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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The Way Ahead

World-wide, rapid and profound changes are occurring in many social, institutional, and economic systems. Continued impoverishment of large parts of the global population, increased disparities both within and among nations, and rapid globalization-particularly through developments in information technology, transport, and trade regimes-are observed. In many countries, there are trends towards decentralization of environment responsibilities from national to subnational authorities, an increasing role for the transnational corporations in environmental stewardship and policy development, and a move towards integrated environmental policies and management practices. Increased willingness by Governments to co-operate on a global basis is witnessed by the multitude of world summits in the last decade. The question arises, however, as to how this willingness is translated into concrete and effective actions. There is greater recognition and popular insistence that the wealth of nations and the well-being of individuals lie not just in economic capital, but in social and natural capital as well.

Against this background of change, many fundamental global environmental trends are emerging from the diverse regional accounts of priority environmental concerns-global and regional, current and future-summarized in this report:



The use of renewable resources-land, forest, fresh water, coastal areas, fisheries, and urban air-is beyond their natural regeneration capacity and therefore is unsustainable.


Greenhouse gases are still being emitted at levels higher than the stabilization target internationally agreed upon under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


Natural areas and the biodiversity they contain are diminishing due to the expansion of agricultural land and human settlements.


The increasing, pervasive use and spread of chemicals to fuel economic development is causing major health risks, environmental contamination, and disposal problems.


Global developments in the energy sector are unsustainable.


Rapid, unplanned urbanization, particularly in coastal areas, is putting major stress on adjacent ecosystems.


The complex and often little understood interactions among global biogeochemical cycles are leading to widespread acidification, climate variability, changes in the hydrological cycles, and the loss of biodiversity, biomass, and bioproductivity.

There are also widespread social trends, intrinsically linked to the environment, that have negative feedback effects on environmental trends, notably:



an increase in inequality, both among and within nations, in a world that is generally healthier and wealthier (See Figure 5.);


a continuation, at least in the near future, of hunger and poverty despite the fact that globally enough food is available; and


greater human health risks resulting from continued resource degradation and chemical pollution.

Figure 5. Gross world product, 1950 - 94.

Figure 5. Gross world product, 1950 - 94.

If one were to distill four key priority areas that emerge from the GEO-1 Report for immediate, enhanced, and concerted action by the international community, energy, environmentally sound technologies, fresh water, and benchmark data are obvious choices. Many other urgent action areas are apparent in the report as well. But these four, although touching on different levels at which action should be taken, address key areas needing attention if the world is to reverse the negative environmental trends highlighted in the GEO Report. Economic cost-benefit analyses will need to be conducted in conjunction with concerted international action in these areas.

Energy efficiency and renewable energy resources.

Current patterns of energy use require drastic changes because of destructive impacts on land and natural resources, climate, air quality, rural and urban settlements, and human health and well-being. The need for ever higher levels of energy to fuel economic development in all regions of the world and the absence of significant world-wide advances in the development and application of alternative energy sources and increased energy efficiency will inevitably exacerbate environmental degradation. Alternative energy sources are being developed but need to be vigorously pursued and their application enhanced. Energy efficiency-that is, energy density per unit of production, whether industrial, domestic, or agricultural-still needs to be greatly improved, and emissions need to be reduced. Consideration should be given to declaring an Energy Decade, or decades, for that matter, until energy sustainability is reached.

Appropriate and environmentally sound technologies world-wide.

Appropriate technological improvements, which result in more effective use of natural resources, less waste, and fewer pollutant by-products, are required in all economic sectors-but particularly in industry, agriculture, transportation, and infrastructure development. Truly global availability and world-wide application of the best available and appropriate technology and production processes, including best traditional practices, has yet to be ensured through the exchange and dissemination of know-how, skills, and technology and through appropriate finance mechanisms. Despite years of deliberation, countries have yet to agree on how to reach consensus on international mechanisms to serve the vital interests of both developers of technologies and those countries that need access to them, as well as on international finance mechanisms.

Global action on fresh water.

Water will be the major impediment for further development in several regions. Not only is unsafe water having a negative impact on human and ecosystem health but also the scarcity of water, together with insufficient arable land, will increasingly pose a threat to food self-sufficiency in several regions, forcing a dependance on food trade. Greater efforts are needed to resolve issues related to land-based sources of pollution, non-point source runoff from agricultural and urban areas, protection of groundwater reserves, water pricing, the impact of development projects on ecosystems, and competing demands for water among different societal sectors, among rural and urban communities, and among riparian countries. Globally, a much stronger, more integrated, and extensive programme on water is required to address the green (food) and brown (health) fresh-water issues as well as traditional blue water issues.

Benchmark data and integrated assessments

. Assessments are required continually to guide rational and effective decision-making for environmental policy formulation, implementation, and evaluation at local, national, regional, and global levels. To improve the global capability for keeping the environment under continuous review, urgent action is required in the following fields:



investment in new and better data collection, in the harmonization of national datasets, and in the acquisition of global datasets;


increased understanding of the linkages among different environmental issues as well as of the interactions between environment and development;


enhanced capabilities for integrated assessment and forecasting and the analysis of the environmental impact of alternative policy options;


better translation of scientific results into a format readily usable by policy-makers and the general public; and


the development of cost-effective, meaningful, and useful methods for monitoring environmental trends and policy impacts at local, national, regional, and global levels.

Figure 6 illustrates the relationships among key actions, major environmental trends, and the ensuing overall improvements in environment and human health and well-being. To achieve advances in one or all of these key areas for action, a change in the "hearts and minds" of everyone will be required, along with a world-wide transition towards equity and resource efficiency. The necessary financial resources will have to be made available at national and international levels. Estimates have indicated that if 2-3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) could be devoted to environmental education, protection, and restoration, great strides could be made in halting the progress of major negative environmental trends. Implementing the pledges made at Rio to increase development aid to the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of industrial countries' GDP and to provide new additional funding is the prerequisite for initiating action to reverse global environmental degradation.

Figure 6. The action cycle.

Figure 6. The action cycle.

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