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Future perspectives

'Present day actions have consequences that reach far into the future. Conversely the “future” is playing an increasing role in the present. The future impacts of today's decisions are becoming more and more prominent in current-day policy making.'

GEO-2000, page 334

 Major emerging issues identified in the SCOPE survey

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Climate change was the most cited issue in the SCOPE survey although, taken together, water scarcity and pollution ranked higher

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.

'The studies identified sets of alternative policies which could adjust trends in the regions towards a more sustainable course. However, even some of the more positive scenarios produce results which fall short of acceptable limits.'

GEO-2000, page 343

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

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).

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.

  • There is a clear need for integrated policies. For example, in Latin America a broad intersectoral approach is advocated to achieve sustainable forest development. In Europe and Central Asia, combined strategies to deal with acidification, urban air pollution and climate change could lead to an optimal use of opportunities for energy efficiency and fuel switching.
  • Market-based incentives, particularly subsidy reforms, have a role to play in all regions. Reform of unnecessary subsidies can encourage the more efficient use of resources such as energy, and thus help reduce pollution and degradation.
  • Effective institutional mechanisms are essential. Too many institutions are weak and plagued with limited mandates and power, small financial resources and few human resources.
  • A main obstacle to successful policy implementation is lack of money. Attention is drawn to the crucial point that environmental management usually needs financing.

 Sulphur and nitrogen dioxide emissions, continental Asia, different scenarios

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The Asia and Pacific alternative policy study investigated the reduction in emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides under different scenarios. These included business as usual, single policy packages such as the introduction of clean technologies, efficient transportation and fuel switching, and a combination of all three called the multiple policy package

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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