By State of Green, March 19, 2019

The UN Environment released its sixth global environment outlook during the UN Climate Summit that took place in Kenya last week. The report argues that the world has the technological, scientific and financial resources needed to secure a healthy planet, but the need for immediate action is paramount.

Last week the fourth UN Environment Assembly took place over five days in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Gathering governments, entrepreneurs, activists and civil society actors, the assembly is the world’s preeminent environmental forum that meets biennially to set environmental policy and international environmental law. It was during the assembly that UN Environment released the sixth annual Global Environment Outlook – a 745 page long report that provides a comprehensive assessment of the state of the environment globally and looks at ways to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and 2030 Agenda.

Initially launched in 1997, the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) is an integrated environmental assessment that incorporates environmental, social, economic, policy, geographic and temporal perspectives designed to provide answers to five key issues, namely; the state of the planet, key drivers of change, the impact the planet’s health has on livelihoods, where in the world problems are most acute and for whom, policy measures and responses to environmental challenges and what are some of the available pathways to accelerate progress to a more sustainable planet.

The theme of the sixth GEO is ‘Healthy planet, healthy people’ and the report intends to direct attention to the link between the environment and human progress, warning that the state of the planet’s health is so dire that it represents a public health issue. For example,  approximately nine million lives are currenrly lost on an annual basis as a result of exposure to indoor/outdoor air and water pollution – all of which costs society approximately USD 5 trillion. Building on the findings of previous editions, the GEO was produced with input from 250 scientists and experts from over 70 countries and uses a mix of case studies and data analysis to forge a path towards ensuring the air, biodiversity, oceans, land and freshwater are protected and restored to health. Where the report differs from previous GEO reports is in its emphasis on Sustainable Development Goals and in providing possible means of accelerating the attainment of these goals. Denmark and several other state actors, including the European Union have helped finance the outlook. Furthemore, Denmark’s approach reducing waste, its circular economy strategies and its inter-ministerial working group to implement the SDGs are mentioned in the report.

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At a crossroads for the environment

The report is timely, given that population estimates suggest the world’s population will balloon to almost ten billion by 2050. Therefore, in order to ensure a healthy planet, with enough food and clean drinking water, the world must work towards achieving a zero-waste economy by 2050. For example, one-third of all food produced is lost or wasted on a global scale, with the bulk of the waste occurring in industrialised countries. The report also notes that despite eight million tons of plastic pollution flow into oceans each year, there is still no global agreement to tackle marine litter.

Calling for immediate action, the report warns that unless environmental protections are drastically scaled up, cities and regions in Asia, the Middle East and Africa could  experience millions of premature deaths by mid-century. It also warns that pollutants in our freshwater systems will lead to anti-microbial resistance becoming a major cause of death by 2050 and endocrine disruptors that will impact male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment.

Although the report paints a bleak picture, hope can be taken from the fact that progress on issues such as global hunger, access to clean water, sanitation and clean energy has been made. In addition, there are also signs environmental degradation and unsustainable resource use is beginning to decouple from economic growth, as well as unprecedented technological innovation. The report stresses that scientific, technological and financial tools necessary to secure a healthy planet and, by extension, healthy people, are already available. What is missing is collective resolve, where governments, citizens and companies still use outdated production and development models.

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“The science is clear. The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “This report is an outlook for humanity. We are at a crossroads. Do we continue on our current path, which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway? That is the choice our political leaders must make, now”.

The report outlines six key messages:

  1. A healthy planet supports healthy people
  2. An unhealthy planet leads to unhealthy people
  3. The drivers and pressures leading to an unhealthy planet need to be addressed
  4. Current science justifies policy action now, but more detailed knowledge can enable more refined and preemptive policy
  5. Environmental policy is necessary but inadequate in itself to address systemic ecological problems, solutions which require a holistic approach
  6. Healthy people, a healthy planet and a healthy economy can be mutually supportive

The report can be downloaded in its entirety here

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