent are overexploited.
* The number of species which
is threatened with extinction has increased. Since 1987, there has been
a 50 per cent decline in the populations of some freshwater animals
and a 30 per cent fall among terrestrial and marine species.
* The agricultural intensification
of cultivated land has risen, with greater impact on pollution, nutrient
depletion and water use. A hectare of farmland in 1987 produced an average
yield of 1.8 tons, but now it produces 2.5 tons.
* Human population has increased
by a third since 1987. At the same time there has been a threefold increase
in global trade and average income per head has increased by a third,
with global GDP per capita rising from $6,000 in 1987 to a total of
© 2007 Independent News
and Media Limited
Share Your Insights
it! And spread the word!
Here is a unique chance to help this article to be read by thousands
of people more. You just Digg it, and it will appear in the home page
of Digg.com and thousands more will read it. Digg is nothing but an
vote, the article with most votes will go to the top of the page. So,
as you read just give a digg and help thousands more to read this article.