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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : May 2002 : U.N. Reports on Environmental Woes

U.N. Reports on Environmental Woes


JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press Writer
Wed May 22, 2:37 PM ET

A quarter of the world's mammal species — from tigers to rhinos — could face extinction within 30 years, and millions of people could suffer severe water shortages unless firm political action is taken to protect the environment, the United Nations said Wednesday.

In a state-of-the-world report, the U.N. Environment Program said the Earth faces more rapid, dramatic and devastating environmental change over the next three decades.

"The increasing pace of change and degree of interaction between regions and issues has made it more difficult than ever to look into the future with confidence," the organization said in Global Environment Outlook-3.

At a London news conference, U.N. Environment Program executive director Klaus Toepfer said human development "across more and more areas of the planet is not sustainable. Unless we alter our course, we will be left with very little."

Released in advance of the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development — to be held Aug. 26-Sept. 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa — the report is based on contributions from more than 1,000 scientists collaborating with the Nairobi, Kenya-based U.N. agency.

It assesses environmental changes over the past 30 years and looks ahead to the next three decades — a period the United Nations says will be critical in determining the future of the planet.

The report says the world's biodiversity is under threat, with 1,130 of the more than 4,000 mammal species and 1,183 of the 10,000 birds regarded as globally threatened — meaning they could become extinct but are not necessarily under immediate threat of extinction.

Among the most threatened are the black rhinoceros of Africa, the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard of Asia, according to the U.N.'s World Conservation Monitoring Center.

Much of the threat is man-made, with loss of habitat from industry, mining and farming, and the introduction of nonnative species among the chief dangers. Fifteen percent of the world's land has been degraded by human activity such as overgrazing, the report says, while half the world's rivers are seriously depleted or polluted.

The report warns that roads, mining and other infrastructure developments could affect over 70 percent of the world's surface in the next 30 years.

In addition, almost one-third of the world's fish stocks are depleted, overexploited or recovering as a result of overfishing.

Michael Novacek, provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History, said the U.N. figures are in line with projections based on land loss and degradation of oceans "that as much as 30 percent of species diversity will be erased by the middle of this century."

"We have a taste of this in marine ecosystems," he said, citing devastated coral reefs in the Caribbean, loss of fisheries in the Mediterranean and the "hugely threatened" South China Sea, which feeds so many people.

The U.N. report notes progress in some areas. Air and water quality have improved in the last 30 years in North America and Europe, and the amount of land protected as national parks and reserves has quadrupled since 1970.

The United Nations also says there could be deep cuts in the emission of greenhouse gasses linked to global warming if governments show the will to enforce international agreements such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Global hunger is falling and could affect as little as 2.5 percent of the world's population by the year 2032 — but 40 percent of the world's people suffered serious water shortages by the mid-1990s, and 1.1 billion people still lack access to safe drinking water.

The report's bad news outweighs the good. Weather-related hazards such as cyclones, droughts and floods appear to be increasing in strength and frequency and are affecting more people, 211 million a year in the 1990s, compared with 147 million a year in the 1980s. Some attribute the increase to global warming.

The United Nations says depletion of the ozone layer has reached record levels, with the ozone hole over Antarctica covering more than 11.2 million square miles in September 2000.

The report argues that political action to decrease poverty and over-consumption, reduce poor countries' debt burden and promote good government could help alleviate the worst environmental problems.

"It is not a doom and gloom report," Toepfer said. "There is, in the developed countries, quite a lot of successes. These successes are not coming like manna from heaven but are the result of political commitment. Where we have political commitment, we can solve these problems."

Tony Juniper (news - web sites), director-designate of Friends of the Earth (news - web sites), said the report was a "wake-up call to the world."

"Time really is running out. The Johannesburg Earth Summit is crucial. It is vital that the world's most powerful nations show leadership and put people and the planet ahead of national and corporate interests," he said.

But one dissenting environmentalist branded the U.N. study alarmist.

"I disagree with the message it sends," said Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist."

"They may be saying it's not a doom and gloom report, but there's a tendency to overplay the negative. It's not correct to say the poor are getting poorer and the world is getting thirstier," Lomborg said



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