The Earth faces a serious triple threat from population growth, urbanisation and consumption, the United Nations said on Wednesday, and called for urgent agreement on new national and international green targets to save the planet from irreversible damage.
Reuters reports that the UN Environment Programme issued the warning in its fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) report, published two weeks before the Rio+20 international environment summit in Brazil.
Three years in the making, the UNEP’s GEO-5 report urges governments to create more ambitious environmental and climate targets, or toughen existing ones. UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP executive director Achim Steiner warned that time was running out, with the planet heading for a population of 9 billion by 2050 and the global economy consuming larger amounts of natural resources.
“If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and ‘decoupled’, then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation,” Steiner said in a statement.
The UNEP report coincides with a warning from a separate group of scientists that Earth may be nearing an ecological tipping point that threatens biodiversity, food production and water supplies.
Bloomberg reports that 21 scientists from the US, Canada, Chile, Finland and Spain spent 18 months researching and writing a study, which is set to be published tomorrow in the journal Nature, that finds that about 43 per cent of the Earth’s surface has been built upon or is being used for agriculture to support the planet’s 7 billion inhabitants.
Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrated biology at the University of California and the study’s lead author, warns that as that figure approaches 50 per cent, there may be irreversible and significant environmental changes.
Barnosky says that humans consume 2.25 acres of resources per capita, and with the Earth’s population projected to reach 9 billion by 2045, half of all land may be in use by 2025 – including Antarctica, Greenland and other mostly uninhabitable regions.
The article says there is “an urgent need” to reduce population growth and per-capita resource use, grow more food on less land and replace fossil fuels with renewable-energy sources, reports Bloomberg.
“It’s a global society, and these are global problems, and the only way we can solve them is through global cooperation,” Barnosky said in an interview. “The big winners in the world 50 years from now will be the nations that have developed new forms of energy. Those nations and entrepreneurs are going to come out ahead.”
But when it comes to global cooperation on environmental matters, the UN report says that of the 90 most important goals in existence, only four are making significant progress – including those to prevent ozone depletion and provide access to clean water supplies – with little or no progress in 24 goals, like those aiming to address climate change, depleting fish stocks and expanding desertification.
UNEP called on governments to focus their policies on the key drivers behind climate change, says Reuters – notably population growth and urbanisation, globalisation and fossil fuel-based energy consumption. The report noted that scientists have linked the latter to the advent of dangerous climate change, the economic damage from which was estimated at 1-2 per cent of world GDP by 2100, if temperatures increase by 2.5 degrees Celsius.
The report also noted that most of the impacts from climate change would be felt in developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, where population growth and rising consumption are putting more stress on dwindling natural resources.
It is hoped that the release of the GEO-5 report will lend momentum to the Rio+20 summit, which commences June 22, against a backdrop of a faltering global economy and deep concerns over Europe’s financial future.
While the original Rio Earth Summit, 20 years ago, led to the Kyoto Protocol on capping greenhouse gas emissions and a treaty on biodiversity, Reuters reports that the goals this time are aspirational, not mandatory.
About a fifth of the text has now been agreed ahead of the meeting, the United Nations said on Monday. The GEO-5 report said that historically, goals with specific, measurable targets demonstrated the most success.
The report also points to the Asia-Pacific region – the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions globally – as key to creating a greener future, and says it is crucial for governments around the world to put a price on natural resources such as mangroves, rivers and forests and include this in national accounts.