In a sweeping synthesis of global data, the United Nations Environment Programme has intensively catalogued environmental assaults across the six different major regions of the globe. And it finds that, overall, damage to the planet is happening more rapidly than before, through slights ranging from air pollution, to the proliferation of human and toxic waste, to water scarcity and climate change.
“The kinds of problems are recognizable. They’re just happening much more frequently,” said Jacqueline McGlade, UNEP’s chief scientist. The agency is calling it “the most authoritative study that UNEP has ever published on the state of the global environment.” The report (consisting of six large regional studies) was released late last week, leading into the second United Nations Environment Assembly, which kicked off Monday in Nairobi.
“The world shares a host of common environmental threats that are rapidly intensifying in many parts of the world,” said a UNEP news release accompanying the report’s release.
The root causes, McGlade said, basically boil down to two major systemic occurrences with multiple ramifying consequences: a changing climate and an intense trend toward greater urbanization. The warming of the planet threatens ecosystems and the humans who depend on them for food, water and services, even as the push into expanding cities clusters people in more closely, creating water shortages, waste disposal problems, more deleterious contacts with wildlife and more.
The study examined the globe by dividing it into six regions: North America, Latin American and the Caribbean, Africa, West Asia, Asia and the Pacific, and Europe. And while it found many differences, it also found key common themes. One was worsening air pollution problems, driven, again, by large populations and the swelling of urban cores. Another was widespread water scarcity problems, exacerbated by climate change but also greater demand in growing cities.
“Every region, regardless of how it might be perceived from the outside, is suffering from water scarcity,” McGlade said.
Major international bodies, the World Bank and the World Health Organization, have recently sounded very similar notes, with the former suggesting that water scarcity may be one of the most sweeping impacts of a changing climate, even as the global health body documented a worsening of deadly air pollution trends across global cities. The latter naturally goes hand in hand with increasing urbanization, which pushes more polluting vehicles into cities even as it also increases energy demand — both of which feed the air pollution problem.
The United Nations Environment Programme says the six reports, each one consisting of well over 100 pages, were compiled by no less than 1,203 scientists, as well as 160 different governments.
For North America, there was an anomaly in that air quality is not getting worse — it’s getting better. However, the same can’t be said for water scarcity, or for the effects of climate change. The UNEP report for the region suggests that a changing climate worsened both the California drought and also the impact of Superstorm Sandy, by raising the level of the sea upon which the storm traveled.
For Latin America and the Caribbean, a booming agricultural industry is driving up emissions of methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere dramatically, UNEP found, even as most major cities are suffering from excessive air pollution, and water availability problems are also mounting. This region is also perhaps the world’s top biodiversity hub, but deforestation for agriculture is continually imperiling that — along with urbanization and increasing pollution inputs from cities and farms into the environment, for instance in the form of nitrogen runoff.
West Asia — which includes the Middle East — is suffering from desertification and major water supply concerns. “Only four out of 12 countries in West Asia are above the water scarcity limit of 1000 cubic metres per person per year,” noted UNEP. Africa is beset by similar concerns, as well as 600,000 deaths per year from indoor air pollution because of the burning of biomass, major threats to forests, and rampant poaching and illegal wildlife commerce, UNEP reported.
And then there’s Asia and the Pacific, where air pollution is again worsening, even as booming populations and prosperity are driving more waste accumulation, which is polluting water supplies. “Water-related diseases and unsafe water contribute to 1.8 million deaths annually and 24.8 million disability-adjusted life years in the region,” the UNEP said. (The report on Europe has not yet been released.)
Surveying all this, UNEP’s McGlade said that policymakers have to begin to respond much faster to environmental problems — they’re simply falling behind.
“These are well understood patterns of failure, and ultimately, we have been treating just the symptoms,” she said. “These reports show that the time has come that we now have to tackle the root causes.”