Looking to the Future 1The first GEO Report concludes with a brief exploration, based on model analyses, of what we might expect in the future for a selected number of environmental issues. The results in this final chapter highlight the integrated nature of the environment and underscore the need for more systematic analysis of linkages between environment, social, economic, institutional, and cultural sectors and among different environmental issues, such as biodiversity, climate, land, and water.
Preliminary results from the model analyses confirm trends revealed by the regional chapters. They indicate that, despite both declining global birth rates since 1965 and recent policy initiatives towards more efficient and cleaner resource use in some regions, the large increases in world population, expanding economies in industrializing countries, and wasteful consumption patterns particularly in developed countries of the world will continue to increase global resource and energy consumption, generate burgeoning wastes, and spawn environmental contamination and degradation. Pressures on remaining biodiversity and natural ecosystems will increase accordingly.
If no fundamental changes occur in the amount and type of energy used, global carbon dioxide emissions will increase, and the declining trends in acidifying sulphur and nitrogen concentrations may be reversed. In light of the apparent effects of human activity on climate, contingency plans to adapt to projected climate change will be required in the near future. These include the development of drought-resistant crops, increases in water use efficiency, the avoidance of ecosystem fragmentation, and an improvement of the adaptive capabilities in all regions.
With only moderate application of improved agricultural management and technology in developing regions, the demands of growing populations and the increasing burden of poverty may well lead to substantial expansion of agricultural activities into marginal lands at the expense of remaining wilderness and associated biodiversity. Although the models project adequate availability of water and food on a global basis, regional deficiencies could be aggravated in the near future. The combination of increased pressure on land by expanding urbanization and losses of productive land through degradation and unsustainable management practices may lead to shortages in arable land and water, impeding development in several regions. Global food trade can supplement these regional shortfalls, but will create dependencies and require importing countries to engage in other production activities to finance essential food imports.
In such a scenario, sharp regional differences will remain and poverty will be aggravated in several regions. If global economic gains are not accompanied more explicitly by investment in education, social development, and environmental protection, a move towards a more equitable, healthy, and sustainable future for all sectors of society will not be realized, and a new spate of urban and pollution-related health impacts may surface.
The chapter's brief exploration into alternative development scenarios illustrates that technology transfer can lead to significant changes in energy consumption, land use, and carbon dioxide emissions. Although the analysis presented is only a first attempt to explore the potential impact of alternative policies, it demonstrates that reductions of human pressures on the global environment are indeed technically feasible if the willingness to implement them globally is found.
The Future of the Global Environment: A Model-based Analysis Supporting UNEP's First Global Environment Outlook. UNEP/DEIA/TR.97-1., available on-line from RIVM.
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