The UN Environment Programme document, nearly 400 pages of mostly grim statistics, pays scant attention to scientists and industrial lobbyists who say the threat of man-made global warming has been exaggerated.
The biennial Environmental Data Report, launched yesterday, suggests signals of climate change caused by world-wide atmospheric pollution can already be detected.
The unusually high average temperatures of the 1980s - which include six of the seven warmest years since world-wide temperature records began more than a century ago - have continued into the 1990s, despite the huge Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines which had a cooling effect.
The global mean sea level has risen by about 1.8 millimetres per year over the last 60 years, according to tide-gauge measurements. This is equivalent to about seven inches a century. The report says expansion of the seas caused by rising temperatures is the most likely explanation.
Most of the world's mountain glaciers kept under observation have been in retreat over the past 100 years. 'This finding . . . provides some of the clearest evidence for a change in energy balance at the earth's surface since the turn of the century,' the document says.
It portrays a world in which natural stocks and resources are in increasing danger of collapse, because of the growth of population and economies. Reliable supplies of freshwater, sea fish and fertile soil will expire across large areas of the globe within a couple of generations if today's trends continue.
Twenty years ago, during the first wave of global concern about the environment, the main concern was that non-renewable resources such as oil and gas would be exhausted within a few decades.
Those fears proved unfounded, because new reserves were found or substitutes developed. Now the worry is that renewable natural resources are being placed under such strain that they are becoming unable to replenish themselves.
Each year during the 1980s, 1 per cent of tropical forests were felled or burnt. 'This may be sufficient to commit between 2-8 per cent of the planet's species to extinction within 25 years.'
About 17 per cent of the world's soils are now considered degraded by overgrazing, unsustainable irrigation and other types of poor land management.
Launching the report, Sir Crispin Tickell, a former ambassador to the United Nations and now an adviser on environmental matters to the Prime Minister, said it was an enormous mistake 'to consider the environment as yesterday's story'.
The document brought together the most reliable, illuminating statistics from around the world. 'It shows where the pressure points are, where the trouble is likely to come. This is the kind of book which is going to make a substantial difference.'
However, there has been a small fall in the rate of increase of ozone- destroying CFC and halon gases in the atmosphere, thanks to international agreements to phase them out. But ozone holes still open over the Antarctic, and are expected to continue to do so for several years.
The report was prepared by the Monitoring and Assessment Research Centre at King's College, London, with help from the Washington-based World Resources Institute and the Department of the Environment.
UNEP Environmental Data Report, 1993-94; Blackwell Publishers, Oxford; pounds 50.Reuse content