October 25, 2007 / 6:49 PM / 10 years ago

U.N. planetary report paints bleak regional picture

LONDON (Reuters) - The world’s scarce resources are being depleted at a wholly unsustainable rate despite urgent warnings sounded two decades ago, the United Nations’ Environment Programme said on Thursday.

File photo of children walking along the polluted shoreline of Manila Bay October 9, 2007. REUTERS/John Javella/Files

The following is a brief regional summary of UNEP’s fourth Global Environmental Outlook report.


Land degradation is the biggest threat to the region. It affects about five million square kilometres or one-sixth of the continent. Land is under pressure because of increased demand for resources from the growing population and natural disasters like drought and floods. Food production per head is now 12 percent lower than in 1981. This is exacerbated by unfair subsidies in developed nations. Climate change leading to forced migrations also makes the problems worse.


This region, home to 60 per cent of the world’s people, is making progress in reducing poverty. It is also improving its ability to protect the environment, energy efficiency is increasing in many places, and drinking water provision has advanced a lot in the last decade. But increases in consumption and associated waste have contributed to the huge growth in existing environmental problems including urban air quality, fresh water stress, agricultural land use and the illegal traffic in electronic and hazardous waste. More than one billion people are exposed to outdoor air pollution.


Europe has made great strides in the past 20 years in cutting many forms of pollution, but rising average incomes has led to higher emissions of greenhouse gases and are contributing to unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, higher energy use, poor urban air quality, and transport problems driven by demands for increased mobility. The EU is emerging as a global leader in environmental governance. But there is still much room for improvement in the use of energy and resources.


Crammed cities and wildlife loss are key problems for the region which must also act fast to reduce social inequalities. It has the world’s worst income inequality, with 39 percent of the urban population living below the poverty line. Urban air pollution is also a problem. Only 14 per cent of the region’s sewage is adequately treated. The region contains 23.4 per cent of the world’s forest cover but is rapidly losing it. Trade, unplanned urbanisation and lack of land-use planning are driving their conversion to pasture and to monocultures for export and to provide biofuel. Deforestation affects water quantity and quality and is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions.


With only 5.1 per cent of the world’s people, North America consumes just over 24 per cent of global primary energy. Energy consumption per head in both Canada and the United States has grown since 1987, with the total rising by 18 per cent. From 1987 to 2003, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels in North America increased 27.8 per cent. Other key issues include urban sprawl, and freshwater quality and quantity. But energy efficiency gains have been countered by the use of larger vehicles, low fuel economy standards, and increases in car numbers and distances travelled. It also continues to suffer increasing urban sprawl.


The Polar Regions are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Two key global impacts are ocean circulation, driven by differences in sea water density which is determined by temperature and salt content, and sea level rise. The Greenland ice sheet is losing mass faster than it is replacing it. If it melts completely sea levels will rise by seven metres. The giant West Antarctic ice sheet is also vulnerable. Some scientists think its complete collapse this century is conceivable.


The region has made progress in environmental governance in the past two decades. But continued population growth, military conflicts, and rapid development have resulted in significant increase in environmental challenges and pressures on natural resources. Key environmental issues are freshwater scarcity, degradation of land, coastal and marine ecosystems, urban management, and peace and security.

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