At a glance:

The planet is at a critical crossroads, concludes UNEP’s newly published Global Environment Outlook 3 report (GEO-3). The choices made today will be critical for the forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, wildlife and other life support systems upon which current and future generations depend. The study – a collaboration between UNEP and some 1,000 individuals and 40 institutions around the world – is the most authoritative assessment to date of where we have been, where we have reached, and where we are likely to go. It provides an opportune brief for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. It gives an overview of the main environmental developments over the past three decades – and of how social, economic and other factors have contributed to the changes that have occurred (some examples are given on these pages).

Though the world has made great strides in placing the environment on the agenda, the twin evils of poverty and excessive consumption continue to put enormous pressures upon it. GEO-3 breaks new ground by using scenario analysis to explore the environmental outlook, fast-forwarding the reader into an array of alternative futures that provide insight on where events could lead us, depending on different policy approaches. The different scenarios are:

  • Markets First, where most of the world adopts the values and expectations prevailing in today’s industrialized countries.

  • Security First, where the more powerful and wealthy groups focus on self-protection in a world of striking disparities where inequality and conflict prevail.

  • Policy First, where decisive initiatives are taken by governments in an attempt to reach specific social and environmental goals.

  • Sustainability First, where a new environment and development paradigm emerges in response to the challenge of sustainability.

The report identifies key areas for action to ensure the success of sustainable development. Prime among them are alleviating poverty, reducing excessive consumption, reducing the debt burden of developing countries, and ensuring adequate governance structures and funding for the environment. UNEP is convinced that it lies well within the scope of human determination and ingenuity to come up with appropriate policy packages and use them to ensure that fundamental environmental conditions will get steadily better, not stealthily worse.

Forests and biodiversity
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that forests have declined by 2.4 per cent since 1990. The loss and fragmentation of forests, wetlands and mangroves have increased the pressures on the world’s wildlife. Twelve per cent of the world’s birds and nearly a quarter of its mammals are currently regarded as globally threatened. By the end of 2000 about 2 per cent of forests had been certified for sustainable forest management and the total extent of protected areas, such as national parks, had more than quadrupled since 1970, from 2.78 to 12.19 million square kilometres.

Depletion of the ozone layer has reached record levels. In September 2000, the ozone hole over Antarctica covered more than 28 million square kilometres. Yet between the adoption of the Montreal Protocol in 1987 and the year 2000, the total consumption of ozone depleting chemicals was cut by 85 per cent, and the ozone layer is expected to recover to pre-1980 levels by the middle of this century.

Meanwhile concentrations in the atmosphere of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide now stand at 370 parts per million, 30 per cent higher than in pre-industrial times, and concentrations of other such gases, including methane and halocarbons, have also risen. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 5 per cent from 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

Around 2 billion hectares of soil – 15 per cent of the Earth’s land, and an area bigger than the United States and Canada combined – is now classed as degraded because of human activities. One sixth of this is either ’strongly’ or ‘extremely’ degraded.

The proportion of the world’s people with improved water supplies increased from 79 to 82 per cent over the 1990s. But around 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.4 billion to improved sanitation. Diarrhoea kills about 2.2 million people a year, equivalent to 20 jumbo jets crashing every day. Some 80 countries – with 40 per cent of the Earth’s population – were suffering serious water shortages by the mid-1990s and about half of the world’s rivers are seriously depleted and polluted.

Coastal and marine areas
By 1994, an estimated 37 per cent of the world’s people were living within 60 kilometres of the coast – more people than were alive on the whole planet in 1950. Marine contamination may be costing nearly $13 billion a year in terms of human disease and ill health. Just under a third of the world’s fish stocks are now ranked as depleted, overexploited or recovering as a result of overfishing fuelled by subsidies estimated at up to $20 billion a year. UNEP’s Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities was launched in 1995, and revitalized in 2001, while its Regional Seas Programme now covers nearly all of the planet’s marine environment.

PHOTOGRAPHS: J.E.Shumaker III/UNEP/Still Pictures, T. Alipalo/UNEP/Topham, T. Buraraksakiet/UNEP/Still Pictures, Lorraine Adams/UNEP/Topham, Teoh Chin Hock/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Agenda of hope | Changing the paradigm | Only one Earth | Beyond brackets | African renaissance | Unmissable opportunity | At a glance: GEO-3 | Asking the people | Recapturing momentum | Taking the measure of unsustainability | Breaking the grid lock | Training for transformation | Bring big business to account | Out of the changing room | ‘Dear delegates...’ | We need a dream | Two sides of the same coin: before and after Johannesburg

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Biological diversity, 2000
Issue on Poverty, Health and the Environment, 2001
Issue on Beyond 2000, 2000
Issue on Transport and Communications, 2001
Issue on Disasters, 2000

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
About the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment