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Introduction - Synthesis

Prospects for the future

Issues for the 21st century

Environmental issues that may become priorities in the 21st century can be clustered in three groups - unforeseen events and scientific discoveries; sudden, unexpected transformations of old issues; and already well-known issues to which the present response is inadequate.

The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment of the International Council for Science conducted a special survey for GEO-2000 on environmental issues that may require attention in the 21st century. The survey was conducted among 200 scientists in 50 countries. Most of the responding scientists expect that the major environmental problems of the next century will stem from the continuation and aggravation of existing problems that currently do not receive enough policy attention.

The issues cited most frequently are climate change, and the quantity and quality of water resources. These are followed by deforestation and desertification, and problems arising from poor governance at national and international levels. Two social issues, population growth and changing social values, also received considerable attention. Many scientists emphasized that the interlinkages between climate change and other environmental problems could be important. This includes the emerging scientific understanding of complex interactions in the atmosphere-biosphere-cryosphere-ocean system - which could lead to irreversible changes such as shifts in ocean currents and changes in biodiversity.

The emphasis on interlinkages is not surprising. It has been repeatedly shown that sectoral policies taken in isolation do not always yield the desired results. One reason is that sectoral policies can solve one problem while aggravating others, particularly over a long time frame. Although the existence of interlinkages between environmental problems is now better known, we still lack understanding of exactly how the issues are linked, to what degree they interact and what the most effective measures are likely to be. One such issue that is identified throughout GEO-2000 is the need to integrate land- and water-use planning to provide food and water security.

Alternative policies

Since current policies will not lead to a sustainable future, at either the regional or the global level, region-specific studies were undertaken for GEO-2000 to investigate possible alternative policies. Each regional study focused on one or two specific issues selected on the basis of regional challenges identified in GEO-1 (see table).

 Environmental focus of region-specific alternative policy studies
Asia and the Pacific Air pollution
Africa Land and water resource management
Europe and Central Asia Energy-related issues
Latin America Use and conservation of forests
North America Resource use, greenhouse gas emissions
West Asia Land and water resource management

In each study, several alternative policy responses were identified to address the issues at hand. Each of the selected responses has been implemented elsewhere with success. The results confirm that, in principle, the knowledge and technological base to solve environmental issues are available, and that if these alternative policies were implemented immediately and pursued with vigour they could indeed set the world on a more sustainable course.

A number of key conclusions emerge from the alternative policy studies.

The regional studies highlight major gaps in our knowledge and experience when it comes to analysing and directing macro-economical processes relating to the environment. A number of issues, including trade and financial flows, were not addressed because of a lack of relevant information and knowledge. There is an urgent need to improve understanding of the effects of economic and social developments on the environment, and vice versa.

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