The United Nations’ environment agency has issued a major report, “Global Environment Outlook 2000,” which deplores the planet’s condition and predicts new threats--such as increased levels of nitrogen in the water supply--that must be dealt with.
Gains made by better management and technology, the report said, are being outpaced by the environmental impacts of population and economic growth.
“We are on an unsustainable course,” Klaus Toepfer, head of the United Nations Environment Program, said during the African launch of the report in Nairobi, Kenya on September 21.
The report says emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming have quadrupled since the 1950s, and “binding” targets to reduce emissions agreed to by governments at last year’s Kyoto summit may not be met.
The rate at which humans are destroying the environment is accelerating--often the result of excessive consumption by the rich and to the detriment of the poor.
About 20 percent of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water and 50 percent have no access to a sanitation system. This situation will worsen as the world’s population--already six billion--will increase by 50 percent in the next 50 years.
Eighty percent of the world’s original forest cover has been cleared or degraded, and logging and mining projects threaten 39 percent of what forest remains.
Further, the report says that a quarter of mammal species are at risk of extinction, while more than half the world’s coral reefs are threatened by human activity.
Eight hundred and fifty persons contributed to the report, which took two and a half years to compile.
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Disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires are increasing in frequency and severity and have killed some three million people in the last 30 years. Armed conflicts and unprecedented flows of refugees are causing greater damage to the environment than ever before.
Further, humans are seriously destabilizing the global nitrogen balance. Huge amounts of nitrogen are being deposited on land and in water through intensive agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels. Eventually, this could make freshwater supplies unfit for human consumption, the report says.
“The full extent of the damage is only now becoming apparent as we begin to piece together a comprehensive overview of the extremely complex, interconnected web that is our life support system,” said Toepfer, a former German environment minister.
Much damage cannot be repaired, but with mobilization of huge resources and strong political will, the report said much can still be done to prevent further destruction.
It suggested a long-term target of a 90 percent reduction in the consumption of raw materials in industrialized countries. Without such limitations, hundreds of millions of people will be condemned to a life of suffering.