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North America

'The North American region is at a critical environmental cross-roads: important decisions have now to be made that will determine whether the region's economic activity and patterns of production and consumption will become more sustainable.'

GEO-2000, page 154

 Some statistics...

*  Emissions of CO, VOCs, particulates, SO2 and lead have been markedly reduced over the past 20 years.

*  Fuel use is high - in 1995 the average North American used more than 1 600 litres of fuel (compared to about 330 litres in Europe).

*  The oxygen-depleted 'dead zone' that now appears off the US Gulf Coast each summer - at the peak of fertilizer run-off from the Corn Belt - is the size of New Jersey.

*  Fish stocks off the east coast have nearly collapsed. The Atlantic finfish catch declined from 2.5 million tonnes in 1971 to less than 500 000 tonnes in 1994.

*  Global warming could move the ideal range for many North American forest species some 300 km to the north, undermining the utility of forest reserves.


North Americans use more energy and resources per capita than people in any other region. This causes acute problems for the environment and human health. The region has succeeded, however, in reducing many environmental impacts through stricter legislation and improved management. Whilst emissions of many air pollutants have been markedly reduced over the past 20 years, the region is the largest per capita contributor to greenhouse gases, mainly due to high energy consumption. There is continuing concern about the effects of exposure to pesticides, organic pollutants and other toxic compounds. Changes to ecosystems caused by the introduction of non-indigenous species are threatening biodiversity. Many coastal and marine resources are close to depletion or are being seriously threatened.

The environmental policy scene is changing in North America. In Canada, most emphasis is on regulatory reform, federal/provincial policy harmonization and voluntary initiatives. In the United States, the impetus for introducing new types of environmental policies has increased and the country is developing market-based policies such as the use of tradeable emissions permits and agricultural subsidy reform. Voluntary policies and private sector initiatives, often in combination with civil society, are also gaining in importance. The region is generally active in supporting and complying with regional and global MEAs.

 Annual per capita carbon dioxide emissions (tonnes/year)

Click image to enlarge

The North American region is the largest per capita contributor to greenhouse gases, mainly due to high energy consumption

Public participation has been at the heart of many local resource management initiatives. Environmental policy instruments are increasingly developed in consultation with the public and the business community. Participation by NGOs and community residents is increasingly viewed as a valuable part of any environmental protection programme.

Increasing accountability and capacity to measure the performance of environmental policies is an overarching trend. Target setting, monitoring, scientific analysis and the public reporting of environmental policy performance are used to keep stakeholders involved and policies under control. Access to information has been an important incentive for industries to improve their environmental performance.

Despite the many areas where policies have made a major difference, environmental problems have not been eliminated. Economic growth has negated many of the improvements made so far and new problems - such as climate change and biodiversity loss - have emerged.

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