United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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North America

Underlying Causes

The driving forces behind North America s environmental concerns vary considerably and are undergoing important changes.

The single most important driving force in North America has been economic growth and the pattern of production and consumption that has come to be associated with it. In the last 25 years, for instance, the gross national product (GNP) of the U.S. economy increased fivefold (PCSD, 1996). The United States, with a GNP of more than US$6.4 trillion in 1994, is the world s largest economy and the largest consumer of natural resources (PCSD, 1996). The nation consumes more than 4.5 billion metric tons of materials annually to produce goods and services (PCSD, 1996).

North Americans are among the world s heaviest consumers of energy. With just 5 per cent of the world s population, the United States accounts for 25 per cent of global energy use on an annual basis (PCSD, 1996). Canada has a per capita consumption of energy similar to the U.S. (319 gigajoules per capita per year in 1993) (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/ WB, 1996). These consumption patterns have an impact on global climate and could, through global warming impose severe problems in the future for drinking water supply as well as for the agricultural and forestry sector of North America s economy.

The trend towards single family households and the growing number of private cars in use (an average of one for every two people) have contributed most significantly to increasing energy consumption. In 1990, more than half the dwellings constructed in Canada were single-family homes (Government of Canada, 1991). The corresponding increase in energy demands in Canada is being tempered through energy conservation programmes, increased energy efficiency, and consumer awareness. In the United States between 1950 and 1990, there was a 400-per-cent increase in the number of vehicles in the country and a 270-per-cent increase in the number of licensed drivers. Here also, emphasis is now being placed on energy efficiency and on renewable resources.

There are signs that patterns of production and consumption may be shifting and that a "de-materialization" of GNP may occur, as the service sector expands rapidly. There is also evidence that production processes are becoming less resource-intensive even for conventional industrial products (Wernick et al., 1996). Moreover, changes seem to be taking place in the way people work and spend their leisure time. If harnessed, these changes could fundamentally alter the trade-off between economic and social welfare and environmental stewardship.

A recent survey suggests that North American attitudes to materialism are changing. For example, 83 per cent of those surveyed believe that the United States consumes too much, and 88 per cent believe that protecting the environment will require "major changes in the way we live." However, only 51 per cent agree that their own buying habits have a negative impact on the environment. (Merck, 1996). The survey also found that millions of Americans are already "downshifting," or choosing to scale back their salaries and life-styles to reflect a different set of priorities. Twenty-eight per cent of the survey respondents said that, in the last five years, they had voluntarily made changes in their lives (not including regularly scheduled retirements) that resulted in making less money (Merck, 1996).

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