Note: This is the 1997 edition of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook. If you are interested in more recent information, please see the 2000 and 2002 editions.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version


Executive Summary

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Global Overview

The GEO-1 Report shows that significant progress has been made in the last decade in confronting environmental challenges in both developing and industrial regions. World-wide, the greatest progress has been in the realm of institutional developments, international co-operation, public participation, and the emergence of private-sector action. Legal frameworks, economic instruments, environmentally sound technologies, and cleaner production processes have been developed and applied. Environmental impact assessments have become standard tools for the initiation, implementation, and evaluation of major development and investment projects in many countries around the world.

As a result, several countries report marked progress in curbing environmental pollution and slowing the rate of resource degradation as well as reducing the intensity of resource use. The rate of environmental degradation in several developing countries has been slower than that experienced by industrial countries when they were at a similar stage of economic development. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Environmental transitions.

Figure 2. Environmental transitions.

Internationally, Agenda 21 - the plan of action adopted by Governments in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro- provides the global consensus on the road map towards sustainable development. The Commission on Sustainable Development offers an intergovernmental forum to co-ordinate and monitor progress on the plan's implementation. A financial mechanism, the Global Environment Facility, addresses the incremental costs that developing countries face in responding to selected global environmental problems. UNEP continues to be the environmental voice of the United Nations, responsible for environmental policy development, scientific analysis, monitoring, and assessment. Increasingly, United Nations organizations, the World Bank, and Regional Banks are "greening" their programmes. Recently signed international agreements are entering into force, older treaties are being improved, and new approaches to international policy are being developed, tested, and implemented.

Since Rio, a growing body of actors-Governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the private sector, civil society, and the scientific and research community-have responded to environmental challenges in a variety of ways and have taken great strides towards incorporating environmental considerations in their day-to-day activities. Groups such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Earth Council, and the International Council for Local Environment Initiatives provide effective non-governmental forums for world-wide co-operation and information sharing. Increasingly, Government departments are called on to take environmental considerations into account, and consequently environment assumes a more important role in international relations and transactions. The participation of a broad range of ministries (other than those on the environment) in the negotiation and implementation of the Biodiversity, Climate, and Desertification Conventions and the increasing array of voluntary agreements, codes of conduct, and guidelines generated by the industry, banking, and insurance sectors all exemplify the encouraging trend.

Nevertheless, despite this progress on several fronts, from a global perspective the environment has continued to degrade during the past decade, and significant environmental problems remain deeply embedded in the socio-economic fabric of nations in all regions. Progress towards a global sustainable future is just too slow. A sense of urgency is lacking. Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will are insufficient to halt further global environmental degradation and to address the most pressing environmental issues-even though technology and knowledge are available to do so. The recognition of environmental issues as necessarily long-term and cumulative, with serious global and security implications, remains limited. The reconciliation of environment and trade regimes in a fair and equitable manner still remains a major challenge. The continued preoccupation with immediate local and national issues and a general lack of sustained interest in global and long-term environmental issues remain major impediments to environmental progress internationally. Global governance structures and global environmental solidarity remain too weak to make progress a world-wide reality. As a result, the gap between what has been done thus far and what is realistically needed is widening.

Comprehensive response mechanisms have not yet been fully internalized at the national level. The development at local, national, and regional levels of effective environmental legislation and of fiscal and economic instruments has not kept pace with the increase in environmental institutions. In the private sector, environmental advances by several major transnational corporations are not reflected widely in the practices of small- and medium-sized companies that form the backbone of economies in many countries.

In the future, the continued degradation of natural resources, shortcomings in environmental responses, and renewable resource constraints may increasingly lead to food insecurity and conflict situations. Changes in global biogeochemical cycles and the complex interactions between environmental problems such as climate change, ozone depletion, and acidification may have impacts that will confront local, regional, and global communities with situations they are unprepared for. Previously unknown risks to human health are becoming evident from the cumulative and persistent effects of a whole range of chemicals, particularly the persistent organic pollutants. The effects of climate variability and change are already increasing the incidence of familiar public health problems and leading to new ones, including a more extensive reach of vectorborne diseases and a higher incidence of heat-related illness and mortality. If significant major policy reforms are not implemented quickly, the future might hold more such surprises.

GEO-1 substantiates the need for the world to embark on major structural changes and to pursue environmental and associated socio-economic policies vigorously. Key areas for action must embrace the use of alternative and renewable energy resources, cleaner and leaner production systems world-wide, and concerted global action for the protection and conservation of the world's finite and irreplaceable fresh-water resources.

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