Thirty years ago, the international community gathered in Stockholm for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment to sound an alarm about the perilous state of the Earth and its resources. That landmark event is widely credited with having put environmental issues on the international agenda, leading in turn to the establishment of environment ministries at the national level and increased awareness of the impact that even very local decisions can have on the global environment. But the conference also identified a knowledge gap: the lack of accurate, up-to-date information with which policy makers could chart a clearer path towards a better-managed environment. The conference therefore asked the United Nations Secretary-General to fill that gap — by reporting regularly on the state of the global environment and related issues, by helping countries to monitor the environment at the national level, and by carrying out educational programmes on environmental issues.

With this report — Global Environment Outlook 3 (GEO-3): Past, Present and Future Perspectives — the United Nations Environment Programme, itself a legacy of the Stockholm Conference, has once again fulfilled its cardinal responsibility to present, in clear, accessible terms, the challenges we face in safeguarding the environment and moving towards a more sustainable future.

The natural environment has borne the stresses imposed by a fourfold increase in human numbers and an 18-fold growth in world economic output during the past 100 years. Despite the wealth of technologies, human resources, policy options, and technical and scientific information at our disposal, humankind has yet to break decisively with unsustainable and environmentally unsound policies and practices. What emerges from the data, analysis and forecasts contained in this report is the compelling need to go beyond taking stock to taking action.

The publication of GEO-3 is timed to contribute to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Much was achieved at the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. But over the past decade, as our attention has been focused on conflict, globalization and terrorism, there is a sense of lost momentum. One important task at Johannesburg is to show that sustainable development is an exceptional opportunity for humankind — economically, to build markets and create jobs; socially, to bring people in from the margins; politically, to reduce tensions over resources, that could lead to violence; and of course, environmentally, to protect the ecosystems and resources on which all life depends — and thereby merits more urgent attention and high-level commitment.

GEO-3 is a vital contribution to international debate on the environment. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and inspires new and determined action that will help the human community to meet the social, economic and environmental needs of the present without compromising the ability of the planet to provide for the needs of future generations.

Kofi Annan
Secretary-General of the United Nations
United Nations Headquarters, New York, February 2002