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UNEP'S Global Environment Outlook Report says Progress on the Road from Rio uneven

Nairobi 27 January 1997 - Five years after the groundbreaking "Earth Summit" at Rio de Janeiro,
the global environment has continued to deteriorate and significant environmental problems remain deeply embedded in the socio-economic fabric of nations in all regions", concludes the Global Environmental Outlook report released today by the United Nations Environment Programme at Nairobi.

"Internationally and nationally, the funds and political will remain insufficient to halt further global environmental degradation and to address the most pressing environmental issues - even though the technology and knowledge are available to do so", the reports explains. The report points out that "the recognition of environmental issues as necessarily long-term and cumulative, with serious global and security implications, remains limited..... 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".

The report singles out worldwide progress in the realm of institutional development, international cooperation, public participation and the emergence of private-sector action as an indicator of growing environmental awareness. Legal frameworks, economic instruments, environmental impact assessment methodologies, environmentally sound technologies and cleaner production processes are being increasingly developed and applied. "As a result" the report points out, "several countries reported 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".

The Global Environment Outlook report produced by UNEP differs significantly from the approach taken by other assessments, which have come out recently. The report approaches environmental problems from a regional perspective. This methodology stems from UNEP's unique experience in dealing with regional environmental issues over the last twenty five years.

In preparing the report, the United Nations Environment Programme identified 20 internationally renowned environmental institutions as Global Environment Outlook collaborating centres, and instituted a mechanism for regional consultations, four scientific working groups and United Nations agency participation through the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch. In all, some 500 experts, including many government experts, participated in the preparation of Global Environment Outlook report.

The report argues that although there is repeated acknowledgement of both the vicious cycle of poverty and its intrinsic linkages with the environment and the urgency to address poverty alleviation, little evidence had emerged from the regional reports that effective and concerted actions have been taken since Rio to ensure that environmental policies benefit the poorest members of society. "A vacuum still remains at the national level for linking environmental protection to social investment, such as education, better health care and employment generation for the poor, especially women", says the report.


At the same time, the report sees encouraging signs in the empowerment of communities and the growth of environment-oriented non-governmental organizations in civil society and their increasing recognition in all regions as powerful mechanisms to advance sustainable development. The tendency to strengthen regional and subregional cooperation worldwide is another heartening signal which "might well prove to be one of the most powerful mechanisms to move national and global institutions forward towards sustainable development". The Global Environment Outlook identifies principal environmental issues confronting the major regions. In regions where food security and poverty alleviation are priorities, such as Africa, West Asia and parts of the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America, the primary concern is related to land - its availability, the prevention and control of land degradation, and efficient land and water management. "Half a billion hectares of land in Africa is moderately to severely degraded. Some 47 per cent of Latin America's grazing lands have lost their fertility as a result of erosion, overgrazing, salinization and alkalinization" says the report. The limited availability of arable land and loss of land to urban expansion are of particular importance to small island States and the West Asia region. Degradation of drylands is an urgent global problem, placing some one billion people in 110 countries at risk, mainly in developing regions. In highly industrialized regions, ameliorating soil contamination and combating acidification are priorities.

A decline of some two per cent in the area of the world's forests and wooded land over the last decade is another aspect that the report touches upon. While the area under forest cover in developed regions remained fairly unchanged during this period, natural forest cover in developing regions declined by eight per cent. African forests are the most depleted of all the tropical regions, with only 30 per cent of historical stands remaining, the report points out. Asian timber reserves may last for no more than a further 40 years. West Asia has lost 11 per cent of its remaining forests during the 1980s. In Europe, air pollution (including acid rain), pests and diseases, and forest fires were the main causes of forest degradation. The report recognizes that, whilst total deforestation has been greatest in Latin America and the Caribbean, deforestation rates have decelerated as a result of international initiatives and national programmes to abolish subsidies, tax incentives and special credits that encouraged deforestation. Biological diversity is of particular concern in both the Latin American and Caribbean region and the Asia and Pacific region, which together house 80 per cent of the world's ecologically megadiverse countries. Worldwide habitat loss and fragmentation, the lack of biological corridors and the decline in biological diversity outside protected areas constitute the primary threats to biological diversity.

One common factor that links all regions is the problem related to either groundwater or surface water, or both. Every day, 25,000 people die as a result of poor water quality. Some 1,700 million people, more than one third of the world's population, are without a supply of safe water and, in the absence of an adequate sanitation infrastructure, the problem of pathogenic pollution is severe in many developing countries. An estimated one quarter of the world's population will suffer from chronic water shortages in the beginning of the next century. The development and efficient management of water resources are of particular 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 feature high on the agenda. One million rural Americans are without piped water and supplies to a further 5.6 million do not meet safe drinking water standards. Water supply to regions hosting megacities is a worldwide concern, mainly with regard to groundwater resources, the intrusion of salt into freshwater supplies and land subsidence. More than 1,500 million people depend on groundwater for their drinking water. "Other global priorities are the equitable distribution of water between riparian countries sharing international river basins and the impacts of major dams and diversion projects. The depletion of aquifers on the western side of the Persian Gulf, for example, is leading to the loss of a unique ecosystem of natural freshwater springs. Many countries in West Asia suffer from water scarcity, with Bahrain having less than 18 per cent of the minimum threshold; yet levels of water consumption are now very high - ranging from 300 to 1500 liters a day per capita", the report points out. Currently, Africa has 19 of the 25 countries that have the highest percentage of populations without access to safe drinking water.

The report points out that one third of the world's coastal regions are at high risk of degradation, particularly from land-based activities. Currently, about 60 per cent of the global population lives within 100 kilometres of the coastline and more than three billion people rely on coastal and marine habitats for food, building sites, transportation, recreation, and waste disposal. European coasts are the worst affected, with some 80 per cent at risk, followed by Asia and the Pacific, with 70 per cent at risk. In Latin America, some 50 percent of the mangrove forests 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 is placing severe stress on natural coastal areas around the world, particularly in small island developing states. There is widespread anxiety in Asia and the Pacific, North America, Europe and West Asia regarding the over-exploitation of marine fisheries and the consequent decline in stocks of commercial fish species. Globally, over 60 per cent of marine fisheries are heavily exploited.

Acid rain and transboundary air pollution, once considered a problem only in Europe and parts of North America, are now increasingly apparent in parts of Asia and the Pacific and Latin America. Large regions are at risk from the effects of both climate change and acidification. All major cities in the world suffer urban air quality problems. In Eastern Europe, air quality is considered the most serious environmental problem. Despite coordinated action worldwide, damage to the ozone layer continues faster than expected, with the next ten years predicted to be the most vulnerable. Non-compliance and growth in illegal trade in ozone depleting substances are emerging problems. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay experience the effects of increased ultraviolet-B radiation due to ozone depletion more acutely than any other inhabited region. All regions express concern over global warming but special emphasis is placed by the 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," states the report, "particularly in Asia and the Pacific, where a 100 per cent increase in energy use is predicted for the period 1990 - 2010 and in Latin America, with a predicted energy growth of 50 -77 per cent for the same period".


Currently, 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 of both North America and Western Europe, and of concern to the other regions as well. Subregions with emerging economies, such as those of Eastern Europe, South-East Asia, and parts of Latin America and West Asia, face problems associated with rapid industrialization. The accumulation of radioactive waste and the continued impacts of the Chernobyl disaster and the effects of past radioactive spills remain of particular concern in Eastern European countries. These problems are compounded by rapidly increasing urbanization, particularly in coastal zones, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

The polar regions, representing the largest remaining natural ecosystems on Earth are also coming under increasing 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". recommends the report.

The Global Environment Outlook identifies seven fundamental global environmental trends that could be crucial in halting environmental degradation and implementing sustainable development:

  1. Current use of renewable resources, land, forest, freshwater, coastal areas, fisheries and urban air which is beyond their natural regeneration capacity and therefore unsustainable;

  2. Emission of greenhouse gases which are still being emitted at levels higher than the stabilization targets internationally agreed upon under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change;

  3. Natural areas, and their attendant biological diversity which are diminishing as a result of the expansion of agricultural land and human settlements;

  4. The increasing, pervasive use and spread of chemicals which are causing major health risks, environmental contamination and disposal problems;

  5. The continued heavy reliance on hydrocarbons in the energy sector to fuel economic development - a practice which is clearly unsustainable;

  6. Rapid unplanned urbanization, particularly in coastal areas, which is placing severe major stress on adjacent ecosystems; and

  7. Interactions among global biogeochemical cycles which are leading to widespread ecosystem damage and change.

The report also explores four key priority areas for action by the global community that emerge from the Global Environment Outlook report. "Current patterns of energy use require drastic changes, because of their destructive impacts on land and natural resources, climate, air quality, rural and urban settlements, and human health and well-being. Alternative energy sources need to be vigorously pursued and their application enhanced. Energy efficiency still needs to be greatly improved, and emissions need to be reduced". The second priority relates to the need for a wider dissemination of appropriate and environmentally sound technologies worldwide. "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".

The report lists Global action on fresh water as its third priority. 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 social sectors, among rural and urban communities, and among riparian countries. Fourthly, the report identifies the need for investment in new and better national data collection methods and in the acquisition of global datasets and in enhanced capabilities for integrated assessment and forecasting, and the analysis of the environmental impact of alternative policy options.

Releasing the report, UNEP Executive Director, Ms. Elizabeth Dowedswell said, "The analysis of the state of the environment in the Global Environment Outlook takes us into several fields. It takes us into politics, because environmental policy is made in an intensely political atmosphere where interests and values often collide. It takes us into science, which enables us to understand problems and attempt to solve them. It takes us into the field of ethics, because few areas of policy present more difficult choices: how to preserve shared resources, how to distribute costs and benefits, how this generation's actions will affect future ones. It also takes us into economics, because a society's choices about the environment relate directly to how it produces, consumes and preserves its resources".

"Solutions to environmental problems do not come from awareness alone", Ms. Dowedswell remarked. "They have to be relentlessly sought after and striven for. Rio was the start of a process: a unprecedented basic framework was agreed upon and many important commitments were made, but some vital issues remained to be set in place. UNEP's Global Environment Outlook report confirms that there still remained an unfinished agenda".


For further information, please contact:

Veerle Vandeweerd
Chief, State of the Environment Reporting
Division of Environment Information and Assessment
UNEP, P.O. Box 30552
Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: 254-2-62-3527
Fax: 254-2-62-3943/4

Tore J. Brevik, Chief
or Robert Bisset, Information Officer
Information and Public Affairs
UNEP, P.O. Box 30552
Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: 254-2-62-3084
Fax: 254-2-62-3692
E Mail:

Global Environment Outlook is co-published with Oxford University Press.
To order a copy, contact:
Oxford University Press, Order Department, 2001 Evans Road, Cary, NC 27513, USA.

Tel: +1 800 451 7566, Fax: +1 919 677 1303, Email: Hardback: US$ 39.95 (plus mailing costs)
Paperback: US$ 24.95 (plus mailing costs)
Where GEO-1 can be accessed on the Internet:


UNEP News Release 1997/3

Monday 27 Jan 1997
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