UN report: climate change and food shortage major problems for Earth's future

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Satellite image of Lake Djoudj comparing the September 1979 drought (left) and the November 1999 flood (right).
Image: NASA.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has released a comprehensive report on the current state of the global environment. Climate change, food and water shortage and a decline in biodiversity threaten humanity's survival, so urgent action is necessary, the report warns.

UNEP's Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4) report involved the work of about 390 experts in various fields from around the world.

Selected key figures and facts from the report

Climate change

  • The global average temperature has risen 0.7 °C since 1906 and will rise a further 1.8 °C at best by the end of this century.
  • Some scientists believe a 2°C temperature rise would cause major and irreversible damage.
  • Meanwhile, average temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as elsewhere.
  • Rising sealevels threaten the 60 percent of the population living within 100 kilometres of coastal lines.

Water and food

  • Increasing irrigation demands will eventually cause 1 of every 10 major rivers to dry up.
  • Population growth, over-consumption and a continued shift from cereals to meat will raise food demand to a level 2.5 - 3.5 times higher than at present.
  • The slackening expansion of cropland stands in contrast with the fact that by 2030, developing countries will need 120 million extra hectares to feed themselves.


  • Species are becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the rate shown in the fossil record.

While the GEO-4 report salutes some improvements, for example the increased public awareness of environmental issues and political interest, it also warns that "There are no major issues... for which the foreseeable trends are favourable." Although the report sets out a gloomy scenario, its main aim is to call for action.

Climate change

The report finds that despite "visible and unequivocal" evidence of climate change caused by human activity, the global response is "woefully inadequate" and shows "a remarkable lack of urgency". It criticizes highly-polluting countries that refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and the industrial sectors that lobbied against it. Negotiations for a new Protocol to curb climate changes will start in December.

Although the emission of ozone-layer damaging chemicals has decreased by 95 percent, the spring hole in the ozone layer is larger than ever. UNEP calls the way Europe and North America have dealt with the problem of acid rain "one of the success stories of recent decades", while the challenge remains in countries like China, India and Mexico.

Food and water

As far as water is concerned, the report warns that "The escalating burden of water demand will become intolerable in water-scarce countries." Contaminated water and lack of sanitation services already affect 2.6 billion people, being the single leading cause of death in developing countries with 3 million deaths annually, mostly in children younger than five. Although agricultural efficacy has increased, up to a third of the global population is affected by soil erosion, nutrient depletion and water scarcity.

Priorities per continent

This is the first UNEP report which addresses specific problems in individual continents. In Africa, desertification and declining food production are key problems, while agricultural subsidies in developing countries decrease trade profits. Bushmeat trade is also mentioned, for example in the Congo Basin, where the trade is at six times its sustainable rate. In Asia, urban air quality, fresh water and increasing waste problems are among the priorities. The illegal traffic in electronic and hazardous waste worldwide is mentioned separately as an emerging challenge.

Overconsumption, high energy use and transport problems cause concern in Europe, while North America is, according to the report, struggling to address climate change. Urban growth is a particular concern in Latin America. 2007 is reported as being the first year in history when more than half of all people lived in cities. The Polar regions are already feeling the impact of climate change, ozone layer effacement and pollution.

Wake-up call

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.

Achim Steiner, Under-Secretary General of the U.N. and director of UNEP, said that "There continue to be 'persistent' and intractable problems unresolved and unaddressed. ... Meanwhile, institutions like UNEP, established to counter the root causes, remain under-resourced and weak."

"There have been enough wake-up calls ... I sincerely hope GEO-4 is the final one. 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," Mr Steiner warned.