Friday, October 26, 2007

Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4) report

Planet's Tougher Problems Persist, UN Report Warns

Nairobi/New York, 25 October:

The United Nations Environment Programme says that major threats to the planet such as climate change, the rate of extinction of species, and the challenge of feeding a growing population are among the many that remain unresolved, and all of them put humanity at risk.

The warning comes in UNEP's Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4) report published 20 years after the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) produced its seminal report, Our Common Future.

GEO-4, the latest in UNEP's series of flagship reports, assesses the current state of the global atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity, describes the changes since 1987, and identifies priorities for action. GEO-4 is the most comprehensive UN report on the environment, prepared by about 390 experts and reviewed by more than 1 000 others across the world.

It salutes the world's progress in tackling some relatively straightforward problems, with the environment now much closer to mainstream politics everywhere. But despite these advances, there remain the harder-to-manage issues, the "persistent" problems. Here, GEO-4 says:

"There are no major issues raised in Our Common Future for which the foreseeable trends are favourable."

Failure to address these persistent problems, UNEP says, may undo all the achievements so far on the simpler issues, and may threaten humanity's survival. But it insists: "The objective is not to present a dark and gloomy scenario, but an urgent call for action."

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The international community's response to the Brundtland Commission has in some cases been courageous and inspiring. But all too often it has been slow and at a pace and scale that fails to respond to or recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet".

"Over the past 20 years, the international community has cut, by 95 per cent, the production of ozone-layer damaging chemicals; created a greenhouse gas emission reduction treaty along with innovative carbon trading and carbon offset markets; supported a rise in terrestrial protected areas to cover roughly 12 per cent of the Earth and devised numerous important instruments covering issues from biodiversity and desertification to the trade in hazardous wastes and living modified organisms," he added.

"But, as GEO-4 points out, there continue to be 'persistent' and intractable problems unresolved and unaddressed. Past issues remain and new ones are emerging?from the rapid rise of oxygen 'dead zones' in the oceans to the resurgence of new and old diseases linked in part with environmental degradation. Meanwhile, institutions like UNEP, established to counter the root causes, remain under-resourced and weak," said Mr Steiner.

On climate change the report says the threat is now so urgent that large cuts in greenhouse gases by mid-century are needed. Negotiations are due to start in December on a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate agreement which
obligates countries to control anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Although it exempts all developing countries from emission reduction commitments, there is growing pressure for some rapidly-industrializing countries, now substantial emitters themselves, to agree to emission reductions.

GEO-4 also warns that we are living far beyond our means. The human population is now so large that "the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available... humanity's footprint [its environmental demand] is 21.9 hectares per person while the Earth's biological capacity is, on average, only 15.7 ha/person...".

And it says the well-being of billions of people in the developing world is at risk, because of a failure to remedy the relatively simple problems which have been successfully tackled elsewhere.

GEO-4 recalls the Brundtland Commission's statement that the world does not face separate crises - the "environmental crisis", "development crisis", and "energy crisis" are all one. This crisis includes not just climate change, extinction rates and hunger, but other problems driven by growing human numbers, the rising consumption of the rich and the desperation of the poor.
Examples are:

- decline of fish stocks;
- loss of fertile land through degradation;
- unsustainable pressure on resources;
- dwindling amount of fresh water available for humans and other creatures to share; and
- risk that environmental damage could pass unknown points of no return.

GEO-4 says climate change is a "global priority", demanding political will and leadership. Yet it finds "a remarkable lack of urgency", and a "woefully inadequate" global response.

Several highly-polluting countries have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. GEO-4 says: "... some industrial sectors that were unfavourable to the... Protocol managed successfully to undermine the political will to ratify it." It says: "Fundamental changes in social and economic structures, including lifestyle changes, are crucial if rapid progress is to be achieved."

Among the other critical points it identifies are:

Water: Irrigation already takes about 70 per cent of available water, yet meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger will mean doubling food production by 2050. Fresh water is declining: by 2025, water use is predicted to have risen by 50 per cent in developing countries and by 18 per cent in the developed world. GEO-4 says: "The escalating burden of water demand will become intolerable in water-scarce countries."

Water quality is declining too, polluted by microbial pathogens and excessive nutrients. Globally, contaminated water remains the greatest single cause of human disease and death.
Fish: Consumption more than tripled from 1961 to 2001. Catches have stagnated or slowly declined since the 1980s. Subsidies have created excess fishing capacity, estimated at 250 per cent more than is needed to catch the oceans' sustainable production.

Biodiversity: Current biodiversity changes are the fastest in human history. Species are becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the rate shown in the fossil record. The Congo Basin's bushmeat trade is thought to be six times the sustainable rate. Of the major vertebrate groups that have been assessed comprehensively, over 30 per cent of amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are threatened.

The intrusion of invasive alien species is a growing problem. The comb jellyfish, accidentally introduced in 1982 by US ships, has taken over the entire marine ecosystem of the Black Sea, and had destroyed 26 commercial fisheries by 1992.

A sixth major extinction is under way, this time caused by human behaviour. Yet to meet our growing demand for food will mean either intensified agriculture (using more chemicals, energy and water, and more efficient breeds and crops) or cultivating more land. Either way, biodiversity suffers.

One sign of progress is the steady increase in protected areas. But they must be effectively managed and properly enforced. And biodiversity (of all sorts, not just the "charismatic megafauna" like tigers and elephants) will increasingly need conserving outside protected areas as well.

Regional Pressures: This is the first GEO report in which all seven of the world's regions emphasize the potential impacts of climate change. In Africa, land degradation and even desertification are threats; per capita food production has declined by 12 per cent since 1981.

Unfair agricultural subsidies in developed regions continue to hinder progress towards increasing yields. Priorities for Asia and the Pacific include urban air quality, fresh water stress, degraded ecosystems, agricultural land use and increased waste. Drinking water provision has made remarkable progress in the last decade, but the illegal traffic in electronic and hazardous waste is a new challenge. Europe's rising incomes and growing numbers of households are leading to unsustainable production and consumption, higher energy use, poor urban air quality, and transport problems. The region's other priorities are biodiversity loss, land-use change and freshwater stresses.

Latin America and the Caribbean face urban growth, biodiversity threats, coastal damage and marine pollution, and vulnerability to climate change. But protected areas now cover about 12 per cent of the land, and annual deforestation rates in the Amazon are falling. North America is struggling to address climate change, to which energy use, urban sprawl and freshwater stresses are all linked. Energy efficiency gains have been countered by the use of larger vehicles, low fuel economy standards, and increases in car numbers and distances travelled. For West Asia the priorities are freshwater stresses, degradation of land, coasts and marine ecosystems, urban management, and peace and security. Water-borne diseases and the sharing of international water resources are also concerns. The Polar Regions are already feeling the impacts of climate change. The food security and health of indigenous peoples are at risk from increasing mercury and persistent organic pollutants in the environment. The ozone layer is expected to take another half-century to recover.

The FutureGEO-4 acknowledges that technology can help to reduce people's vulnerability to environmental stresses, but says there is sometimes a need "to correct the technology-centred development paradigm". It explores how current trends may unfold by 2050 in four scenarios.
The real future will be largely determined by the decisions individuals and society make now, GEO-4 says: "Our common future depends on our actions today, not tomorrow or some time in the future."

For some of the persistent problems the damage may already be irreversible. GEO-4 warns that tackling the underlying causes of environmental pressures often affects the vested interests of powerful groups able to influence policy decisions. The only way to address these harder problems requires moving the environment from the periphery to the core of decision-making: environment for development, not development to the detriment of environment.

"There have been enough wake-up calls since Brundtland. I sincerely hope GEO-4 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 where the bill we hand on to our children may prove impossible to pay," said Mr Steiner.

The GEO-4 report concludes that "while governments are expected to take the lead, other stakeholders are just as important to ensure success in achieving sustainable development. The need couldn't be more urgent and the time couldn't be more opportune, with our enhanced understanding of the challenges we face, to act now to safeguard our own survival and that of future generations" ends.

Full report available from below link:

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The World's Priorities?

Estimated annual cost to provide universal access to basic social services in all developing countries (source UNDP). Figures are from 1997

Basic education $6 billion (we spend $8 billion on cosmetics in the US)
(we spend $50billion on cigarettes in Europe)

Water and sanitation $9 billion (we spend $11 billion on icecream in Europe)
(we spend 105 billion on alcohol in Europe)

Reproductive Health $12 billion (we spend $12 billion on perfume in Europe and US)
(we spend $400billion on narcotics in the world)

Basic Health and nutrition $13 billion (we spend $17 billion on pet food in Europe and US)
(we spend $780 billion on the military worldwide)

Look at the state of the Earth

Marian Wilkinson
Environment Editor
October 26, 2007

The most authoritative scientific report on the planet's health has found water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks are all in "inexorable decline" as 2007 became the first year in human history when most of the world's population lived in cities.

The United Nations' Global Environment Outlook-4 report, released in New York, reveals a scale of unprecedented ecological damage, with more than 2 million people possibly dying prematurely of air pollution and close to 2 billion likely to suffer absolute water scarcity by 2025.

Put bluntly, the report warns that the 6.75 billion world population, "has reached a stage where the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available".

And it says climate change, the collapse of fish stocks and the extinction of species "may threaten humanity's very survival".

Launching the report, the head of the UN's Environment Program, Achim Steiner, warned that, "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".

One of the most disturbing findings is that environmental exposures are now causing almost one quarter of all diseases including respiratory disease, cancers, and emerging animal-to-human disease transfer.

Pressure on the global water supply has also become a serious threat to human development as the demand for irrigated crops soars. The report estimates that only one in 10 of the world's major rivers reaches the sea all year round because of upstream irrigation demands.

Each person's "environmental footprint" has on average grown to 22 hectares of the planet but the report estimates the "biological carrying capacity" is somewhere between 15 and 16 hectares per person.

Critically, fish stocks, a key protein source for several billion people, are in crisis. About 30 per cent of global fish stocks are classed as "collapsed" and 40 per cent are described as "over-exploited".

The exploitation of land for agriculture has hugely increased as populations increase and living standards rise. A hectare of land that once produced 1.8 tonnes of crops in 1987 now produces 2.5 tonnes. But that rise in productivity has been made possible by a greater use of fertilisers and water leading to land degradation and pollution.

"The food security of two-thirds of the world's people depends on fertilisers, especially nitrogen," the report says. In turn, the nutrients running off farmland are increasingly causing algal blooms. In the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea these have created huge "dead zones" without oxygen.

The report estimates that all species, including animals and plants, are becoming extinct at rates 100 times faster than those shown from the past in fossil records. The main causes include land clearing for agriculture, over-exploitation and pollution. Of the major species assessed, 23 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are threatened with extinction.

Genetic diversity is also shrinking as just 14 animal species account for 90 per cent of all livestock production and 30 crops dominate global agriculture. But overwhelmingly, the report finds that climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions poses the gravest danger to the future of the planet. The authors note "a remarkable lack of urgency" in tackling human-induced global warming and, in a criticism of the Australia and the US, it notes that "several highly-emitting countries have refused to ratify the global climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol".

Significantly, Mr Steiner said last night be believed the governments were "finally turning the corner" on dealing with climate change.

"The momentum on climate change in 2007 is nothing short of breathtaking", he said. "It is time to find the same sense of urgency on biodiversity and degradation, on fisheries and freshwater".

Mr Steiner noted important progress in some areas, cuts in air pollution in Europe and cuts to overfishing in the Pacific. And he stressed that the authors of the report insist that its objective "is not to present a dark and gloomy scenario but an urgent call for action".

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Poor Turtle

More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating plastic or from being ensnared in it and drowning.

Friday, October 19, 2007

How climate change will affect the world

David Adam
The Guardian
Wednesday September 19 2007

The effects of climate change will be felt sooner than scientists realised and the world must learn to live with the effects, experts said yesterday.

Martin Parry, a climate scientist with the Met Office, said destructive changes in temperature, rainfall and agriculture were now forecast to occur several decades earlier than thought. He said vulnerable people such as the old and poor would be the worst affected, and that world leaders had not yet accepted their countries would have to adapt to the likely consequences.

Speaking at a meeting to launch the full report on the impacts of global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Professor Parry, co-chairman of the IPCC working group that wrote the report, said: "We are all used to talking about these impacts coming in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. Now we know that it's us."

He added politicians had wasted a decade by focusing only on ways to cut emissions, and had only recently woken up to the need to adapt. "Mitigation has got all the attention, but we cannot mitigate out of this problem. We now have a choice between a future with a damaged world or a severely damaged world."

The international response to the problem has failed to grasp that serious consequences such as reduced crop yields and water shortages are now inevitable, he said. Countries such as Britain need to focus on helping nations in the developing world cope with the predicted impacts, by helping them to introduce irrigation and water management technology, drought resistant crops and new building techniques.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, said: "Wheat production in India is already in decline, for no other reason than climate change. Everyone thought we didn't have to worry about Indian agriculture for several decades. Now we know it's being affected now." There are signs a similar shift is under way in China, he added.

The summary chapter of yesterday's report was published in April, after arguments between scientists and political officials over its contents. Prof Parry said: "Governments don't like numbers, so some numbers were brushed out of it."

The report warns that Africa and the Arctic will bear the brunt of climate impacts, along with small islands such as Fiji, and Asian river megadeltas including the Mekong.

It says extreme weather events are likely to become more intense and more frequent, and the effect on ecosystems could be severe, with up to 30% of plant and animal species at risk of extinction if the average rise in global temperatures exceeds 1.5C-2.5C. The consequences of rising temperatures are already being felt on every continent, it adds.

Prof Parry said it was "very unlikely" that average temperature rise could be limited to 2C, as sought by European governments. That would place 2 billion more people at risk of water shortages, and hundreds of millions more will face hunger, the report says.