UN's pulse of the planet: prognosis negative

The fifth global environmental health-check by the United Nations since 1997, compiled by more than 600 experts, has been released. And there's little to cheer.

Over the past two decades the Earth's vital signs have continued to deteriorate, from loss of rainforests, overfishing, air and water pollution to chaotic weather and rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to a United Nations report.

Three years in the making, the Global Environment Outlook report released on Wednesday found that out of 90 benchmark environmental goals and objectives, significant progress has been made in only four.

But it said that there is hope and environmentally friendly economic growth is still possible, despite the challenges of a growing human population, expanding urbanisation and insatiable appetites for food and resources.

Following are some of the main findings of the GEO-5 report, the fifth global environmental health-check by the United Nations since 1997, and compiled by more than 600 experts.

Rio

The report's release came two weeks before the world's biggest environment summit in years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and 20 years after the landmark Rio meeting at which three UN environment treaties were adopted, including the Kyoto Protocol.

Green goals

The GEO-5 report said significant progress has been made in eliminating the production and use of chemicals that destroy the ozone layer, removal of lead from fuel, increasing access to improved water supplies and increasing research to reduce pollution of the marine environment.

A reduction in health risks achieved by phasing out lead-based fuels have estimated economic benefits of $2.45 trillion a year, or roughly 4 per cent of global GDP.

Some progress was shown on 40 goals, including the expansion of protected areas such as national parks, while little or no progress was detected for 24 – including climate change and desertification and drought.

Eight goals showed further deterioration, including the state of the world's coral reefs.

State of the planet

-- Under current models, greenhouse gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, leading to a rise in global temperature of 3 degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century. Losses to agriculture, damage from extreme weather events and increased health costs will eat into global GDP.

The Asia-Pacific region will contribute around 45 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2030 and an estimated 60 per cent of global emissions by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario.

China, India and South Korea are promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency and agreed voluntary emissions reduction goals, in a positive turn towards greener power.

-- Around 20 per cent of vertebrate species are under threat. Extinction risk is increasing faster for corals than for any other group of living organisms, with the condition of coral reefs declining by 38 per cent since 1980. Rapid contraction is projected by 2050.

-- Fish stocks have declined at an unprecedented rate over the past two decades. Catches more than quadrupled from the early 1950s to the mid-1990s and have stabilised or diminished since then.

-- More than 600 million people are expected to lack access to safe drinking water by 2015, while more than 2.5 billion people will lack access to basic sanitation.

Since 2000, groundwater supplies have deteriorated further, while global water withdrawals have tripled over the past 50 years.

The report identified West Asia among the regions of greatest concern for water scarcity and water-use efficiency. Even as demand for water grows, per-capita renewable water resources in the region will decline by more than half by 2025, suggesting more energy-intensive desalination plants will be needed.

-- The number of coastal dead zones has increased dramatically in recent years. Out of the 169 coastal dead zones worldwide, only 13 are recovering.

-- Annual forest loss fell from 16 million hectares in the 1990s to about 13 million hectares between 2000 and 2010. That's an area about the size of England being cut down annually.

-- Europe and North America are consuming the planet's resources at unsustainable levels.

Consumption has also soared in the Asia-Pacific region, which has overtaken the rest of the world to become the single largest user of natural resources. A separate UN study found the region's use of materials more than doubled from 17.4 billion tonnes in 1992 to over 37 billion tonnes in 2008.

Recommendations

The report said there is a need for clear, long-term environment and development targets and stronger accountability in international agreements.

There is also a need for more programmes that put a value on ecosystems and the services they provide economies, such as fresh air from forests, watersheds for rivers and storm protection from mangroves.

Nations should also incorporate the value of forests, rivers, deltas and other ecosystems into national accounts, thereby putting a price on nature.

Improving compliance and enforcement measures, including environmental courts, are also needed along with regional marine pollution management and better data collection on water pollution and improved water management tools.

This article was originally published by Reuters. Republished with permission.

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