Planet’s Future At Stake, U.N. Report Says

In 30 years, the Earth could look like a desert-strewn wasteland of urban slums, lose almost a quarter of its mammal species and leave people inhabiting large regions perishing from thirst and water-borne disease. Or, it could be stabilizing global warming, repairing damage to water resources and mitigating the worst effects of environmentally induced poverty.

LONDON — In 30 years, the Earth could look like a desert-strewn wasteland of urban slums, lose almost a quarter of its mammal species and leave people inhabiting large regions perishing from thirst and water-borne disease.


Or, it could be stabilizing global warming, repairing damage to water resources and mitigating the worst effects of environmentally induced poverty.


According to a massive United Nations environmental study released yesterday, the planet is poised on a precipice, and time is running out for making tough political and economic choices that can pull it back from disaster.


“The choices made today are critical for the forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, and other life-support systems upon which current and future generations depend,” said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), based in Nairobi, Kenya.


“Fundamental changes are possible and required,” he added. “It would be a disaster to sit back and ignore the picture that is painted.”


Released in advance of the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development — to be held Aug. 26-Sept. 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa — the 450-page report is based on contributions from more than 1,000 scientists collaborating with UNEP.


But rather than publishing a laundry list of dire predictions it follows logical sequences of events, showing the environmental consequence of decisions that focus on unchecked economic growth, national security or sustainable development.


Most damning is the “market first” scenario — one that strongly resembles the philosophy of the current administration in Washington.


With emphasis on untrammelled economic growth, the report said, 3 per cent of the Earth’s surface will have been absorbed into cities within 30 years, with a disastrous effect on wildlife and biodiversity.


At the same time, 55 per cent of the global population will face moderate to severe water shortages, with 95 per cent of those in West Asia in crisis.


More than 11,000 plant and animal species will be dead or dying, including 1,000 mammal species that make up nearly a quarter of the world’s total mammal species. Among the most threatened are the black rhinoceros of Africa, the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard of Asia, according to the U.N.’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre.


Most coastal regions will be clogged with pollution through urban growth, intensive farming and tourism overload. In addition, almost one-third of the world’s fish stocks are depleted, overexploited or recovering as a result of overfishing.


Michael Novacek, provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History, said the U.N. figures are in line with projections based on land loss and degradation of oceans “that as much as 30 per cent of species diversity will be erased by the middle of this century.”


“We have a taste of this in marine ecosystems,” he said, citing devastated coral reefs in the Caribbean, loss of fisheries in the Mediterranean and the “hugely threatened” South China Sea, which feeds so many people.


Emissions of carbon dioxide, the gas held responsible for global warming, will rise to 16 billion tonnes a year, doubling air pollution worldwide from levels before the industrial age of the 19th century, and accelerating global warming.


“This is an eye-opener,” said Toepfer, a former environment minister in the German government. “The figures are not a nightmare prognosis for the future … decisive action can achieve positive results.”


At Johannesburg, he added, “we need a concrete action plan … concrete projects … and above all a clear declaration.”


Some environmental progress has been made since the landmark 1972 Stockholm environmental conference when UNEP was established, the report said. The quality of air and river waters has improved in Europe and North America, and checks on chemical emissions have made it possible for recovery of ozone layer damage, which has been growing to alarming proportions. Forest management schemes, such as those of Canada, Finland, Norway and the United States, are ensuring that the impact of over-harvesting of timber will be reduced in those countries.


The number of hungry people in the world is also predicted to fall, in spite of the disappearance of farmland and pollution from agricultural chemicals.


But much of the progress is in wealthy industrialized countries, and the report found evidence of a widening gap between rich and poor.


“The poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, both within societies and in different countries and regions, are particularly vulnerable,” it said. “Everyone is vulnerable to some extent to environmental threat, but there is evidence that the gap between those able and unable to cope with rising levels of environmental change is widening.”


In some of its more dramatic findings, the report revealed that the number of people affected by disasters has climbed from an average of 147 million a year in the 1980s, to more than 211 million a year in the 1990s. At the turn of the century, financial losses from natural disasters were estimated at more than $100 billion (U.S.)


Environmentally based health disasters are also startling, including those from contaminated water supplies, the report said. “There are about 4 billion cases of diarrhea and 2.2 million deaths a year, equivalent to 20 jumbo jets crashing every day.”


At Johannesburg, the U.N. will make a last-ditch attempt to change course from disaster, by persuading often resistant leaders to act in the best interest of the planet. So far, much smaller changes have met strong opposition.

Author: Olivia Ward

News Service: Toronto Star

URL: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0523-01.htm