Twenty-Year Report Card UN Report Warns of Environmental Train Wreck

Dangerously declining amounts of drinking water, over-fished lakes and seas, a warming planet, plus a rising population: A large-scale report by the UN says the world is living beyond its environmental means.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released its first environmental report card in 20 years on Thursday, and the grades are jarring: Despite some praise for certain treaties and reductions, the report blasts the world community for "woefully inadequate" measures and "a remarkable lack of urgency."

In particular, the 550-page report entitled "Global Environment Outlook" (GEO-4) warned that climate change, species extinction, dwindling fresh water supplies and other threats will drastically -- and irreversibly -- alter life on Earth, if global action is not taken.

The program's Executive Director Achim Steiner praised some government and NGO action so far as "courageous and inspiring." But he also said most nations had failed to "recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet."

He summarized the report by saying the world had seen a rise in demand for natural resources over the past twenty years -- coupled with a dramatic loss of them. "That equation cannot hold for much longer," he said. "Indeed, in parts of the world it is no longer holding."

A Tipping Point in Awareness?

The report took five years and 388 scientists to produce and comes 20 years after the last report in 1987. Since then -- on the positive side -- international response to the production of ozone-depleting chemicals has lowered production of those chemicals by 95 percent. Some emissions treaties and carbon trading and offset schemes were also cited by the report as solid steps forward over the last 20 years.

But the report also warns that such efforts have been grossly insufficient, and that countries must make major cuts in emissions by 2050, or the impact will be severe and most likely irreversible. Major cuts here means between 60 and 80 percent, compared to 1990 levels.

One main warning in the report regards dwindling supplies of water. Referring to another study released in June by the World Health Organization (WHO) that estimated 13 million people died annually as a result of dirty water, polluted air and poor working conditions, the UN report added that if current trends continue, 1.8 billion people will suffer from a shortage of fresh water.

The report also noted a steep rise in the world's energy use, farm yields, population, and per capita income since 1987 -- population has grown 34 percent, to 6.7 billion, and both farm yields and average income have grown by about 40 percent -- while forest areas and fish populations have fallen. Fresh-water fish populations have been halved since 1987, 60 percent of the world's great rivers are either dammed or diverted, and 73,000 square kilometers (28,000 square miles) of forest land disappear annually, according to the report. Easily preventable water-borne diseases also kill 3 million people each year -- mostly children under five -- in developing nations.

The UNEP calls for the political will and leadership to heed the alarm and help reverse the largest destructive trends. "Our hope is that with this GEO-4 report, UNEP can in a sense help to bring about a tipping point (in environmental awareness), just as we are seeing in 2007 with climate change," Steiner said.


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