Rachel's Democracy & Health News #931, November 1, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: A new report from the United Nations offers a wake-up call. It's time to turn things around. By making major investments in solar power, green chemistry, and clean production, the U.S. could create whole new industries and large numbers of new jobs. Most importantly, we could reclaim our standing as a beneficent giant, a global leader in ideas, research, and manufacturing. What are we waiting for?]

By Peter Montague

The United Nations published its long-awaited GEO-4 report last week.

Five years in production, the 570-page report offers a catalog of human impacts on the natural environment and warns that national governments must make the natural environment central to their policy focus. The report was written by 390 experts and peer-reviewed by 1000 more.

The report says humans are now requiring 22 hectares (54 acres) per person for all the activities that sustain human life. However, there are only 16 hectares (39 acres) per person available world-wide. As a result, farm land is being degraded, ocean fisheries are being depleted, and fresh water is becoming scarcer. Furthermore, the human population is expected to grow 50% in the next 50 years.

"About half of the footprint is accounted for by the areas that are required to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions," says Neville Ash of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. "The other half is the land which produces our food, the forests which produce our timber, the oceans and rivers which produce our fish."

Clearly, all is not lost if we recognize that the GEO-4 report is a wake-up call. Major investments by nations like the U.S., which affect the world all out of proportion to their population size, could create a new world of possibilities. (The U.S. is 4% of world population but produces 25% of all global warming gases.)

A major push to develop solar power, so we could leave all remaining fossil fuels in the ground -- stop mining them as soon as humanly possible -- would drastically reduce the human footprint on the planet. It would also create whole new industries and large numbers of new jobs, and would revive America's standing as a beneficent giant of positive ideas, applied research, and high-quality products.

We have a detailed road map that shows us the direction we need to go. Our military leaders have told us that our national security depends upon ending our addiction to fossil fuels. We know we need the jobs and the revival of national spirit that such a crash program would bring. What are we waiting for?

Now here are four published summaries of the new United Nations GEO-4 report -- facts you can use to persuade friends, family, and elected representatives that a new beginning for America is necessary and is possible:


Source: Scientific American Date: October 26, 2007

Headline: The World Is Not Enough for Humans

URL: http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/world_not_en ough_for_humans.071030.htm

Humanity's environmental impact has reached an unprecedented scope, and it's getting worse

Since 1987 annual emissions of carbon dioxide -- the leading greenhouse gas warming the globe -- have risen by a third, global fishing yields have declined by 10.6 million metric tons and the amount of land required to sustain humanity has swelled to more than 54 acres (22 hectares) per person. Yet, Earth can provide only roughly 39 acres (15 hectares) for every person living today, according to the United Nation's Environmental Program's (UNEP) Global Environment Outlook, released this week. "There are no major issues," the report's authors write of the period since their first report in 1987, "for which the foreseeable trends are favorable."

Despite some successes -- such as the Montreal Protocol's 95 percent reduction in chemicals that damage the atmosphere's ozone layer and a rise in protected reserves of habitat to cover 12 percent of the planet -- humanity's impact continues to grow. For example:

Biodiversity -- The planet is in the grips of the sixth great extinction in its 4.5-billion-year history, this one largely man- made. Species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than the average rate in the fossil record. More than 30 percent of amphibians, 12 percent of birds and 23 percent of our own class, mammals, are threatened.

Climate -- Average temperatures have climbed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.76 degree Celsius) over the past century and could increase as much as 8.1 degrees F (4.5 degrees C) over the next unless "drastic" steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from, primarily, burning fossil fuels. Developed countries will need to reduce this globe- warming pollution by 60 to 80 percent by mid-century to stave off dire consequences, the report warns. "Fundamental changes in social and economic structures, including lifestyle changes, are crucial if rapid progress is to be achieved."

Food -- The amount of food grown per acre has reached one metric ton, but such increasing intensity is also driving rapid desertification of formerly arable land as well as reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. In fact, four billion out of the world's 6.5 billion people could not get enough food to eat without such fertilization. Continuing population growth paired with a shift toward eating more meat leads the UNEP to predict that food demand may more than triple.

Water -- One in 10 of the world's major rivers, including the Colorado and the Rio Grande in the U.S., fail to reach the sea for at least part of the year, due to demand for water. And that demand is rising; by 2025, the report predicts, demand for fresh water will rise by 50 percent in the developing world and 18 percent in industrialized countries. At the same time, human activity is polluting existing fresh waters with everything from fertilizer runoff to pharmaceuticals and climate change is shrinking the glaciers that provide drinking water for nearly one third of humanity. "The escalating burden of water demand," the report says, "will become intolerable in water- scarce countries."

The authors -- 388 scientists reviewed by roughly 1,000 of their peers -- view the report as "an urgent call for action" and decry the "woefully inadequate" global response to problems such as climate change. "The amount of resources needed to sustain [humanity] exceeds what is available," the report declares.

"The systematic destruction of the earth's natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged," Achim Steiner, UNEP's executive director, said in a statement. "The bill we hand our children may prove impossible to pay."


Source: New Scientist Date: October 25, 2007

Headline: Unsustainable Development 'Puts Humanity at Risk'

URL: http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/humanity_at_risk.071025.htm

By Catherine Brahic

Humans are completely living beyond their ecological means, says a major report published by the UN Environment Programme on Thursday.

The 550-page document finds the human ecological footprint is on average 21.9 hectares per person. Given the global population, however, the Earth's biological capacity is just 15.7 hectares per person.

The report is UNEP's latest on the state of the planet's health, taking five years in the making. It was put together by about 390 experts and peer-reviewed by an additional 1000.

It reviews the state of Earth's natural resources, from the atmosphere and water, to land surfaces and biodiversity. It concludes that instead of being used and maintained as a tool for the sustainable development of human populations, the environment is being sucked dry by unsustainable development.

Examples of how humans are over-exploiting natural resources to their own detriment include:

** Water -- by 2025, 1.6 billion people will live in countries with absolute water scarcity; 440 million school days are already missed every year because of diarrhoeal diseases.

** Land use -- modern agriculture exploits land more intensively than it has in the past. In 1987, a hectare of cropland yielded on average 1.8 tonnes of crops, today the same hectare produces 2.5 tonnes. This increased productivity comes at a cost -- overexploited land is degraded and becomes less productive.

** Fish -- 2.6 billion people rely on fish for more than 20% of their animal protein intake, yet as the intensity of fishing increases, the biodiversity of the ocean and the ocean's capacity to produce more fish decreases.

** Air -- more than 2 million people die each year because of indoor and outdoor pollution.

Unsustainable consumption

The individual average footprint of 21.9 hectares per person estimated by UNEP, includes the areas required to produce the resources we use, as well as the areas needed to process our waste.

"About half of the footprint is accounted for by the areas that are required to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions," says Neville Ash of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, underlying the scale of the climate change problem. "The other half is the land which produces our food, the forests which produce our timber, the oceans and rivers which produce our fish."

The inflated size of the footprint, says Ash, is partially the result of the growth of the human population. The population is currently estimated at 6.7 billion people, and is expected to reach 8 to 10 billion by 2050.

But for Ash, the main driver of the size of our footprint is our unsustainable consumption. "There is no doubt that we could sustain the current and projected population if we lived sustainably," he told New Scientist.

'Inexorable decline'

According to the report authors, energy efficiency is key to sustainability. Johan Kuylenstierna of the Stockholm Environment Institute says that the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in developing nations could be halved by 2020 simply by using existing technologies for energy efficiency.

According to Jo Alcamo, at the University of Kassel in Germany, who led the group which looked at future development for the report, open borders and free trade could also be important. In models of the future where trade between countries is made simpler, technologies that improve the sustainable use of resources are adopted more quickly.

"Much of the 'natural' capital upon which so much of the human wellbeing and economic activity depends -- water, land, the air and atmosphere, biodiversity and marine resources -- continue their seemingly inexorable decline," warns Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director.

"The cost of inaction and the price humanity will eventually pay is likely to dwarf the cost of swift and decisive action now."


Source: New York Times Date: October 26, 2007

Headline: U.N. Warns of Rapid Decay of Environment

URL: http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/u.n._warns_on_enviro nment.071026.htm

By James Kanter

PARIS, Oct. 25 -- The human population is living far beyond its means and inflicting damage to the environment that could pass points of no return, according to a major report issued Thursday by the United Nations.

Climate change, the rate of extinction of species, and the challenge of feeding a growing population are putting humanity at risk, the United Nations Environment Program said in its fourth Global Environmental Outlook since 1997.

"The human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns," Achim Steiner, the executive director of the Environment Program, said in a telephone interview.

Many biologists and climate scientists have concluded that human activities have become a dominant influence on the Earth's climate and ecosystems. But there is still a range of views on whether the changes could have catastrophic impacts, as the human population heads toward nine billion by midcentury, or more manageable results.

Over the last two decades, the world population increased by almost 34 percent, to 6.7 billion, from 5 billion. But the land available to each person is shrinking, from 19.5 acres in 1900 to 5 acres by 2005, the report said.

Population growth combined with unsustainable consumption has resulted in an increasingly stressed planet where natural disasters and environmental degradation endanger people, plants and animal species.

Persistent problems include a rapid rise of "dead zones," where marine life no longer can be supported because pollutants like runoff fertilizers deplete oxygen.

But Mr. Steiner, of the Environment Program, did note that Western European governments had taken effective measures to reduce air pollutants and that Brazil had made efforts to roll back some deforestation. He said an international treaty to tackle the hole in the earth's ozone layer had led to the phasing out of 95 percent of ozone-damaging chemicals.

"Life would be easier if we didn't have the kind of population growth rates that we have at the moment," Mr. Steiner said. "But to force people to stop having children would be a simplistic answer. The more realistic, ethical and practical issue is to accelerate human well- being and make more rational use of the resources we have on this planet."

Mr. Steiner said parts of Africa could reach an environmental tipping point if changing rainfall patterns turned semi-arid zones into arid zones and made agriculture much harder. He said another tipping point could occur in India and China if Himalayan glaciers shrank so much that they no longer supplied adequate amounts of water.

He also warned of a global collapse of all species being fished by 2050, if fishing around the world continued at its current pace. The report said that two and a half times more fish were being caught than the oceans could produce in a sustainable manner, and that the level of fish stocks classed as collapsed had roughly doubled over the past 20 years, to 30 percent.

In the spirit of the United Nations report, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France outlined plans on Thursday to fight climate change.

He said he would make 1 billion euros, or $1.4 billion, available over four years to develop energy sources and maintain biodiversity. He said each euro spent on nuclear research would be matched by one spent on research into clean technologies and environmental protection.


Source: Agence France Presse (AFP) Date: October 26, 2007

Headline: Save the planet? It's now or never, warns landmark UN report

URL: http://www.precaution.org/lib/07/its_now_or_never_for_earth. 071026.htm

NAIROBI (AFP) -- Humanity is changing Earth's climate so fast and devouring resources so voraciously that it is poised to bequeath a ravaged planet to future generations, the UN warned Thursday in its most comprehensive survey of the environment.

The fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4), published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is compiled by 390 experts from observations, studies and data garnered over two decades.

The 570-page report -- which caps a year that saw climate change dominate the news -- says world leaders must propel the environment "to the core of decision-making" to tackle a daily worsening crisis

"The need couldn't be more urgent and the time couldn't be more opportune, with our enhanced understanding of the challenges we face, to act now to safeguard our own survival and that of future generations," GEO-4 said.

The UNEP report offers the broadest and most detailed tableau of environmental change since the Brundtland Report, "Our Common Future," was issued in 1987 and put the environment on the world political map.

"There have been enough wake-up calls since Brundtland. I sincerely hope GEO-4 is the final one," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"The systematic destruction of the Earth's natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged -- and where the bill we hand on to our children may prove impossible to pay," he added.

Earth has experienced five mass extinctions in 450 million years, the latest of which occurred 65 million years ago, says GEO-4.

"A sixth major extinction is under way, this time caused by human behaviour," it says.

Over the past two decades, growing prosperity has tremendously strengthened the capacity to understand and confront the environmental challenges ahead.

Despite this, the global response has been "woefully inadequate," the report said.

The report listed environmental issues by continent and by sector, offering dizzying and often ominous statistics about the future.

Climate is changing faster than at any time in the past 500,000 years.

Global average temperatures rose by 0.74 degrees Celsius (1.33 Fahrenheit) over the past century and are forecast to rise by 1.8 to four C (3.24-7.2 F) by 2100, it said, citing estimates issued this year by the 2007 Nobel Peace co-laureates, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

With more than six billion humans, Earth's population is now so big that "the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available," the report warned, adding that the global population is expected to peak at between eight and 9.7 billion by 2050.

"In Africa, land degradation and even desertification are threats; per capita food production has declined by 12 percent since 1981," it said.

The GEO-4 report went on to enumerate other strains on the planet's resources and biodiversity.

Fish consumption has more than tripled over the past 40 years but catches have stagnated or declined for 20 years, it said.

"Of the major vertebrate groups that have been assessed comprehensively, over 30 percent of amphibians, 23 percent of mammals and 12 percent of birds are threatened," it added.

Stressing it was not seeking to present a "dark and gloomy scenario", UNEP took heart in the successes from efforts to combat ozone loss and chemical air pollution.

But it also stressed that failure to address persistent problems could undo years of hard grind.

And it noted: "Some of the progress achieved in reducing pollution in developed countries has been at the expense of the developing world, where industrial production and its impacts are now being exported."

GEO-4 -- the fourth in a series dating back to 1997 -- also looks at how the current trends may unfold and outlines four scenarios to the year 2050: "Markets First", "Policy First", "Security First", "Sustainability First".

After a year that saw the UN General Assembly devote unprecedented attention to climate change and the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the IPCC and former US vice president Al Gore for raising awareness on the same issue, the report's authors called for radical change.

"For some of the persistent problems, the damage may already be irreversible," they warned.

"The only way to address these harder problems requires moving the environment from the periphery to the core of decision-making: environment for development, not development to the detriment of environment."