Hard Facts: Tough Choices as UNEP Launches the Global Environment Outlook-3

30 Years UNEP: Environment for Development: People, Planet, Prosperity

LONDON, 22 May - Over 70 per cent of the Earth's land surface could be affected by the impacts of roads, mining, cities and other infrastructure developments in the next 30 years unless urgent action is taken.

Latin America and the Caribbean region is likely to be the hardest hit with more than 80 per cent of the land affected, closely followed by Asia and the Pacific region. Here, over 75 per cent of the land may well be affected by habitat disturbance and other kinds of environmental damage as a result of rapid and poorly planned infrastructure growth.

Meanwhile more than half the people in the world could be living in severely water-stressed areas by 2032 if market forces drive the globe's political, economic and social agenda.

West Asia, which includes areas such as the Arabian Peninsula, is likely to be the worst affected with well over 90 per cent of the population expected to be living in areas with "severe water stress" by 2032.

However, the proportion of hungry people in the world appears set to fall. Under one future scenario hunger declines to as little as 2.5 per cent of the global population by 2032 - in line with the United Nations Millennium Declaration goals.

Concerted action involving Governments, industry and individual citizens could also deliver deep cuts in emissions of the gases linked with global warming. Levels of carbon dioxide could, with sufficient public and private will, begin stabilizing in the atmosphere by 2032.

These are just some of the striking findings from the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) ground-breaking Global Environment Outlook-3 (GEO-3) report. The study takes a unique look at the policies and environmental impacts of the past 30 years. It then outlines four policy approaches for the next three decades (Choices for the Future section of the news release) and compares and contrasts the likely impacts on people and the natural world.

Over 1 000 people, many from a global network of collaborating centres, have contributed to the preparation of GEO-3. The report says the planet is at a crucial cross-roads with the choices made today critical for the forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, wildlife and other life support systems upon which current and future generations depend.

GEO-3 concludes that a great deal of environmental change has already taken place in the past 30 years since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which led to the creation of UNEP.

Improvements have occurred in areas such as river and air quality in places like North America and Europe. The international effort to repair the ozone layer, the Earth's protective shield, by reducing the production and consumption of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) is another notable success. But generally there has been a steady decline in the environment, especially across large parts of the developing world.

The declining environmental quality of planet Earth and the apparent increase in strength and frequency of natural hazards such as cyclones, floods and droughts are intensifying peoples' vulnerability (GEO-3, Chapter 3) to food insecurity, ill health and unsustainable livelihoods, says the report.

The poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, both within societies and in different countries and regions, are particularly vulnerable. Everyone is vulnerable to some extent to environmental threats but there is evidence that the gap between those able and those unable to cope with rising levels of environmental change is widening.

It is estimated that the number of people affected by disasters climbed from an average of 147 million a year in the 1980s to 211 million a year in the 1990s. Global financial losses from natural disasters were, in 1999, estimated to cost over $100 billion.

The level of weather-related disasters has climbed with some experts linking this to climate change due to human-made emissions. In the 1990s, 90 per cent of those killed were victims of events such as floods, windstorms and droughts.

Indeed behind nearly all the assessments and forecasts outlined in the report lies the spectre of global warming and its potential to wreak havoc on weather patterns over the coming decades.

GEO-3 says environmental degradation is also costing countries in other ways. India, for example, is losing more than $10 billion annually or 4.5 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with human-induced land degradation alone causing productivity losses of around $2.4 billion.

Declining environmental quality is also a rising health risk. Sewage pollution of the seas "has precipitated a health crisis of massive proportions", says the report.

For example, the eating of contaminated shellfish is causing an estimated 2.5 million cases of infectious hepatitis annually, resulting in 25,000 deaths and a further 25,000 people suffering long-term disability due to liver-damage.

GEO-3 concludes that one of the key driving forces has been the growing gap between the rich and poor parts of the globe. Currently, one-fifth of the world's population enjoys high, some would say excessive, levels of affluence. It accounts for nearly 90 per cent of total personal consumption globally. In comparison, around 4 billion people are surviving on less than $1 to $2 a day.

World Leaders, Captains of Industry, You and Me: The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UNEP, speaking at the launch taking place in London, United Kingdom, said: " I must pay tribute to the scientists and experts who have made this assessment possible. GEO-3, like its two predecessors, is truly a unique collaborative accomplishment. The latest report gives us even more pause for thought as it looks out 30 years to four possible futures. We can never know for certain what lies before us, the future is another country. But we know enough now to see how our actions or lack of actions might shape the environment and the inhabitants of this extraordinary blue planet by 2032.

"GEO-3 is neither a document of doom and gloom or a gloss over the acute challenges facing us all. It is the most authoritative assessment of where we have been, where we have reached and where we are likely to go. The facts in the report underline the huge amount of knowledge that has now been accumulated about the condition of Earth. It also highlights the successes of Governments, industry, the public and others in trying to restore and sustain its damaged and beleaguered freshwaters, lands, wildlife, oceans and atmosphere, especially in those continents and countries that can afford it", he said.

"We now have hundreds of declarations, agreements, guidelines and legally binding treaties designed to address environmental problems and the threats they pose to wildlife and human health and well being. Let us now find the political courage and the innovative financing needed to implement these deals and steer a healthier, more prosperous, course for planet Earth. Ten years ago, Governments met in Rio for the Earth Summit. In just three months, we have the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in South Africa. This is a summit for sustainable development, but it is also a summit for the environment. Environment for Development is UNEP's motto, for without the environment there can never be the kind of development needed to secure a fair deal for this or future generations. We need concrete actions, we need concrete timetables and we need an iron will from all sides. It cannot be the responsibility of politicians alone. We are all shareholders in this enterprise. Only then can the promises made in Rio turn into a reality", said Mr. Toepfer.


Land - The main driving force, putting pressure on land resources, has been the growing global population. There are 2,220 million more mouths to feed than there were in 1972.

In the Asia and Pacific region, the area of land under irrigation has risen from under 125 million hectares (ha) in 1972 to over 175 million ha. Excessive and poorly managed irrigation can degrade soils through impacts such a salinization - a build up of salts. Over 10 per cent, between 25 and 30 million ha, of the world's irrigated lands are classed as severely degraded as a result.

Soil erosion is a key factor in land degradation. Around 2,000 million (2 billion) ha of soil, equal to 15 per cent of the Earth's land cover or an area bigger than the United States and Mexico combined, is now classed as degraded as a result of human activities.

About one-sixth of this, a total of 305 million ha of soils are either "strongly or extremely degraded". Extremely degraded soils are so badly damaged they cannot be restored.

Main types of soil degradation are water erosion, 56 per cent; wind erosion, 28 per cent; chemical degradation, 12 per cent and physical or structural damage, 4 per cent.

Overgrazing is causing 35 per cent of soil degradation; deforestation, 30 per cent; agriculture, 27 per cent; overexploitation of vegetation, 7 per cent and industrial activities, 1 per cent.

A feature of the past 30 years has been the rise of urban agriculture. It is practised by most households in South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands. About 30 per cent of the Russian Federation's food comes from 3 per cent of suburban land. An estimated 65 per cent of Moscow's population engages in urban agriculture, up from a fifth in the early 1970s.

Freshwater - Around half of the world's rivers are seriously depleted and polluted. About 60 per cent of the world's largest 227 rivers have been strongly or moderately fragmented by dams and other engineering works.

Benefits have included increased food production and hydroelectricity. But irreversible damage has occurred to wetlands and other ecosystems. Since the 1950s, between 40 and 80 million people have been displaced.

Two billion people, around one-third of the world's population, depend on groundwater supplies. In some countries, such as parts of India, China, West Asia, including the Arabian Peninsula, the former Soviet Union and the western United States, groundwater levels are falling as a result of over-abstraction.

Over-pumping can lead to salt water intrusion in coastal areas. For example, salt water contamination has, in Madras, India, moved 10 kilometres inland in recent years.

Some 80 countries, amounting to 40 per cent of the world's population, were suffering serious water shortages by the mid-1990s.

Around 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion to improved sanitation, mainly in Africa and Asia.

However, the percentage of people being served with improved water supplies increased from 4.1 billion, or 79 per cent, in 1990 to 4.9 billion, 82 per cent, in 2000.

Water-related disease costs break down like this: 2 billion people are at risk from malaria alone, with 100 million affected at any one time and up to 2 million deaths annually. There are about 4 billion cases of diarrhoea and 2.2 million deaths a year, equivalent to 20 jumbo jets crashing everyday.

Intestinal worm infections afflict 10 per cent of people in the developing world. Around 6 million people are blind from trachoma, a contagious eye disease. Some 200 million are affected by schistosomiasis, which causes bilharzia in humans.

Forests and Biodiversity - The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that forests, which cover around a third of the Earth's land surface or 3,866 million ha, have declined by 2.4 per cent since 1990. The biggest losses have been in Africa where 52.6 million ha or 0.7 per cent of its forest cover has gone in the past decade.

Global production of roundwood reached 3 335 million cubic metres of which around half was for fuel, especially in developed countries.

Commercial logging methods are often destructive. In West Africa, about 2 m3 of trees are destroyed to produce 1 cubic metre of logs.

By the end of 2000, about 2 per cent of forests had been certified for sustainable forest management under schemes such as those operated by the Forest Stewardship Council. Most of these are in Canada, Finland, Germany, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the United States. More are in the pipeline.

Mangrove forests, natural sea defenses, nursery grounds for fish and prime nesting and resting sites for migratory birds, are threatened by impacts such as over-harvesting for timber and fuel wood, tourism and coastal developments. Up to 50 per cent of recent mangrove destruction has been due to clear cutting for shrimp farms.

The loss and fragmentation of habitats such as forests, wetlands and mangrove swamps have increased the pressures on the world's wildlife.

Twelve per cent or 1,183 of birds and nearly a quarter or 1,130 mammals are currently regarded as globally threatened.

The introduction of alien species from one part of the world to another has emerged as a significant threat in recent years alongside climate change. Alien species often have no natural predators in their new homes and can out-compete native species for breeding and feeding sites.

It is estimated that by 1939, 497 alien freshwater and marine species had been introduced into aquatic environments around the world. In the period 1980 to 1998, this had climbed to an estimated 2,214 alien species.

The total extent of protected areas, such as national parks, has grown from 2.78 million square kilometres in 1970 to 12.18 million hectares in 2000. The number of sites has risen from 3,392 to 11,496 over the same period. A survey of 93 protected areas has found that most are proving successful at stopping land clearing and to a lesser extent at tackling issues such as logging, hunting, fires and grazing pressures.

The moratorium on commercial whaling, imposed since the mid-1980s, appears to have been a notable success.

Coastal and Marine Areas - By 1994, an estimated 37 per cent of the global human population was living within 60 kilometres of the coast. This is more than the number of people alive on the planet in 1950.

Globally, sewage is the largest source of contamination by volume with discharges from developing countries on the rise as a result of rapid urbanization, population growth and a lack of planning and financing for sewerage systems and water treatment plants.

UNEP's Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities was launched in 1995 and re-vitalized in 2001.

Reducing untreated sewage discharges is a key aim.

The global economic impact of marine contamination, in terms of human disease and ill health, may be running at nearly $13 billion.

Sewage discharges, combined with run off of fertilizers from the land and emissions from cars, trucks and other vehicles, are enriching the oceans and seas with nitrogen nutrients.

In 1991-1992, the fish farmers in the Republic of Korea suffered $133 million in economic losses as a result of toxic algal blooms, so called red tides, triggered by nutrients.

Fertilizer use is increasing in developing countries but has stabilized in developed ones.

Other threats to the oceans include climate change, oil spills, discharges of heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and litter. Sedimentation, as a result of coastal developments, agriculture and deforestation, has become a major global threat to coral reefs particularly in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and South and South-East Asia.

Marine pollution is a key target in UNEP's Regional Seas Programme which, with the signing of the Northeast Pacific regional seas agreement in March 2002, now covers nearly all of the planet's marine environment.

Countries adopted the "Dirty Dozen", Stockholm Convention on POPs, in early 2001

Just under a third of the world's fish stocks are now ranked as depleted, overexploited or recovering as a result of over-fishing fueled by subsidies estimated at up to $20 billion annually.

Atmosphere - Depletion of the ozone layer, which protects life from damaging ultra violet light, has now reached record levels. In September 2000, the ozone hole over Antarctica covered more than 28 million square kilometres.

The Montreal Protocol was adopted in 1987. Production of the main chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), substances found to be destroying the ozone layer, peaked in 1988 and is now at very low levels.

More than $1.1 billion has been given to help 114 developing countries phase out ozone-depleting substances. By the year 2000, the total consumption of such chemicals had been reduced by 85 per cent. The ozone layer is expected to recover to pre-1980 levels by the middle of the 21st century.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main gas linked with global warming, currently stand at 370 parts per million or 30 per cent higher than in 1750. Concentrations of other greenhouse gases, such as methane and halocarbons, have also risen.

Asia and the Pacific emitted 2,167 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 1998 followed by Europe, 1,677 million tonnes; North America, 1,614 million tonnes; Latin America and the Caribbean, 365 million tonnes; Africa, 223 million tonnes; and West Asia, 187 million tonnes.

In 1997, nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol. It requires the industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gases by around 5 per cent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. It also has so-called flexible mechanisms that allow countries to offset some of their emissions at home by actions abroad. The Clean Development Mechanism, for example, allows them to plant trees or back green energy schemes in developing countries.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the costs of implementing the Protocol for industrialized countries will range between 0.1 and 2 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product.


We are at a cross roads with the future in our hands. The decisions taken today and tomorrow will define the kind of environment this and future generations will enjoy. GEO-3 in its Outlook chapter outlines four policy approaches leading to different outcomes over the next 30 years. Here we highlight two of the most contrasting scenarios: Markets First and Sustainability First. One envisions a future driven by market forces; the other by far-reaching changes in values and lifestyles, firm policies and cooperation between all sectors of society.

Land - By 2032, nearly 3 per cent of the Earth's surface has been built on under a Markets First future. The extent of cities and other built up areas, at over 5 per cent, is highest in Asia and the Pacific region under this scenario. It is lowest in Europe, at around 2 per cent. There are also big rises in Africa and West Asia. While the actual percentage may appear small, the increase in roads, power lines, airports and other infrastructure developments has much wider impacts on wildlife (see biodiversity).

Under a Sustainability First scenario, the area of built up land continues to rise but falls slightly in North America and Europe, below 2 per cent, as policies lead to more compact cities and better planning.

Freshwater - The number of people living in areas with severe water stress both in absolute and relative terms increases in virtually all parts of the globe under the Markets First scenario. An estimated 55 per cent of the global population is affected, up from over 40 per cent in 2002. The highest proportions of people living with severe water stress are in West Asia, with over 95 per cent, and Asia and the Pacific, with over 65 per cent.

Under a Sustainability First future, most regions see the area under water stress remaining more or less constant or even falling as more efficient management of water reduces water withdrawals, especially for irrigation. In West Asia, the number living in areas of severe water stress is kept at around 90 per cent of the population; in the United States, the figure halves to around a fifth of the population and in Europe, it drops from around a third now to just over 10 per cent by 2032.

Forests and Biodiversity - The rapid expansion of infrastructure foreseen in the Markets First future is likely to lead to ever-increasing destruction, fragmentation and disturbance of habitats and wildlife. Over 70 per cent of the land could be affected globally with the highest impacts in Latin America and the Caribbean, nearly 85 per cent, and the lowest in West Asia, just over 50 per cent.

Under a Sustainability First future, impacts from infrastructure continue to rise with around 55 per cent of the land affected, although the situation is stabilizing by 2032. Just under 60 per cent of the land in Latin America and the Caribbean is impacted by 2032 and just over 40 per cent in West Asia.

Marine and Coastal Areas - Nitrogen loading, an indicator of a wide range of land-based pollution rises sharply in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific and West Asia under a Markets First scenario. While the rise in Europe coastal waters is generally less severe, the Mediterranean coast comes under special pressure through a combination of urban growth, inadequate wastewater treatment works, tourism and intensively farmed crops. Other areas of special concern include the mouths of large rivers like the Mississippi and the Nile.

Under Sustainability First, better management of sewage and run off leads to only small increases in coastal pollution except for in West Asia.

Atmosphere - Emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels continue to rise reaching around 16 billion tonnes a year by 2032 under a Markets First future. By the same date, concentrations in the atmosphere are over 450 parts per million and on track to reach 550 parts per million, double pre-industrial levels, by 2050.

Under a Sustainability First scenario, emissions also rise but radical shifts in behaviour allied to the vigorous introduction of more energy efficient technologies leads to falls. By 2032, global carbon dioxide emissions are below 8 billion tonnes annually. However, because of time lags in the climate system, concentrations in the atmosphere only begin to level off around 2050.

For more information please contact: Nick Nuttall, Head of Media, UNEP, Nairobi,
on Tel: +254 2 623084, Mobile: +254 733 632755,
E-mail: [email protected];
or Jim Sniffen, UNEP Information Officer, New York,
tel: +1-212-963-8094,
e-mail: [email protected]

GEO-3 is available online at www.unep.org/geo3 or www.na.unep.net/geo3

GEO-3 is available from:

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