Failure to tackle global warming could spell the end for humanity, warns UN report

Last updated at 07:45 26 October 2007

A failure to address major problems faced by the planet including climate change, extinction of species and unsustainable development could threaten the survival of humanity, a UN report has warned.

The Global Environment Outlook study says there are "persistent" issues such as pressure on resources, decline of fish stocks and loss of available fresh water and fertile land which are not being dealt with.

Published 20 years on from the Brundtland Commission's seminal study Our Common Future, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report says there have been some successes in the last two decades.

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polar bears on disappearing ice floe

The international community has cut ozone-damaging chemicals, negotiated the Kyoto Protocol and other international environmental treaties and supported a rise in protected areas which now cover roughly 12% of the world.

But the UNEP report warns "there are no major issues raised in Our Common Future for which the foreseeable trends are favourable".

Climate change is identified as a "global priority" to which the international response has so far been "woefully inadequate", the study says.

And a growing global population and unsustainable use of resources means our "footprint" - the land required for each of us to live - has reached 21.9 hectares per person, while the Earth's capacity is around 15.7 hectares.

The report addresses a number of areas where environmental degradation is threatening human welfare and the planet, including water, over-fishing and biodiversity - where the UNEP says a sixth, human-induced, major extinction is under way.

It also looks at the problems faced by each region of the world.

Billions of people in the developing world are put at risk by a failure to remedy relatively simple problems solved elsewhere such as waterborne disease, the study says.

But the report's authors say its objective is "not to present a dark and gloomy scenario, but an urgent call to action."

And it warns that tackling the problems may affect the vested interests of powerful groups, and that the environment must be moved to the core of decision-making.

Achim Steiner, the UN's under-secretary general and executive director of UNEP, said the international community's response to environmental issues has at times been "courageous and inspiring", but all too often has been to slow or on too small a scale.

"The systematic destruction of the Earth's natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged - and where the bill we hand to our children may prove impossible to pay," he said.

The report concludes: "While governments are expected to take the lead, other stakeholders are just as important to ensure success in achieving sustainable development.

"The need couldn't be more urgent and the time couldn't be more opportune, with our enhanced understanding of the challenges we face, to act now to safeguard our own survival and that of future generations."

Responding to the report, Mike Childs, campaigns director at Friends of the Earth, said: "It is now clearer than ever that we need concerted international political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and halt the loss of wildlife and ecosystems.

"This report clearly demonstrates that we also need a step change in understanding that the steady degradation of the world's environment threatens the well-being of everybody on the planet.

"Our response to this planetary emergency must be to harness humankind's amazing ingenuity to make the next two decades a time of innovation and determination to create a fairer and greener world."

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