The world continues to speed down an unsustainable path despite over 500 internationally agreed goals and objectives to support the sustainable management of the environment and improve human wellbeing, according to a new and wide-ranging assessment coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The fifth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5) report, launched on the eve of the Rio+20 Summit, assessed 90 of the most-important environmental goals and objectives and found that significant progress had only been made in four.
These areas of progress were: eliminating the production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer, removal of lead from fuel, increasing access to improved water supplies and boosting research to reduce pollution of the marine environment.
Some progress was shown in reaching 40 of the goals, including the expansion of protected areas such as national parks and efforts to reduce deforestation. Little or no progress was detected for 24 goals – including climate change, fish stocks, and desertification and drought. Further deterioration was posted for eight goals including the state of the world’s coral reefs, while no assessment could be made of 14 other goals due to a lack of data.
Europe has particularly unsustainable levels of consumption, the report notes, which is driving many of these problems. Nonetheless, it highlights some successes in Europe including cutting carbon emissions.
The report cautions that if humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur.
For example, at the regional scale, freshwater lake and estuary ecosystems can collapse abruptly due to eutrophication; at the global level an abrupt and irreversible example of change could be the melting of the Arctic ice-sheet due to an amplification of global warming
“With clear progress in only four of 90 environmental areas, we are certainly heading in a very dangerous direction,” Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency said. “However, the report also shows that in a few areas, international agreements have been very successful. We must learn from these successes, and use the Rio+20 Summit to take action on these accelerating trends of environmental destruction.”
The Summit in Rio could mark a turning point - the report says it is possible to meet an ambitious set of sustainability targets by the middle of the century if current policies and strategies are changed and strengthened.
GEO-5 also points out that where international treaties and agreements have tackled goals with specific, measurable targets—such as the bans on ozone-depleting substances and lead in petrol—they have demonstrated considerable success. For this reason, GEO-5 calls for more specific targets, with quantifiable results, across a broader range of environmental challenges.
The report also calls for a greater focus on policies that target the drivers of environmental change – such as population growth and urbanisation, unsustainable consumption patterns, fossil fuel-based energy consumption and transport, as well as globalisation.
In particular, globalisation has made it possible for intense pressures to be concentrated in specific parts of the world very quickly, as in the case of increased demand for biofuels leading to land clearance and conversion.
Although reducing the drivers of environmental change directly may appear politically difficult, the report claims that it is possible to obtain significant indirect benefits by targeting more expedient objectives, such as international goals on human well-being.
Findings from EEA report, 'European environment - state and outlook 2010', were used by UNEP in preparing the GEO-5 assessment.
6 June, 2012.