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Monday, Jan. 10, 2000

This is last chance to get straight with environment -- UNEP report


This is last chance to get straight with environment -- UNEP report ft,b For those of us who get a kick out of odometers hitting big round numbers, this is it, a new century. Environmentally speaking, though, 100-year blocks of time are almost irrelevant.

Or they were, until very recently. Not any more. With human population swelling past 6 billion and the impact of our activities being felt from pole to pole, mere decades are now significant. In all likelihood, within the next 50 years we are going to make or break the global environment as we know it.

Of course, some of you may have niggling doubts about my ability to assess the state of the planet. For those readers, the United Nations Environment Program has released a millennium report, the "Global Environment Outlook 2000."

Here is UNEP's prognosis in a nutshell: "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."

No, GEO 2000 is not reassuring, but neither is it overly pessimistic. The report acknowledges that we have the means to act; we simply need the will.

"The global system of environmental management is moving in the right direction, but much too slowly," it states. "If the new millennium is not to be marred by major environmental disasters, alternative policies will have to be swiftly implemented." The report warns that many efforts to halt environmental degradation "are too few and too late," while "signs of improvements are few and far between."

GEO 2000 is the work of more than 850 people, 35 institutions and experts from more than 100 nations. UNEP launched the GEO Project in 1995, in order to establish "a truly global participatory assessment process to keep under review the state of the world's environment, as well as to guide international policy setting," according to Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of UNEP.

Below are some highlights of the report, beginning with some major global trends. (Read these slowly so they have a moment to sink in.)

* Global emissions of carbon dioxide reached a new high of nearly 23,900 million tons in 1996 -- nearly four times the 1950 total.

* Without the Montreal Protocol, levels of ozone-depleting substances would have been five times higher by 2050 than they are today.

* In 1996, 25 percent of the world's approximately 4,630 mammal species and 11 percent of the 9,675 bird species were at significant risk of total extinction.

* If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three persons on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.

* More than half the world's coral reefs are potentially threatened by human activities, with up to 80 percent at risk in the most populated areas.

* Global pesticide use results in 3.5 million-5 million acute poisonings a year.

* A tenfold reduction in resource consumption in industrialized countries is necessary if adequate resources are to be available for the needs of developing nations.

GEO 2000 notes that extreme discrepancies in wealth distribution are a critical concern. "A significant proportion of humanity still lives in dire poverty, and projected trends are for an increasing divergence between those that benefit from economic and technological development, and those that do not. This unsustainable progression of extremes of wealth and poverty threatens the stability of society as a whole, and with it the global environment."

Counter to conventional wisdom, development is not cleaning up our messes.

"Environmental stewardship is lagging behind economic and social development," the report says. "Environmental gains from new technology and policies are being overtaken by population growth and economic development."

Resolving the imbalances that divide the world today "is the only way of ensuring a more sustainable future for the planet and society," warns UNEP.

The report notes, however, that "trends toward environmental degradation can be slowed, and economic activity can be shifted to a more sustainable pattern." For example, "Some environmental trends . . . demonstrate the potential of regulation, information and, above all, prices to encourage both more efficient and less polluting uses of energy and materials."

Consumers, it seems, are catching on. Now producers have to catch up: "Better public understanding of the environmental consequences of the consumer society has begun to catalyze profound shifts in purchasing behavior and lifestyle choices." The challenge for policymakers now is "to devise approaches that encourage a more efficient, fair and responsible use of natural resources by the production sectors of the economy."

GEO 2000 offers four sets of recommendations aimed at reversing unwanted trends and reducing environmental threats. These include:

* "Filling the knowledge gaps" with better data and information, better evaluation of policy performance and assessment of links between trade and environment.

* "Tackling root causes" by reducing environmentally damaging subsidies, improving energy conservation and adopting improved production technologies.

* "Taking an integrated approach," making environment part of mainstream thinking, integrating environmental management and improving international coordination.

* "Mobilizing action" through cooperation among individuals, NGOs, industry, local and national governments and international organizations. This means increasing public participation in environmental action, encouraging industries to set environmental targets, stimulating government action and increasing support for and the coordination of international organizations.

This is just a glimpse of GEO 2000. If you study or teach (and we all do both by turns), see the Web for the entire UNEP report at www-cger.nies.go.jp/geo2000/

Comments and questions welcome at steve@tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


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