Sustainable development: 'The planet is at a crucial crossroads'

A recent UN programme says sustainability is not only natural but essential. Fred Pearce looks at its chances

A A A

A tide of tarmac is spreading over the planet. Around half of the land surface of the Earth is carved up by human activity. Cities and farms, roads and mines, pipelines and pylons have either covered or hopelessly fragmented 50 per cent of the world's natural vegetation.

Nowhere is safe. Not the rainforests of the Amazon, not the frozen but oil-rich wastes of Siberia, not the deserts of Arabia. If the world's economy continues in its current breakneck manner, then within three decades, 70 per cent of the land will be destroyed, fragmented or disturbed by human activity.

Yet, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), a switch to a more environmentally friendly approach to economic development could stop most further destruction – and even allow nature to return to areas of Europe and North America where population growth has more or less ceased. And all without damaging economic growth.

In a study prepared for the World Summit, more than a thousand scientists, recruited by UNEP, outlined two possible approaches to future growth: one based on untrammelled "markets first" and a second that put "sustainability first".

Both brought real economic growth at a similar speed. But while the markets-first approach trashed the environment, sustainability-first protected the planet from most of the worst damage. It also appeared to offer the best chance of long-term wealth and social harmony. "The planet is at a crucial crossroads, with the choices made today critical for the forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, wildlife and other life-support systems upon which current and future generations depend," says UNEP director Klaus Töpfer.

If markets and free trade remain the sole criterion for economic planning, the UNEP scientists predict that global warming will continue to accelerate, with emissions of the chief greenhouse gas carbon dioxide more than doubling by 2030.

The scientists predict that within three decades, 85 per cent of Latin America will be carved up by development – the highest figure for any continent. The region is already home to four of the top 10 megacities and continued urban growth would be a death knell for the Amazon rainforest. Meanwhile, a rash of mines and hydropower plants would be in operation across the Arctic, where global warming will open shipping lanes to even the most remote land areas.

But the sustainable option would see rainforests and Arctic wastes protected in a world where more and more people live frugal, train-riding, telecommuting lives. Cities would be compact, highways subdued, many mines replaced by recycling plants and power stations by neighbourhood renewable-energy centres. In Europe, the report foresees outer suburbs emptying, roads closing and forests and wetlands being recreated.

Old North Sea oil platforms would sprout wind turbines and the Nevada desert would be covered in solar panels. Iceland would be dubbed the "green Kuwait" – the first country to run without fossil fuels, exporting clean hydrogen fuel generated from its glaciers and volcanic geysers.

Can this transformation to sustainability happen? Well, some progress is already being made. City air in North America and Europe is substantially cleaner than a generation ago. Cleanup technology has more than kept pace with rising economic activity and car use. Acid rain is in full-scale retreat. Even China, the new world industrial powerhouse with 10 per cent annual economic growth, is banishing its smogs and is cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Every year, we produce our economic goods from fewer natural resources and with less pollution. Such trends are natural. Pollution is waste and economic efficiency should arise from environmental efficiency. But sustainability is not only natural, it is also essential, says UNEP.

Global warming is starting to cause climatic havoc. This year is just the latest when floods, hurricanes, droughts and other freak weather conditions have caused widespread deaths and sent insurance claims soaring. The number of people affected by climate-related natural disasters rose 50 per cent during the Nineties and financial loss from such disasters now regularly top $100bn (£65bn) a year. One insurance industry projection of current trends puts the cost of climate disasters at more than global GDP by 2060.

Even leaving aside global warming, the UNEP scientists concluded that environmental degradation is damaging economic growth. India is already losing $10bn (£6.5bn) a year – almost 5 per cent of its GDP – from air pollution, soil erosion and the destruction of nature. The "brown haze" reported across southern Asia this summer could be cutting Indian rice yields by as much as 10 per cent.

Sustainability means just that, says UNEP. If we want to sustain economic growth over the long term, we have no choice but to factor in the environment and our natural resources.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz