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Global perspectives

'The continued poverty of the majority of the planet's inhabitants and excessive consumption by the minority are the two major causes of environmental degradation. The present course is unsustainable and postponing action is no longer an option.'

GEO-2000, page xxix

 Some statistics...

*  Average global per capita income has now passed US$5 000 a year but more than 1 300 million people still live on less than US$1 per day.

*  Although world military expenditure fell by an average of 4.5 per cent a year during the decade 1988-97, serious armed conflicts have been accompanied by increased pressure on ecosystems.

*  The private sector has enormous capacity to influence the outcome of environmental issues. In 1996, private investment was about US$250 000 million compared to overseas development assistance of less than US$50 000 million.

*  The efforts required to meet the natural resources needs of an additional 3 000 million people in the next 50 years will be immense.

*  A tenfold reduction in resource consumption in the industrialized countries is a necessary long-term target if adequate resources are to be released for the needs of developing countries.


Two over-riding trends characterize the beginning of the third millennium. First, the global ecosystem is threatened by grave imbalances in productivity and in the distribution of goods and services. A significant proportion of humanity still lives in dire poverty, and projected trends are for an increasing divergence between those that benefit from economic and technological development, and those that do not. This unsustainable progression of extremes of wealth and poverty threatens the stability of society as a whole, and with it the global environment.

Secondly, the world is undergoing accelerating change, with environmental stewardship lagging behind economic and social development. Environmental gains from new technology and policies are being overtaken by population growth and economic development. The processes of globalization that are so strongly influencing social evolution need to be directed towards resolving rather than aggravating the serious imbalances that divide the world today. Resolving these imbalances is the only way of ensuring a more sustainable future for the planet and society.

 World population

Click image to enlarge

World population will reach 6 000 million during 1999 - but the rate of growth has begun to slow

Growing economies, growing poverty...

Since 1950, the global economy has more than quintupled in size. In terms of income, the global per capita average is now 2.6 times that of 1950 (in real terms). Average figures for income hide great discrepancies between regions, between countries, and between population groups within countries. Despite some remarkable improvements, one-quarter of the world's population remains in severe poverty.

and the effects of lifestyles

Nearly half of all people now live in cities; an increasing number of them travel enormous distances every year by private car and in aircraft. In the developed world, technology has transformed patterns of work and family life, communications, leisure activities, diet and health. Similar transformations are under way in the more prosperous parts of the developing world.

The impacts of these changes on the natural environment are complex. The modern industrial economies of North America, Europe and parts of East Asia consume immense quantities of energy and raw materials, and produce high volumes of wastes and polluting emissions. The magnitude of this economic activity is causing environmental damage on a global scale and widespread pollution and disruption of ecosystems.

 Numbers of motor vehicles (millions)

Click image to enlarge

The number of vehicles is growing fast in all regions. Transport now accounts for one-quarter of world energy use, and about one-half of the world's oil production; motor vehicles account for nearly 80 per cent of all transport-related energy. Transport is thus a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and urban air pollution

In other regions, particularly in many parts of the developing world, poverty combined with rapid population growth is leading to widespread degradation of renewable resources - primarily forests, soils and water. Many people living in subsistence economies have few alternatives to depleting their natural resources. Renewable resources still sustain the livelihood of nearly one-third of the world's population; environmental deterioration therefore directly reduces living standards and prospects for economic improvement among rural peoples. At the same time, rapid urbanization and industrialization in many developing countries are creating high levels of air and water pollution, which often hit the poor hardest. Worldwide, the urban poor tend to live in neglected neighbourhoods, enduring pollution, waste dumping and ill health, but lacking the political influence to effect improvements.

'Environmental governance at all levels requires a new partnership between governments and civic society that can foster the eradication of poverty and an equitable distribution of environmental costs and benefits.'

GEO-2000, page 20

Towards the new millennium

GEO-2000 makes it clear that if present trends in population growth, economic growth and consumption patterns continue, the natural environment will be increasingly stressed. Distinct environmental gains and improvements will probably be offset by the pace and scale of global economic growth, increased global environmental pollution and accelerated degradation of the Earth's renewable resource base.

 Annual average growth of per capita GDP (1975-95)
Africa -0.20%
Asia and the Pacific 3.09%
Europe and Central Asia 1.54%
Latin America and the Caribbean 0.66%
North America 1.53%
West Asia -2.93%
World 1.17%

However, trends towards environmental degradation can be slowed, and economic activity can be shifted to a more sustainable pattern. Choices for development, and levels and patterns of consumption, are shaped by human aspirations and values, and these choices can be influenced by policy intervention. Many promising policy responses are being developed and tested.

Some environmental trends over the past half-century demonstrate the potential of regulation, information and, above all, prices to encourage both more efficient and less polluting uses of energy and materials. Technology has already delivered astonishing improvements in product performance but innovation to improve resource productivity has so far lagged behind. Better public understanding of the environmental consequences of the consumer society have begun to catalyse profound shifts in purchasing behaviour and lifestyle choices. The challenge for policy-makers in the next century will be to devise approaches that encourage a more efficient, fair and responsible use of natural resources by the production sectors of the economy, that encourage consumers to support and demand such changes, and that will lead to a more equitable use of resources by the entire world population.

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