U.N. Sounds Environment Alarm Ahead of Rio Summit

By Jeff Coelho and | June 7, 2012

Population growth, urbanization and consumption are set to inflict irreversible damage on the planet, the United Nations said on Wednesday, and called for urgent agreement on new environmental targets at an Earth summit this month.

The U.N. Environment Program sounded the alarm in its fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) report, published two weeks before the Rio+20 summit in Brazil, one of the biggest environmental meetings in years.

The June 20-22 meeting is expected to attract more than 50,000 participants from governments, companies and environmental and lobby groups and will attempt to set new goals across seven core themes including food security, water and energy.

The GEO-5 report, three years in the making and the United Nations’ main health-check of the planet, urges governments to create more ambitious targets or toughen existing ones, most of which have failed to deliver.

Time was running short, U.N. Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, as the planet heads for 9 billion people by 2050 and the global economy consumes ever 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.

Of the 90 most important environmental goals in existence, only four are making significant progress, the report said.

Some of the successful goals included those to prevent ozone depletion and to provide access to clean water. But UNEP detected little or no progress on 24 goals, including on climate change, depleting fish stocks and expanding desertification.

Governments should focus on the key drivers behind climate change: population growth and urbanization, fossil fuel-based energy consumption and globalization, it said.

The annual economic damage from climate change is estimated at 1-2 percent of world GDP by 2100, if temperatures increase by 2.5 degrees Celsius [4.5°F], UNEP says.

The original Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago led to the Kyoto Protocol on capping greenhouse gas emissions and a treaty on biodiversity, but with a faltering global economy and deep concerns over Europe’s financial future Rio+20 may have more limited ambitions.

Although the goals to be agreed are aspirational, not mandatory, negotiations on have been fraught. About a fifth of the text has been agreed so far, the United Nations said on Monday.

Targets have made little or no progress since 1992, with global carbon dioxide emissions up nearly 40 percent between by 2010, led mainly by rapid growth in large developing nations such as Brazil, China and India, UNEP data shows.

Biodiversity is also on the wane, most notably in the tropics with a 30 percent decline since 1992.

Environmental group WWF estimates the world would have to be 50 percent bigger to have enough land and forests to provide for current levels of consumption and carbon emissions.

The Asia-Pacific region, home to more than half of humanity, is key to creating a greener future, says the GEO-5 report. More than half of the 57 per cent worldwide increase in transport-related emissions expected between 2005 and 2030 will be in China and India, it says.

The region is also facing increased demands for water for agriculture and industry yet aquifer levels are falling, rivers are increasingly polluted and being dammed for irrigation and power generation.

The GEO-5 report said goals with specific, measurable targets demonstrated the most success, such as the bans on ozone depleting substances and lead in petrol.

It also says it is crucial for governments to put a price on natural resources such as mangroves, rivers and forests and include this in national accounts.

Steiner called on nations to act, saying: “The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision, acknowledge the facts and face up to the common humanity that unites all peoples.”

(Reporting by Jeff Coelho and David Fogarty; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Robin Pomeroy)

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