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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Overview of Regional Status and Trends

Not surprisingly, GEO-1 confirms both striking similarities and marked differences among regions in terms of which environmental issues are of primary concern today. Chapter 2 elaborates the priorities in the different regions with regard to land, forests, biodiversity, water, marine and coastal environments, atmosphere, and urban and industrial environments.

In regions where food security and poverty alleviation are priorities, such as Africa, West Asia, and parts of Asia-Pacific and Latin America, the primary emphasis regarding land is its availability, the abatement of land degradation, and efficient land and water management. The limited availability of arable land and loss of land to urban expansion are particularly important to small island states and the West Asian region. Degradation of drylands is an urgent global problem, placing some 1 billion people in 110 countries at risk, mainly in developing regions. In highly industrialized regions, ameliorating soil contamination and combating acidification are priorities.

With regard to forests and biodiversity, the impacts of development activities and the advance of the agricultural frontier are of concern in developing regions, while forest and biodiversity conservation receive major attention in the North. The decade 1980 to 1990 witnessed a decline in the world's forests and wooded land of some 2 per cent; while the area of forest in industrial regions remained fairly unchanged, in developing regions natural forest cover declined 8 per cent. In Europe, air pollution (including acid rain), pests and diseases, and forest fires were the main causes for forest degradation. Biodiversity is of particular concern both to Latin America and the Caribbean and to Asia and the Pacific, which together house 80 per cent of the ecological megadiversity countries of the world. As yet, no region-based assessment of the state of the world's biodiversity is available, and of a working figure of 13 million species, only 13 per cent have been scientifically described. World-wide habitat loss and fragmentation, the lack of biological corridors, and the decline in biological diversity outside protected areas constitute primary threats to overall biodiversity.

All regions experience problems related to either ground water or surface water or both. Every day, 25,000 people die as a result of poor water quality, and waterborne diseases still represent the single largest cause of human sickness and death world-wide. Some 1.7 billion people, more than one third of the world's population, are without safe water supply. In addition, an estimated one quarter of the world will suffer from chronic water shortages in the beginning of the next century. The development and efficient management of water resources is a priority concern in West Asia, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific. In Europe and North America, the protection of water resources from contamination, acidification, and eutrophication are highest on the agenda. Water supply to regions hosting megacities is a concern world-wide, particularly with regard to protection of ground-water resources, intrusion of salt into fresh-water supplies, and land subsidence. More than 1.5 billion people depend on ground water for their drinking water. Other global priorities are the equitable distribution of water among riparian countries sharing international river basins, non-point sources of pollution, and the impacts of major dams and diversion projects. Water will be the major impediment to development in the future in several regions.

About 60 per cent of the world population lives within 100 kilometres of the coastline, and more than 3 billion people rely in some manner on coastal and marine habitats for food, building sites, transportation, recreation, and waste disposal. Around one third of the world's coastal regions are at high risk of degradation, particularly from land-based sources of pollution and infrastructure development. European coasts are most affected, with some 80 per cent at risk, followed by Asia and the Pacific, with 70 per cent of the coast at risk. In Latin America, some 50 per cent of the mangroves are affected by forestry and aquaculture activities. Oil spills are particular threats in West Asia and the Caribbean, while infrastructure development for the tourism industry puts stress on natural coastal areas around the world, particularly in small island developing states. There is widespread alarm in Asia and the Pacific, North America, Europe, and West Asia regarding the overexploitation of marine fisheries and consequent declining stocks of commercial fish species. Globally, more than 60 per cent of marine fisheries are heavily exploited.

Air pollution problems are multifaceted and pervasive. All major cities in the world suffer urban air quality problems; in Eastern Europe, air quality is considered the most serious environmental problem. Acid rain and transboundary air pollution, once problems only in Europe and parts of North America, are now becoming apparent in parts of the Asia-Pacific region as well as parts of Latin America. Large regions are at risk from the effects of both climate change and acidification. Despite co-ordinated action world-wide, damage to the ozone layer continues faster than expected, with the next 10 years predicted to be the most vulnerable. Cases of non-compliance and growth in illegal trade in ozone-depleting substances are emerging problems. All regions express concern over global warming, but special emphasis is placed by developing countries on the need for adaptive mechanisms to cope with accompanying climate variability and sea-level change. The rapidly rising demand for energy to fuel economic development will aggravate these problems, particularly in Asia and the Pacific, where a 100-per-cent increase in energy use is predicted for 1990-2010, and in Latin America, with a predicted energy growth of 50-77 per cent. It is expected that for the near future, fossil fuels-coal, oil, and natural gas-will continue to be the primary energy source.

The impacts of current consumption and production patterns and associated waste generation, particularly on personal health and well-being, are high on the priority list in both North America and Western Europe and are of concern to other regions, particularly with regard to the use of natural resources for production and consumption processes outside the regions. Subregions with emerging economies, such as those of Eastern Europe, South East Asia, and parts of Latin America and West Asia, face problems associatedwith rapid industrialization. Rising levels of pollutants and greenhouse gases create serious problems of acidification, urban air quality deterioration, and transboundary pollution-all posing increasing health risks. Accumulation of radioactive waste, and the effects of past radioactive spills remain of particular concern in Eastern Europe.

These problems are compounded by rapid urbanization, particularly in coastal zones, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. More than half of humankind will live in urban areas by the end of the century, a figure that will increase to 60 per cent by 2020, when Europe, Latin America, and North America will have more than 80 per cent of their populations living in urban areas.

The polar regions, representing the largest remaining natural ecosystems on Earth, are also increasingly coming under stress, particularly from long-range pollutant transport and deposition. Their crucial role in climate regulation and the vulnerability of their fauna and flora warrant special attention.

Although poverty and the growing global population are often targetted as responsible for much of the degradation of the world's resources, other factors-such as the inefficient use of resources (including those of others), waste generation, pollution from industry, and wasteful consumption patterns-are equally driving us towards an environmental precipice. Table 1 indicates the relative importance of environmental issues within and across regions.

Table 1. Regional Concerns: Relative Importance Given to Environmental Issues by Regions

Table 1. Regional Concerns: Relative Importance Given to Environmental Issues by Regions

Table 2 reflects trends for the same issues, without depicting the rate of changes in these trends. In many instances, although trends are increasing, the rate of increase over the years has slowed down or was less than the rate of increase in economic growth previously experienced by countries with comparable economic growth. This suggests that several countries are making the transition to a more sustainable environment at a lower level of economic development than industrial countries typically did over the last 50 years.

Table 2. Regional Environmental Trends

Table 2. Regional Environmental Trends

As nations develop, different sets of environmental concerns assume priority. Initially, prominence is given to issues associated with poverty alleviation and food security and development- namely, natural resource management to control land degradation, provide an adequate water supply, and protect forests from overexploitation and coastal zones from irreversible degradation. Attention to issues associated with increasing industrialization then follows. Such problems include uncontrolled urbanization and infrastructure development, energy and transport expansion, the increased use of chemicals, and waste production. More affluent societies focus on individual and global health and well-being, the intensity of resource use, heavy reliance on chemicals, and the impact of climate change and ozone destruction, as well as remaining vigilant on the long-term protection needs of natural resources. Figure 3 illustrates the observed progression on environmental priority issues.

Figure 3. Changing priority concerns.

Figure 3. Changing priority concerns.

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