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Environmental damage will soon be irreversible, landmark report says
P. The planet is in danger of crossing a “tipping point” of irreversible damage to its atmosphere, climate, water and ecosystems unless governments can develop comprehensive strategies to promote sustainable growth, warns a new report released yesterday by an environmental advocacy branch of the United Nations.
“Biophysical and social systems can reach tipping points, beyond which there are abrupt, accelerating, or potentially irreversible changes,” said the 540-page Global Environment Outlook, produced by authors from around the world for the UN Environment Program.
The report, the fourth of its kind since 1997, acknowledged that some environmental trends could slow down or reverse because of anticipated changes in demographics, material consumption or technological breakthroughs, but not necessarily before human activities in an “increasingly globalized, industrialized and interconnected world” push them across a dangerous threshold.
“The bill we hand on to our children may prove impossible to pay,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program.
In North America, the report highlighted as main concerns such issues as water quality and quantity, energy, climate change and urban sprawl. These issues relate to the overuse of natural resources to support major economic and population growth.
“The problems of sprawl, climate and water resources tax the region’s policy-making capacity,” said the report.
“They demand action from many different, unco-ordinated actors, and require a rethinking of notions of progress and well being.”
“Thus, without a more determined and conscious effort, North America could fail to put in place measures that are needed to protect and preserve freshwater resources, to shift to a dramatically lower-carbon economy, and to break the trend towards ever more land-intensive development.”
Jane Barr, a Canadian author of the report, said the wildfires currently raging in California underscore the impact of urban sprawl and climate change.
The problem begins with “the movement of suburbs into areas that are in danger of burning,” she observed in Ottawa at the North American launch of the UN report, adding: “Then you have the whole climate change question, and I think climate change is probably exacerbating the conditions that give rise to wildfires in southern California.”
She added that the massive use of water for oilsands production in Alberta is also putting the province’s water in jeopardy, while midwestern states are facing more dry spells that could also lead to conflicts because of water stress.
“Scientists do know that there are potential tipping points and that’s something new, and that’s something that this report will highlight, and it might catch people’s eyes because there are dangers out there. That is certain,” said Ms. Barr, a consultant from Montreal with a background in geography.
The UN says the study released yesterday is its most comprehensive ever on the environment. It comes 20 years after a commission headed by former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland published Our Common Future, a landmark report calling for sustainable development.
Mr. Steiner said while some improvements have been made since the 1987 report, progress in general has often been too slow and on a scale that “fails to respond to or recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet.”
The report also noted that:
– Outdoor and indoor air pollution kills more than two million people per year.
– The hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic is larger than ever but could recover by 2060 if countries abide by a 1987 treaty signed in Montreal.
– North Americans have the highest per-capita consumption of water. The availability of fresh water is declining while contaminated water is the single greatest environmental cause of human sickness and death. Around the world, 1.8 billion people could face serious water scarcity by 2025.
– Aquatic ecosystems are heavily exploited by activities such as fishing, jeopardizing food supplies and biodiversity.
– More than 16,000 species face extinction.
The report also blamed North American agriculture for using too much water, while noting that poor infrastructure allows up to 50 per cent of supplies to leak from pipes. Pollution of freshwater sources such as the Great Lakes is also a major concern, despite new national and transboundary regulations around the heavily populated area.
“The Great Lakes are still subject to contaminated run-off, untreated municipal sewage, eroding shorelines, wetland loss and invasive species,” said the report. “There are more than 160 non-native species in the lakes, and some, such as the zebra mussel, cause serious harm. Urban sprawl and population growth throughout the region are harming the ecosystem. The cumulative effect of these pressures is threatening its health, and efforts are now under way to study this ecosystem as a whole.”
The report suggested that aggressive government policies to promote sustainable growth could address the environmental concerns.
“The solutions to these problems will ultimately require ambitious policies, such as market-based mechanisms to value natural resources, such as watersheds, support for technological innovation, and forward-thinking ‘smart growth’ strategies,” said the report. “A worst-case—but not implausible—scenario could see deterioration in environmental and socio-economic conditions to a point that seems to defy repair.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government welcomed the findings of the report as it announced the creation of a new protected area of 10,000 square kilometres on Lake Superior.
The proposed boundaries of the marine park extend from Thunder Cape at the tip of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park in the west, to Bottle Point just east of Terrace Bay, and south to the Canada-U.S. boundary.
At an environmental conference in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy said the European Union should consider taxing imports from countries that don’t respect the Kyoto Protocol, to level the playing field for their own industries that are forced to comply with the international treaty on climate change. It was not clear whether he was referring to non-Kyoto signatories such as Australia and the United States, or to Canada, which has said it would not honour its Kyoto commitments.
‘Urgent Call to Act’
Highlights from the UN report, Global Environment Outlook
– Each person in the world now requires a third more land to supply his or her needs than the Earth can supply
– Developing countries will need another 120 million hectares, an area nearly the size of South Africa, to feed themselves by 2030
– Thirty per cent of amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are under threat of extinction
– One in 10 of the world’s major rivers runs dry every year before it reaches the sea
– Fishing capacity, helped by subsidies, is 250 per cent greater than the oceans’ sustainable catch
– 60 per cent of the world population lives within 100 kilometres of the coast and many are likely to be forced to move as sea levels rise from global warming over the coming century.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2007