UN report warns of Earth's unsustainable future

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The Independent Online

THE WORLD'S environmental problems are worsening much more quickly than they are being tackled, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Klaus Topfer, warned yesterday.

THE WORLD'S environmental problems are worsening much more quickly than they are being tackled, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Klaus Topfer, warned yesterday.

In a gloomy assessment of the global situation drawn up for the end of the millennium, Dr Topfer, a former German environment minister, gave a blunt warning that it may already be too late to stop global warming and that the Kyoto protocol, the treaty drawn up to combat climate change, may fail.

At the London launch of the UN programme's GEO-2000 report, he listed a number of serious environmental problems, which, he said, far outweighed the progress being made. Dr Topfer, who runs the programme from its headquarters in Nairobi, is the world's most senior environmental official, and his agency has access to the scientific expertise of all parts of the UN.

His warnings about the Kyoto treaty and global warming will be regarded as extremely ominous, and the GEO-2000 report will be regarded as the most authoritative summing-up of the environmental situation as the new millennium nears.

There was progress, he said, pointing to the successful agreement to stop the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the industrial chemicals which have accumulated in the atmosphere and caused severe damage to the earth's protective ozone layer. In Europe there had been real cutbacks on pollutant gases such as sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain, and on the amount of sewage dumped in rivers. Furthermore many nations now accepted the importance of environmental problems and taught environmental awareness to their schoolchildren.

"But the gains by better management and technology are still being outpaced by the environmental impacts of population and economic growth," he said. "We are on an unsustainable course. Time is rapidly running out for a rational, well-planned transition to a sustainable future."

The two major causes of environmental degradation, he stressed, were the continued poverty of the majority of the planet's inhabitants and excessive consumption by the well-off minority.

"The global environment has never before been under such pressures," he said. "It is little wonder that it is becoming the worse for wear. Full-scale emergencies now exist on a number of issues."

After climate change, water was the most serious. By 2025 as much as two-thirds of the world population would be subject to "water stress", meaning difficulty of access to water supplies or to clean water. Already, he said, 20 per cent of the world population lacked access to safe drinking water and half the world lacked access to a safe sanitation system.

"The global water cycle is unlikely to be able to cope with the demands that will be made of it in the coming decades," he warned.

Dr Topfer also highlighted a new global problem - nitrogen. Put on the land in fertilisers, it is prompting the explosive growth of toxic algae once it is washed down to the sea and making some freshwater supplies unfit for drinking. "There is mounting evidence that humans are seriously unbalancing the global nitrogen cycle," he said.

Action to tackle the problems should focus on four key issues, Dr Topfer concluded. Gaps in environmental knowledge had to be filled; the root causes of environmental problems - such as overconsumption - had to be tackled; environmental thinking needed to be integrated into mainstream thinking and decision-making; and all those affected by environmental problems should be mobilised together.

"The turn of the century will be a milestone for the Earth," he said. "It must be a turning point for the way we treat the environment."