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UN Issues Bleak Outlook on Environment; An “Urgent Call for Action”

Mapping major environmental problems according to availability of solutions and reversibility. Click to enlarge.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that major threats to the planet such as climate change, the rate of extinction of species, and the challenge of feeding a growing population are among the many that remain unresolved, and all of them put humanity at risk.

The warning comes in UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4) report published 20 years after the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) produced its seminal report, Our Common Future. GEO-4 concludes that “There are no major issues raised in Our Common Future for which the foreseeable trends are favorable.”

GEO-4, the latest in UNEP’s series of flagship reports, assesses the current state of the global atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity, describes the changes since 1987, and identifies priorities for action. GEO-4 is the most comprehensive UN report on the environment, prepared by about 390 experts and reviewed by more than 1,000 others across the world.

While the world has made progress in tackling some relatively straightforward problems, the harder-to-manage issues remain “persistent” problems. Failure to address these persistent problems, UNEP says, may undo all the achievements so far on the simpler issues, and may threaten humanity’s survival. But it insists: “The objective is not to present a dark and gloomy scenario, but an urgent call for action.

The international community’s response to the Brundtland Commission has in some cases been courageous and inspiring. But all too often it has been slow and at a pace and scale that fails to respond to or recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet.

—Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director
Ecological footprint and biocapacity by region. Click to enlarge.

On climate change the report says the threat is now so urgent that large cuts in greenhouse gases by mid-century are needed. GEO-4 also warns that we are living far beyond our means. The human population is now so large that “the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available... humanity’s footprint [its environmental demand] is 21.9 hectares per person while the Earth’s biological capacity is, on average, only 15.7 ha/person...

GEO-4 recalls the Brundtland Commission's statement that the world does not face separate crises—the environmental crisis, development crisis, and energy crisis are all one. This crisis includes not just climate change, extinction rates and hunger, but other problems driven by growing human numbers, the rising consumption of the rich and the desperation of the poor.

Critical problems highlighted in GEO-4 include:

  • Atmosphere. The report calls climate change a global priority, demanding political will and leadership. The report, however, finds “a remarkable lack of urgency” and a “woefully inadequate” global response. “Fundamental changes in social and economic structures, including lifestyle changes, are crucial if rapid progress is to be achieved.

    Adaptation to climate change is necessary even if major mitigation measures are rapidly implemented. The array of potential adaptive responses available to human societies is very large, ranging from purely technological (such as sea defences), through behavioral (such as altered food and recreational choices) to managerial (such as modified farm practices), and policy (such as planning regulations).

    GEO-4 also highlights ongoing issues with air pollution. More than 2 million people are estimated to die prematurely each year due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

  • Land. Unsustainable land and water use, and the impacts of climate change are driving land degradation, including soil erosion, nutrient depletion, water scarcity, salinity, chemical contamination and disruption of biological cycles.

    The cumulative effects of these changes threaten food security, biodiversity, and carbon fixation and storage.

  • Water. Irrigation already takes about 70% of available water, yet meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger will mean doubling food production by 2050. Fresh water is declining: by 2025, water use is predicted to have risen by 50% in developing countries and by 18% in the developed world. Water quality is declining, polluted by microbial pathogens and excessive nutrients. Globally, contaminated water remains the greatest single cause of human disease and death.

  • Fish. Consumption more than tripled from 1961 to 2001. Catches have stagnated or slowly declined since the 1980s. Subsidies have created excess fishing capacity, estimated at 250% more than is needed to catch the oceans' sustainable production.

  • Biodiversity. Current biodiversity changes are the fastest in human history. Species are becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the rate shown in the fossil record. The Congo Basin’s bushmeat trade is thought to be six times the sustainable rate. Of the major vertebrate groups that have been assessed comprehensively, more than 30% of amphibians, 23% of mammals and 12% of birds are threatened.

    The intrusion of invasive alien species is also a growing problem. The comb jellyfish, accidentally introduced in 1982 by US ships, has taken over the entire marine ecosystem of the Black Sea, and had destroyed 26 commercial fisheries by 1992.

  • Regional Pressures. This is the first GEO report in which all seven of the world’s regions emphasize the potential impacts of climate change. In Africa, land degradation and even desertification are threats; per capita food production has declined by 12% since 1981. Unfair agricultural subsidies in developed regions continue to hinder progress towards increasing yields. Priorities for Asia and the Pacific include urban air quality, fresh water stress, degraded ecosystems, agricultural land use and increased waste. Drinking water provision has made remarkable progress in the last decade, but the illegal traffic in electronic and hazardous waste is a new challenge. Europe’s rising incomes and growing numbers of households are leading to unsustainable production and consumption, higher energy use, poor urban air quality, and transport problems. The region’s other priorities are biodiversity loss, land-use change and freshwater stresses.

    Latin America and the Caribbean face urban growth, biodiversity threats, coastal damage and marine pollution, and vulnerability to climate change. But protected areas now cover about 12% of the land, and annual deforestation rates in the Amazon are falling.

    North America is struggling to address climate change, to which energy use, urban sprawl and freshwater stresses are all linked. Energy efficiency gains have been countered by the use of larger vehicles, low fuel economy standards, and increases in car numbers and distances travelled.

    Passenger car use in the Asia region. Click to enlarge.

    In Asia and the Pacific, environmental change is driven by rapid population growth, changing consumption patterns accompanying higher incomes, and burgeoning industrial and urban development. A number of factors are contributing to an increase in urban air pollution, including an increase of 2.5 times in the use of passenger cars over the past two decades. (See chart at right.)

    For West Asia the priorities are freshwater stresses, degradation of land, coasts and marine ecosystems, urban management, and peace and security. Water-borne diseases and the sharing of international water resources are also concerns.

    The Polar Regions are already feeling the impacts of climate change. The food security and health of indigenous peoples are at risk from increasing mercury and persistent organic pollutants in the environment. The ozone layer is expected to take another half-century to recover.

The Future. GEO-4 acknowledges that technology can help to reduce vulnerability to environmental stresses, but says there is sometimes a need to correct the technology-centred development paradigm. It explores how current trends may unfold by 2050 in four scenarios:

  • Markets First: the private sector, with active government support, pursues maximum economic growth as the best path to improve the environment and human well-being for all.

  • Policy First: the government sector, with active private- and civic-sector support, implements strong policies intended to improve the environment and human well-being, while still emphasizing economic development.

  • Security First: the government sector and the private sector vie for control in efforts to improve, or at least maintain, human well-being for mainly the rich and powerful in society.

  • Sustainability First: the civic, government and private sectors work collaboratively to improve the environment and human well-being for all, with a strong emphasis on equity.

None of the scenarios describes a utopia. Even though some improvements are seen and there is an indication of a slowing of the rate of change in some aspects of global environmental change, some problems remain persistent in all of the scenarios. In particular, climate change and the loss of biodiversity will continue to present significant challenges, and may eventually pose the danger of crossing critical thresholds in the Earth system. Similarly, with respect to human well-being, significant advances are achievable, particularly in Sustainability First, but even these will take time, and significant inequities will remain by the end of the scenario horizon.

Furthermore, there are costs and risks in each scenario. These are perhaps most evident in Security First, where a narrow definition of security for some is likely to result in increasing vulnerabilities for all. In Markets First, both the environment and society move the fastest towards if not beyond tipping points, where sudden, abrupt, accelerating and irreversible changes may occur. This is of particular concern given the uncertainties in the resilience of environmental and social systems.

Under Policy First and Sustainability First, society will achieve a higher material standard of living and greater protection of the environment, but at a significant cost. Indeed, there are particular costs and risks in terms of the actions and approaches taken to address the issues of environment and human well-being. The social and economic costs of these actions may significantly exceed what has been previously assumed, and the lower economic growth seen in the currently well-off regions in Sustainability First may not prove to be acceptable.

The time required to implement the actions might increase, due to the greater level of bureaucracy foreseen in Policy First and the increased level of coordination in Sustainability First. Finally, trade-offs may imply that the pursuit of a balanced approach in Sustainability First could work against greater progress on any specific target.

Still, to the extent that the scenarios reflect our understanding of the Earth system and environmental governance, they indicate that some approaches are more likely to be effective than others. Specifically, it is important to recognize the trade-offs, synergies and opportunities that exist in addressing the challenges of achieving environmental, development and human well-being goals.

...Furthermore, the scenarios point to the need to act quickly. Our common future depends on our actions today, not tomorrow or some time in the future.



Stan's going to blow his lid with this one.


In other words, there are no perfect solutions to the problems facing us.

What else is new?

In other words, there are no perfect solutions to the problems facing us. What else is new?

Of course that's not what it says at all, but thanks for opening your stone cold heart to us.


Do we peons get to vote?

Markets First, please.


I'm referring to:

"None of the scenarios describes a utopia. Even though some improvements are seen and there is an indication of a slowing of the rate of change in some aspects of global environmental change, some problems remain persistent in all of the scenarios."

It's really hard to read this post and not feel really cynical and depressed about the future.


When I was grade school there were less than 4 billion people on the earth. The Planet barely took notice that we were here.

As I reach middle age there are more than 6 billion people on the earth. There are multiple signs at nearly every corner of the globe that we are putting a strain on the environment.

By the time I reach retirement age there will be 10 billion people on the planet. No matter how optimistic you are, 10 billion is not a good number.


You people realy believe this stuff,all I know is that the UK is one of the main centers for predicting hurricanes(dammed if I know why)they have not got that right either.
As for the 10 billion,you can always help out by eliminating one.


All so very cheery. Did I understand this to say that the process is self regulating? When we've all starved to death or killed each other off fighting over resources, then more green house gasses!! Also, they left out the fact that the sun is heating up!!


@ralph: What are you talking about the UK and hurricane predictions for? Did you even read the post?
"GEO-4 is the most comprehensive UN report on the environment, prepared by about 390 experts and reviewed by more than 1,000 others across the world."


@marko: "Also, they left out the fact that the sun is heating up!!" It was left out because it's not true.
Check out this article....
Or have a look at this data...


In last couple of years UN experts issued couple of excellent reports; unfortunately this particular one is not among them.

The main problem is that report uses mostly “Earth average” matrix, which is misleading at best. It is like reporting average temperature through the hospital, including temperature of patients in fewer, and already on ice.

Different countries and regions are vastly different on scoreboard of the “state of the environment”. Developed countries like US, Canada, Japan, Western Europe, etc. managed to vastly improve air quality (yes, and in Europe too, despite proliferation of diesel cars before they become acceptably clean), tackle problem of acid rains, significantly improve water quality, increase forests and parks area, almost completely eliminate problem of waste management and toxic wastes, enhance wildlife conservation, establish high rate of recycling, and so on. Significant improvements are made in Eastern Europe (including Russia and Ukraine) and in South America (thought they have long way to go).

The picture in developing countries is terrifyingly different. Air pollution in China is terrible. Water quality in India and Vietnam is awful. Indonesia and Malaysia continue to exterminate rainforest at alarming rate. Whole Africa is a disaster zone, and no relief in sign.

Some particular points to add.

Global warming. South Hemisphere did not warmed at all in last 30 years, Antarctica actually cooled, increased total ice mass, and had record extend of sea ice this winter. Very cold winter was experienced in S. America, and cold winters were also experienced in S.Africa and Australia. Australia broke alarming drought pattern. According to corrected data, temperature in continental US in last 10 years were no hotter than in 1930-1940. Arctic is experiencing serious warming and loss of sea ice, probably more severe than in 1920-1930. This year hurricane activity is the lowest in 4 decades; ironically same weather patterns which keep hurricanes from forming in E. Pacific and in Mexican Gulf brought dry conditions to South California and US South East. European summer was cold west of Rome-Warsaw line, and hot east of it; same long-lasting high pressure zone was responsible for both conditions. African Sahel is greening, it were some droughts, and some serious floods in central and eastern Africa. Concentrations of CO2 are increasing in stable and unstoppable rate, yet concentrations of CFC and most importantly methane began to decrease. It was marked cooling of world oceans, and Pacific and Atlantic oceans show signs of switching to cold decades (must read):


Solar cycle 24 is delaying, which could lead to cooler couple of decade, probably much cooler.

Population. Previous UN reports predict that world population will stabilize at about 2050 at 9 billion, and will begin to decrease. Surprisingly, countries like Egypt, Iran, and Mexico already have fertility rate lower replenishment (2.1 child per woman). Population in all OECD countries is stabilizing, or already decreasing.

Food. OECD countries have chronic food overproduction problem. Hunger in Asia and S. America is eliminated. Africa is…

Fishing. UN forgets completely about such thing as fish farming.

Water. I worked on water problems for more than decade. Notion about scarce water resources is bull. Semi-desert and one of the most densely populated country in the world (Israel) manages to supply all population with western-style water usage, grow its own food, and even sell significant food surplus abroad. Water could be reused almost indefinitely on its way from inland to ocean, which is apparently not known to UN experts. Modern RO desalination could produce potable water quarter for cube, which is enough for one human per day, including for growth of green vegetables. For everything else there is international trade.

Biodiversity and extinctions. From Wiki: “784 extinctions have been documented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.[1] However, since most extinctions are likely to go undocumented, scientists estimate that during the last century, between 20,000 and two million species have become extinct”
My bet that UN experts stick to two million number.

What else? Yes, South Pole ozone hole was the biggest in history of measurements:


Last scientific findings indicate that debilitating role of antropogenic CFC emissions were seriously overestimated. Ozone hole over pole regions is natural phenomena; during long polar night recuperated into oxygen stratospheric ozone is not replenished by newly created by solar irradiation ozone, hence the hole.

Is it good or bad news? Decide for yourself.



"Israel manages to manage all population with western style water usage" fisrst of all in israel peoples don't have a pool at home like in us, they don't grow corn for ethanol, and last but not least they severly the right to palestinians to pump the water they need for their agriculture. Not sure you took the right example

aussie paul

I sincerely hope you are not in a position of any sort of responsibility or influence because you are seriously insane.

To other posters, don't argue with Andrey as he has created a different world from ours in which he lives happily shielded from pain.



Instead of stating that Andrey is insane, why don't you tell me where he's wrong?


So, according to you logic, Treefagger, Americans have pools and grow corn for fuel because they are stealing water from natives?

aussie paul

The toxic and desecrated state of the environment in developed countries may have been vastly improved but it is still a toxic and desecrated emvironment.
Developed countries, while far from being sustainable themselves, are now using up the resources of the developing world to supply them with goods and leaving them to cope with the toxic filth byproducts of supplying those goods.
I am not going to answer all of his arguments because one person could search the web and find proof that black is white but when most of the people say that black is black, you understand something about that one person.
In the eyes of the rabid cornucopian, we do not have a resource problem.
The facts are that we do have a resource problem and I would much rather eat steak, have fresh, clean rainwater to drink and eat organic vegetables in a world with far less people in it than the current severely over-populated, polluted, depleted world requiring farmed fish, recycled water and hydroponics to supply it.

TThoms is a flaming azzhole. Ignore him.



No pun intended, but you are seriously misinformed about food you eat and water you drink.

Most of potable water supply in US (and in the world) is already recycled water, in most cases – multiple times. It is always was, and always will be the case. If you do not like the idea, drink bottled water (mineral, RO water lack essential minerals). Rain water is, actually, very dirty, acidic, and lacks essential minerals detrimental to health.

Steak and other meat are universally farmed, so get used to farmed fish and seafood too. You probably would be terrified to learn what kind of staff lobsters, crabs, mussels or oysters are eating in the wild.

The only vegetables completely free of pesticides, herbicides, and microbial contamination from biting insects and rodents are, actually, hydroponically grown hot-house variety.

Do not really get too worried about labels. Any food passing US FDA is safe.

Stan Peterson

this is all Goo and Drivel.

The advanced world is not dying due to pollution. Average lifetimes are continuing to increase. The so-called evil buzzword "Climate Change" has been adopted since "Global Warming" is no longer much of a scare word. In any case, changes of a few tenths of a degree per century to an average climate temperature have little power to disrupt any but perhaps the most marginal of societies.

Global Warming is not even principally anthropogenic, as 21st century Science increasingly demonstrates. It is "Solar Energy" in action; but is periodic and faced many times before. Besides it is basically beneficial; it is Global Cooling that is much more of a disruptive irritant to mankind.

Choosing to live in the northern part of Manhattan island versus the southern tip may be an economic decision; it is not a life or death global warming decision. But that change in climate by moving that little ways South, closer to the equator, equates to a century's worth of Global Warming, by the direst predictions, so how can anyone feel threatened provided that they actually ...think.

Harvey D


Are you sure you identified the right person?


Stan, you've got it the wrong way around. A guy that used to be one of Bush's spin doctors was hired first to deny the reality of global warming and then to stop the public getting concerned that the US wasn't doing anything about it. His advice was to stop talking about 'global warming' and start referring to 'climate change' as it is a more general term and therefore less scary.

Interestingly, the spin doctor in question, has now changed his views and is an activist for action on climate change. I'm not expecting any similar reversals from any of the hard core contrarians that post here.

regardless of what i think of your post, you lose all credibility when you immediately stoop to name calling (TreeF.... as opposed to Treehugger). Don't be an ass. Stick with the topic and stop the name calling. wouldn't want people to call you a homophobe as well as a climaphobe.

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