The third UNEP Global Environment Outlook report (GEO-3) provides an opportune brief for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), to be held later this year in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It is a feat of collaboration between UNEP and some 1 000 individuals and 40 institutions from around the world. It picks up and weaves together the strands of debate and action on the environment that lead forward from that linchpin of modern environment and development thinking, the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and through the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) to where we stand today. GEO-3 sets out to provide global and regional perspectives on the past, present and future environment, linked together with telling examples from within the regions to form a comprehensive and integrated assessment.

An important aspect of the GEO process is capacity building for the collaborating centres directly involved in this initiative and for a wider range of individuals and institutions whose work forms the foundation of environmental assessment from national through global levels. For example, UNEP has, through a comprehensive Internet-based data portal, made relevant data more accessible to collaborating centres to strengthen analysis and reporting. Capacity building has also involved formal and practical training in integrated environmental assessment, and such training will be expanded in the coming years.

In terms of the GEO-3 report itself, an overview of major developments between 1972 and 2002 highlights significant milestones and integrates environmental, economic and social factors within a unified world view. The retrospective chapter explores many of these developments in greater depth from global and regional standpoints. The report presents a global overview and also directs a spotlight onto two or three key issues that are considered paramount in each of the seven regional arenas under each of eight environmental themes in turn: land, forests, biodiversity, freshwater, coastal and marine areas, atmosphere, urban areas and disasters.

Analysing the most up-to-date and reliable information on these issues reveals the critical trends during the 30-year period critical trends about the environment, and about the impacts that environmental change have had on people. Perhaps even more importantly, it highlights the evolution of environmental policy responses that society has (or sometimes has not) put in place to ensure environmental security and sustainability.

Sustainable development rests on three pillars society, economy and environment. The environmental pillar provides the physical resources and ecosystem services on which humankind depends. Growing evidence that many aspects of the environment are still degrading leads us to the conclusion that people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to environmental change. Some countries can cope but many others remain at risk and when that risk becomes a reality their dreams of sustainable development are set back by decades. The notion of human vulnerability to environmental change has been incorporated specifically into this GEO assessment to demonstrate UNEP concern in an area which has a strong bearing on the success of sustainable development. UNEP places the concept of human vulnerability to environmental change high on its future programme of work.

GEO-3 also breaks new ground by using scenario analysis to explore the environmental outlook, fastforwarding the reader into an array of alternative futures that provide insight on where events could lead us at various stages between 2002 and 2032. While some of the possible developments may seem far removed from current circumstances, others have been predetermined by the decisions and actions we have already taken. We know that some of the policy approaches followed in the past have not lived up to expectations and that institutional weaknesses have played an inevitable part in such slippages. At the Rio +5 event in 1997, it became clear that progress had fallen short of the goals set in 1992. Five years later the challenges remain no less exacting. Yet we at UNEP remain convinced that it lies well within the scope of human determination and ingenuity to come up with appropriate policy packages and use them to ensure that fundamental environmental conditions can and will get steadily better, not stealthily worse.

This report abounds with information that can serve as a firm foundation for the WSSD review of policies for sustainable development. I hope many will find it useful as an aid to prepare for the Summit, during the event itself and well beyond. It is being published in all the official UN languages so that people and communities round the world can make use of its insights to form their own position on what is at stake and what needs to be done. On a personal note, I hope that it will inspire you, the reader, to raise your commitment to environmental care to a summit of its own.

Klaus Töpfer
United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme