U.N. calls for ‘urgent action at an unprecedented scale’

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2019

The world must either move environmental protection to the top of its agenda now or suffer dire consequences, according to a United Nations report issued yesterday.

The latest update to the Global Environment Outlook warned that land and water degradation, resource depletion, and climate change are already claiming lives and reducing global biodiversity.

Population growth, urbanization and unsustainable development are likely to exacerbate these problems, with the results falling unevenly on poor regions of the planet, underprivileged populations and women.

“Urgent action at an unprecedented scale is necessary to arrest and reverse this situation, thereby protecting human and environmental health and maintaining the current and future integrity of global ecosystems,” stated the report’s summary for policymakers.

Solutions included the full implementation, strengthening and in some cases expansion of global environmental pacts ranging from the Paris Agreement for climate change to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to compacts for biodiversity, marine pollution and harmful chemicals. These multilateral frameworks should guide action at the national and subnational level, the report states.

Today’s report is the sixth edition the U.N. Environment Programme has released since 1997, and it was timed for the U.N. Environment Assembly underway this week and next in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s the work of 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries.

Environmental progress is lagging

The report found some bright spots since 1997, including increased access to resources for certain populations.

There are also signs in some countries that economic growth is beginning to decouple from atmospheric and water pollution, with lifestyle improvements coming at less of an additional cost to the environment. International agreements for certain specific environmental concerns, such as harmful chemicals, have also been successful.

But overall, the report paints a grim picture of a world where economic and population growth — it projects a population of 10 billion by 2050 — will undermine agreed-upon environmental goals.

The world is not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 or 2050, it states. “Future projections show that development is either too slow to achieve the targets or even that it moves in the wrong direction,” according to the report.

The Paris goal of containing warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with efforts toward a 1.5 C cap, will not be achieved by current national commitments, and emissions cuts will need to become deeper and costlier as the century progresses. Post-industrial warming might already be as much as 1.2 C, the report suggests.

Worst problem for people: Atmospheric pollution

Greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution and emissions from cookstoves pose the highest risk to Earth’s human population, the report states.

Climate change is worsening a catalogue of humanitarian problems, including global poverty, inequality, forced migration, displacement and conflict. The numbers of people affected by environmental disasters are rising.

Meanwhile, air pollution is the greatest contributor to global disease, leading to between 6 million and 7 million premature deaths a year and substantial economic losses.

Worst for the planet: Lost biodiversity

Meanwhile, the natural world is in the midst of a mass extinction event due to habitat change, loss and degradation.

Aside from climate change, human drivers include unsustainable agricultural practices, the spread of invasive species and pollution such as microplastics.

Uneven consequences

Environmental degradation won’t be felt evenly across the globe. The report finds that Asia, the Middle East and Africa will experience some of the worst impacts, including millions of premature deaths by midcentury.

As much as 90 percent of global urban growth by 2050 will take place in Asia and Africa. Right now Africa is also experiencing the highest rate of population growth in the world. Air pollution, water shortages and other impacts are expected to worsen in urban centers by midcentury.

Gender is also a factor in environment-caused suffering. One example: Women and girls are still often responsible for finding and carrying water, making dwindling resources a heavy burden on their time.

Environment already taking a serious toll on global health

The report includes an “established but incomplete” finding that in 2015 a quarter of global disease and mortality could be attributed to environmental causes that are preventable.

“In 2015, environmental pollution caused some 9 million deaths, in particular from outdoor and household air pollution, but also from contaminated water,” states the summary for policymakers.

“Environmental health effects take a particular toll on vulnerable or disadvantaged groups related to age (children and old people), ill-health, poverty (within and between countries) and race (established but incomplete).”