Startling statistics on the state of the planet

By Joe Bish | 19 February 2013
Population Media Center

Bill Ryerson contacted me last night from Nairobi, where he is attending the UN Environment Programme’s Governing Council meeting. There, governments of the world (often represented by ministers of the environment) are participating in deliberations on key environmental issues and on UNEP’s program activities. Bill and Ed Barry (Director of the Population Institute’s Sustainable World Initiative) will be making a presentation on February 21 in the Green Room on the Post Rio Measurement Agenda and Fostering Behavioral Change for Sustainable Living. This will include measuring the sustainability of human development using resource sufficiency evaluation and changing behavioral norms through the use of entertainment-education strategies.

Meanwhile, Bill made the following notes about UNEP’s recently released Year Book: Emerging Issues in Our Global Environment, 2013:

It contains startling statistics on the state of the planet with regard to such issues as climate change, chemical pollution, natural resource use, and poaching of elephants and rhinos. The trend lines are mostly unfavorable. As UNEP’s Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said in his presentation to the delegates, we are in danger of presiding over irreversible degradation of the environment. The graphics on pages 9, 19, 21, 22, 37, 54, 57, 59, and 61 are particularly worth a look. The Year Book acknowledges the environmental pressures brought about by growing human populations, but does not address how to reduce or stop population growth.

The executive summary is pasted at the end of this PMC Daily Email. I am not surprised that the international community is likely to preside over irreversible degradation of the environment after reading what was, in my opinion, the poignantly illogical paragraph 4 (which I have bolded). You can see the main website of the Year Book here: http://www.unep.org/yearbook/2013/

You can download the full report here (8MB PDF): http://www.unep.org/pdf/uyb_2013.pdf

The 10th edition of the UNEP Year Book focuses on rapid change in the Arctic and minimizing chemical risks. It also reports on the spike in rhino and elephant poaching in Africa, growing urban environmental challenges, and the accelerating momentum to tackle short-lived climate pollutants. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the biggest environmental event of 2012, resulted in the strengthening of international environmental governance, a process towards developing sustainable development goals, and broad recognition of the role of a green economy in supporting sustainable development and eradicating poverty.

The world is warming, and with it the Arctic. Sea ice extent was at a record low in 2012. In July, 97 per cent of the Greenland ice sheet surface was melting. Climate change is emerging as a major stressor on Arctic biodiversity. The habitats of unique flora and fauna are being reduced – with ice-dependent Arctic marine mammals especially at risk. A widely predicted northward shift of some fish species has now been observed.

The impact of rapid change in the Arctic on the rest of the world extends beyond the contribution of melting ice and snow to global sea level rise. This region plays an important role in the climate system and ocean circulation. It is also significant for millions of migratory birds and mammals. Although much depends on the rate of change, thawing of permafrost soils could release large amounts of greenhouse gases, further amplifying climate change.

Less sea ice will result in new opportunities for shipping and resource exploration. The importance of the Arctic in supplying the world with energy and minerals is expected to expand greatly, triggering construction of roads, ports and new settlements. It is vital to better understand the impacts and potential risks of changes and to enhance the resilience of people in the region as well as ecosystems. To avoid irreversible damage to this fragile environment, a precautionary approach to economic development is warranted. As climate change dominates the current transformation of the Arctic environment, curbing greenhouse gas emissions remains critical.

The volume of chemicals manufactured and used continues to grow, with a shift in production from highly industrialized countries towards developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Yet we are falling behind with pre-market testing of new chemicals, and not enough is known about many chemicals already in commerce. A recent study showed that out of 95 000 industrial chemicals, adequate data on aquatic toxicity, bioconcentration and persistence were publicly available for less than 5 per cent. To make optimal decisions on minimizing chemical risks and protecting health and the environment, governments, industry and the public urgently need access to adequate information. New testing and assessment technologies provide promising opportunities in this regard.

Children, women, workers, the elderly and the poor are especially vulnerable to some hazardous chemicals. Once chemicals are in the environment, it can be very difficult to control or remove them. They can be transported through air, water and soil and may have adverse impacts on ecosystems and organisms including bees, fish and amphibians – or their offspring. Emerging challenges to the minimization of chemical risks include chemical mixtures, low-dose exposures, the replacement of hazardous chemicals by others with similar hazards, and nanotechnology.

Costs associated with the risks of chemicals are difficult to assess – but recent studies point out that they can be very high. One way to address inefficiencies that result when chemicals’ external costs are not fully borne by those with responsibility for them is to implement cost internalization mechanisms using economic instruments.

To reach the internationally agreed goal to produce and use chemicals in ways that minimize significant adverse impacts on human health and the environment by 2020, increased efforts are needed to strengthen sound chemicals management. Key elements include reducing the production and use of toxic substances, promoting safer alternatives, improving information flow and transparency, building capacity for improved chemicals management, and reducing illegal international traffic in chemicals.

Looking at changes in the global environment based on the annual indicator update in the Year Book, there have been a few success stories. One is the phase-out of production of ozone depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol, which is expected to lead to recovery of the ozone layer in the coming decades. Another is the uptake of renewable energy. Overall, however, the global environment continues to show signs of degradation – from land and water to biodiversity and the atmosphere.

Leading Expert Talks Overpopulation


William Ryerson, founder and President of Population Media Center, and President of the Population Institute, talks to KPBS about overpopulation problems.

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