LIKE a recklessly profligate spendthrift, humanity has largely ignored ever shriller environmental warnings and continued on a destructive path that has already done extraordinary damage.
Climate change, air pollution, land degradation, overpopulation, increasing natural disasters: all these are the symptoms of a sick planet.
An extensive new audit of the Earth, written by 400 scientists and reviewed by 1000 experts under the aegis of the UN Environment Programme, contains an urgent call to action.
The fourth Global Environment Outlook report runs to more than 500 pages of detail on the world’s woes.
The audit has found that each human being now requires one-third more land to supply their needs than the planet can provide. Humanity’s footprint is 29.1ha a person, while the world’s biological capacity is on average only 15.7ha a person. The result is net environmental degradation and loss.
Failing to address persistent atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity problems, UNEP says, “may threaten humanity’s survival”. The report’s authors say there is no significant area dealt with in the report where the foreseeable trends are favourable.
More than 30 per cent of the world’s amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12per cent of birds are now threatened with extinction. More than 75 per cent of fish stocks are fully or overly exploited. Six in 10 of the world’s leading rivers have been either dammed or diverted. One in 10 of these rivers no longer reaches the sea for part of the year. More than two million people die prematurely every year from indoor and outdoor pollution. Less than 1 per cent of the world’s marine ecosystems are protected.
The report’s foreword is written by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warns that “issues of energy and climate change can have implications for peace and security”. Competition for dwindling natural resources such as water, he notes, may become a trigger for conflict.
James Cook University’s pro vice-chancellor Chris Cocklin went to a concept meeting at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi two years ago, where he was invited to help frame the GEO-4 report.
There had been some dissatisfaction with previous GEO reports, he says, and there was concern the reports had lacked the level of peer review required by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
That shortcoming has been remedied in part and Cocklin, an environmental scientist, considers the latest report credible. “I think the UN does have a degree of distance; they are reading the evidence and presenting the report around the evidence, rather than making ambit claims.”
Cocklin, though, takes issue with the notion that humanity’s survival is at risk. “We’re a bit like cockroaches, really: we can survive quite a lot,” he says. “But the quality of life is absolutely at stake; that’s under serious threat, if you like looking at green trees and seeing animals and birds.”
He says biodiversity is at an important point where action is needed to maintain the balance, and there isn’t much room for delay.
The GEO-4 report notes that the accelerating loss of biodiversity is linked to humanity’s increasing use of energy, and warns changes in biodiversity and ecosystems can lead to changes in disease patterns and human exposure to disease outbreaks.
Maintaining present biodiversity levels, the report says, is critical. Functioning ecosystems provide buffers to extreme climate events, filters for waterborne and airborne pollutants, and carbon sinks.
Cocklin says that at the rate we’re going, the survival of certain parts of the globe will soon come into question. “Some of the world’s leading experts in biodiversity are warning of a mass extinction of plant and animal species,” he says.
The report elaborates on the theory that the available evidence points to a sixth “major extinction event” now under way. Unlike the previous five extinction events, which were the result of natural disasters and planetary change, the present loss of biodiversity can mostly be sheeted home to human activity.
The Australian Museum’s principal research scientist Daniel Faith says he reviewed part of the GEO-4 report, and although he largely agrees with its conclusions, he took exception to one measure of biodiversity – mean species abundance – which he believes can distort the real picture. For instance, mean species abundance in a specific place can be quite high, but certain species can still be depleted.
“But overall I think it’s a very good study,” says the biodiversity specialist. “It’s really difficult to work with a broad brush at a global perspective.”
As well as assessing the planet’s health, the report focuses on human wellbeing: essentially two indivisible elements making up the world picture.
Humans affect, and are affected by, the environment to an enormous degree. The GEO-4 report includes a number of disquieting statistics on humanity. The global population has grown by 1.7 billion in the 20 years since 1987, to a grand total of 6.7 billion. And these 6.7 billion humans consume like a plague of ravenous insects. One small example noted in the report: every year, 1.1million to 3.4million tonnes of undressed wild animal meat, or bushmeat, is eaten by people living in the Congo basin.
And people are flocking to the cities. By the end of this year, more people will be living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in history. Already, more than one billion people live in slums across the world. Water-related diseases, such as cholera and diarrhoeal infections, kill about three million people a year. Ten million children under five die every year – 98 per cent of them in developing countries – and three million of these deaths are the result of unhealthy environments.
The report considers seven distinct regions and Australia slots into the category of Asia and the Pacific. Home to 60 per cent of the world’s population, the region has seen some solid gains, the report says, including improvement in environment protection, energy efficiency and the provision of clean drinking water. Yet vastly increased consumption and its associated waste have accelerated existing environmental problems and contributed to some of the worst urban air quality in the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than one billion Asians are exposed to excessive air pollution.
The report says climate change is likely to cause more severe droughts and floods in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as soil degradation, coastal inundation and saltwater incursions caused by rising sea levels. Agricultural productivity, it warns, is likely to decline substantially because of warmer temperatures and shifting rainfall.
Murdoch University’s Frank Murray, one of the GEO-4 report’s authors, says one of the broad themes concerns the relationship between humanity’s wellbeing and economic development, and how they largely depend on the health of the environment. Murray, an environmental scientist, was on the team that wrote the chapter on atmosphere, including climate change, air pollution and ozone depletion.
Murray used the Kuznets curve – devised by the Nobel prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets – to explain how the environment degrades as development proceeds. This continues until a certain level of development is reached and the general public – now mostly richer and better educated – begins to agitate against air pollution or water pollution. Agencies are then established to control development and pollution. “Air pollution and water pollution in the US is much lower than it used to be,” he says. “China is trying to clean up Beijing, with (next year’s) Olympics in mind.”
Murray says the GEO-4 report is a flagship UNEP publication that has taken a number of years to research, write and edit. Various governments, he says, did remove certain elements they didn’t like, but that simply meant the assessment was moved to a broader regional level rather than an individual national level. “Rarely is any individual government criticised in this report,” he says. “Countries are very sensitive about being named adversely.”
One of the big issues in the report, which has been comprehensively addressed by other organisations, is climate change. “Climate change is a major global challenge,” the report says. “Impacts are already evident, and changes in water availability, food security and sea-level rises are projected to dramatically affect many millions of people. Drastic steps are necessary.”
The report ranks climate change as a global priority, yet the authors note a “remarkable lack of urgency” and a “woefully inadequate” global response.
Murray says change is on the way. Although very little happened for many years, climate change has now been recognised as a fact of life by ordinary people in developed nations, and governments are responding to community pressure. Remedies are possible, he says. Ozone depletion, for instance, has been halted by global action to ban chlorofluorocarbons.
Cocklin is less sanguine and he is doubts whether relying on governments to effect change is a good idea. “We certainly can’t look to politicians for leadership on climate change,” he says. “The leadership, if it’s anywhere, has come from the private sector.”
Ominously, UNEP warns that some of the damage resulting from the world’s most persistent problems could be irreversible. Tackling the underlying causes of environmental problems, the GEO-4 report says, often means dealing with the vested interests of powerful groups that can influence policy decisions.
“Our common future,” the report says, “depends on our actions today, not tomorrow or some time in the future.”