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

Chapter 4: Looking to the Future

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Looking to the Future 1

The results of the model-based analysis on the current and possible future state of the global environment described in this chapter highlight the integrated nature of the environment and the need to study linkages among environment, economic, social, institutional, and cultural sectors and among different environmental issues, such as biodiversity, climate, land, and water.

The chapter illustrates that, assuming conventional development, despite declining global birth rates since 1965 and recent policy initiatives towards more efficient and cleaner resource use in some regions, large global increases in population and expanding economies in industrializing countries will continue to increase global resource and energy consumption, generate burgeoning wastes, spawn environmental contamination and degradation, and put increased pressures on remaining biodiversity and natural ecosystems. If no fundamental changes occur in the amount and type of energy used, global carbon dioxide emissions will increase and declining trends in acidifying sulphur and nitrogen concentrations may be reversed. If, however, currently best available technology is applied all over the world, a global energy system by 2050 with carbon dioxide emissions well below current levels is feasible. Given the projected impacts of climate change in the not-too-distant future, contingency plans will be required, including the development of drought-resistant crops, increases in water use efficiency, interlinking remaining natural areas, and an improvement of the capabilities in all regions to adapt to climate change impacts.

If only moderate application of improved agricultural management and technology in developing regions continues in the future, the need to feed growing populations and the increasing burden of poverty may well lead to substantial expansion of agricultural activities into often marginal lands at the expense of remaining wilderness and associated biodiversity. Although the projections in this chapter show adequate global availability for water and food, regional deficiencies might well emerge or be aggravated in the near future. The combination of increased pressure on land by expanding urbanization and the loss of productive land through degradation and unsustainable management practices may well lead to shortages in arable land and water, impeding development in several regions. Although global food trade can supplement these regional shortfalls, it will create dependencies, and require that importing countries engage in other development activities to finance the necessary food imports.

Although global sufficiency in water and food is expected to have a positive impact on the health of the global population, sharp regional differences may remain, and poverty may be aggravated in several regions. If global economic gains are not accompanied more explicitly by reinvestment in education, in social development, and in environmental protection, a move towards a more equitable, healthy, sustainable future for all sectors of society will be difficult to realize, and existing urban and pollution-related health problems may worsen while new ones are also appearing. Integrated modelling techniques and scenarios can be excellent tools for environment and development policy setting and planning, for instance, by simulating risks of continuing current global development patterns. The methodology, however, will need to be further developed and adapted to the realities and expectations of diverse regions, incorporating alternative policy strategies and development scenarios. The GEO Working Groups dealing with models and scenarios will also need to expand the scope of the analysis to address social and institutional issues. Furthermore, environmental quality issues (such as water pollution or forest degradation) need more attention as compared with environmental quantity only (such as water availability or forest area). Data, scale, and sensitivity of the analysis will need to be improved. In all this work, active involvement by the regions will be of paramount importance.

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1. This chapter is mainly based upon RIVM/UNEP. 1997. The Future of the Global Environment: A Model-based Analysis Supporting UNEP's First Global Environment Outlook. UNEP/DEIA/TR.97-1. Available on-line from RIVM. To order paper version, see About GEO Reports.

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