Next: Africa -
Previous: Global perspectives 
Table of Contents 

Major global trends

'GEO-2000 acknowledges the efforts being made to halt environmental deterioration but recognizes that many of these are too few and too late; signs of improvements are few and far between.'

GEO-2000, page xii

 Some statistics...

*  Global emissions of CO2 reached a new high of nearly 23 900 million tonnes in 1996 - nearly four times the 1950 total.

*  Without the Montreal Protocol, levels of ozone-depleting substances would have been five times higher by 2050 than they are today.

*  In 1996, 25 per cent of the world's approximately 4 630 mammal species and 11 per cent of the 9 675 bird species were at significant risk of total extinction.

*  If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three persons on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.

*  More than half the world's coral reefs are potentially threatened by human activities, with up to 80 per cent at risk in the most populated areas.

*  Exposure to hazardous chemicals has been implicated in numerous adverse effects on humans from birth defects to cancer. Global pesticide use results in 3.5-5 million acute poisonings a year.

*  Some 20 per cent of the world's susceptible drylands are affected by human-induced soil degradation, putting the livelihoods of more than 1 000 million people at risk.


The state of the environment

Since GEO-1 was published in 1997, new dimensions have been added to the major environmental issues facing the planet. The situation differs from that of even two years ago. The new events or insights that have surfaced since GEO-1 include the following.

There is an emerging recognition that there is a global nitrogen problem, with some areas receiving nitrogen compounds in quantities that lead to unwanted ecosystem changes, such as excessive plant growth. Human activities now contribute more to the global supply of fixed nitrogen than do natural processes: as GEO-2000 stresses, 'we are fertilizing the Earth on a global scale and in a largely uncontrolled experiment'.

Forest fires appear to be becoming more frequent and more extensive, as a result of a combination of unfavourable weather conditions and land use that make susceptible areas more prone to burning; both forests and the health of inhabitants have been threatened over areas of millions of hectares.

There is also an increased frequency and severity of natural disasters - for example, losses from natural disasters over the decade 1986-95 were eight times higher than in the 1960s.

 Global carbon dioxide emissions

Click image to enlarge

Global carbon dioxide emissions continue to mount. Average annual increase over the past decade has been 1.3 per cent or nearly 300 million tonnes a year

With 1998 the warmest year on record, climate change problems coupled with the most severe El Niño to date have caused major losses of life and economic damage.

The economic and ecological importance of species invasions, an inevitable result of increasing globalization, also appears to have become more significant.

Finally, new wars have broken out which, like all wars, threaten not only the environment of those directly involved but that of neighbouring states, and those downstream on major rivers. Related to this is the environmental importance of refugees, who are forced to make unrestricted assaults on the natural environment for their survival.

Policy responses

Environmental laws and institutions have been strongly developed over the past few years in almost all countries. Command and control policy via direct regulation is the most prominent policy instrument but its effectiveness depends on the manpower available, methods of implementation and control, and level of institutional coordination and policy integration. In most regions, such policies are still organized by sector but environmental planning and environmental impact assessment are becoming increasingly common.

While most regions are now trying to strengthen their institutions and regulations, some are shifting towards deregulation, increased use of economic instruments and subsidy reform, reliance on voluntary action by the private sector, and more public and NGO participation. This development is fed by the increasing complexity of environmental regulation and high control costs as well as demands from the private sector for more flexibility, self-regulation and cost-effectiveness.

GEO-2000 confirms the overall assessment of GEO-1: the global system of environmental management is moving in the right direction but much too slowly. Yet effective and well tried policy instruments do exist that could lead much more quickly to sustainability. If the new millennium is not to be marred by major environmental disasters, alternative policies will have to be swiftly implemented

 Growth in numbers of Parties to selected MEAs

Click image to enlarge

Multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have proven to be powerful tools for attacking environmental problems. Each region has its own regional and sub-regional agreements, mostly relating to the common management or protection of natural resources such as water supply in river basins and transboundary air pollution. There are also many global-level agreements, including those on climate change and biodiversity that resulted from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The growth of Parties to 10 major MEAs is shown in the graph above.

One of the major conclusions of the policy review concerns the implementation and effectiveness of existing policy instruments. The assessment of implementation, compliance and effectiveness of policy initiatives is complicated and plagued by gaps in data, conceptual difficulties and methodological problems.

  Next: Africa -
Previous: Global perspectives 
Table of Contents