Nations are making “significant” progress on just four of 90 environmental goals, with little advance on tackling climate change, replenishing fish stocks or stopping deserts from spreading, the United Nations said today.
“The world continues to speed down an unsustainable path,” the UN Environment Program said in an e-mailed statement as it published its most comprehensive assessment of the environment in five years. “The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision.”
The UN is calling on nations to redouble efforts to meet climate and sustainability targets two weeks before it hosts a conference in Rio de Janeiro, where world leaders will debate steps to curb poverty while stemming environmental degradation. While UNEP’s previous review, in 2007, constituted an “urgent call for action,” today’s report warns of “irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet.”
“Significant” progress has been made only in phasing out substances that harm the ozone layer, removing lead from fuel, increasing access to water supplies and boosting research to reduce marine pollution, according to UNEP.
Little or no progress is being made on 24 of the goals, which range from indoor air pollution to wildlife protection, while eight categories are actually worse than before, it said.
Failure to rein in global consumption of natural resources and alter patterns of production may bring irreversible changes that cause tens of billions of dollars of damage to human health, agriculture and coastlines, according to the study.
Forty of the environmental goals examined showed “some” progress, including expanding protected areas and reducing deforestation rates, while for 14 of the measures, there was insufficient data to provide an assessment, UNEP said.
The Rio conference, dubbed Rio+20, marks two decades since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which established conventions to protect biodiversity and curb climate change. More than 130 leaders are due to attend and draft a declaration that outlines steps to protect resources, stimulate growth and reduce poverty.
“Rio+20 is a moment to turn sustainable development from aspiration and patchy implementation into a genuine path to progress,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in the statement. A “transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient, job-generating green economy is urgently needed.”
There has been little or no progress in tackling climate change, and current trends in carbon output show the Earth may warm by at least 3 degrees Celsius by 2100 from pre-industrial levels, according to the report. That’s beyond the 2-degree goal set by UN climate-treaty envoys, and the 1.5-degree gain that island nations are pushing to set as the limit.
Floods more than tripled from the 1980s to the 2000s and the number of people exposed to such incidents more than doubled, the report shows. Rising sea levels may lead to “coastal adaptation” costs of as much as $86 billion by the 2040s, UNEP said.
Lower agricultural yields caused by air pollution costs the planet as much as $26 billion a year, according to the UN. By 2030, as much as $11 billion will be spent annually on new infrastructure to provide enough water for the world’s growing population, especially in developing countries, UNEP said.
In the organization’s 2007 review, it said humans were using about 40 percent more resources than the planet could replenish. That’s now risen to more than 50 percent, according to a May 15 study by the environmental group WWF International.
“The race for development needs not be at the expense of the environment or the populations which rely upon it,” UNEP said. It recommended that countries collect more reliable data, set firmer environmental targets and redefine how wealth is measured to include quality of environment rather than just gross domestic product.
A lack of understanding of the value of natural resources has resulted in missed targets for preserving biodiversity, and about 20 percent of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish are under threat of extinction, UNEP said. The risk to corals is rising faster than for any organism, and the condition of reefs has declined 38 percent since 1980, UNEP said.
The last two decades have also seen an “unprecedented deterioration of fish stocks,” with depletion of edible species causing economic losses of as much as $36 billion in 2000, UNEP said. It didn’t provide a more recent estimate.