Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

14 Mar 2019

Shape up or suffer

Posted by Michael Keating

Damage to the planet is getting so dire that our health is at risk unless we take rapid action. This week the United Nations Environment Programme issued its sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6). The encyclopedic 740-page report on the world environment was produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries. Among the findings:

  • Air pollution, mainly from industries, vehicles and fumes from cooking, kills 6-7 million people prematurely every year.
  • Water quality continues to decline in most regions of the world. Diseases in contaminated water kill about 1.4 million people every year, and chemical pollutants are disrupting male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, and the planet gets warmer. If the world is to meet targets for controlling climate change, emissions need to drop by between 40 and 70 per cent globally by 2050, and to net zero by 2070.
  • Humans are causing one of the greatest extinctions of life in millions of years. This loss of species is creating a poorer planet, and threatening food security.
  • The oceans and their inhabitants are being changed by over-fishing, global warming, acidification and tonnes of pollutants dumped into their waters every year. Plastics, which are found everywhere in the seas, break down into microscopic particles that end up in food we eat.

Pressure on the global environment keeps growing. The world population is some 7.5 billion, with median projections estimating nearly 10 billion by 2050 and nearly 11 billion by 2100. Consumption using an extract-make-use-dispose approach has “increased resource exploitation beyond the recovery ability of ecological systems.” Much of this is still powered by burning fossil fuels, which causes climate change; energy consumption is forecast to increase by as much as 60 per cent in the next few decades. “Current patterns of consumption, production and inequality are not sustainable,” the report finds, and “…trends in environmental degradation are projected to continue at a rapid rate…”

The report calls for a new way of thinking and living, moving from the ‘grow now, clean up after’ model to a near-zero-waste economy. It suggests ways we can move to sustainable development. “They include changes in lifestyle, consumption preferences and consumer behaviour on the one hand, and cleaner production processes, resource efficiency and decoupling, corporate responsibility and compliance on the other hand.” For example, adopting less-meat intensive diets, and reducing food waste would reduce the pressure to increase food production, including clearing more land.

The problem is we have the ability but lack the willpower. The authors say support is still missing from the public, business and political leaders who are clinging to outdated production and development models.

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