The present state of play

The United Nations General Assembly mandate establishing the Brundtland Commission in 1982 encouraged the commissioners to look for 'long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development to the year 2000 and beyond' (Brundtland, 1982).

Unfortunately, although we have made great strides in the last 20 years, it is not nearly enough. There have been many broken promises by developed countries, which have failed to make available the resources to enable developing countries to take a more sustainable development model. Also, developed countries have not adequately addressed their own consumption patterns, or implemented policies based on the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' that underpin both the Rio and Johannesburg Earth Summits. In doing so, they have put the world under threat.

In 2007, an environmental issue reached the United Nations Security Council for the first time. That, of course, was energy and climate security. Brought there by the UK government, it is the topic of this book. But it wasn't the only environmental issue to be discussed that year in the Security Council.

Two months later, Belgium also brought an environmental issue to the Security Council - that of reviewing 'peacekeeping mandates to consider helping states prevent illegal exploitation of natural resources from fuelling conflicts'. What is happening is an increasing convergence of the environmental, human development and security agendas. A key question, then, is: is the Security Council the right place to discuss these issues?

The Security Council has what is known as 'the permanent five members' (China, France, the Russian Federation, the UK and US). These countries play a significant role in causing the world's environmental and development problems, and have a veto on possible actions. They account for around 60 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. We argue that the Security Council is not the place to discuss these issues ... yet. It may become an action of last resort if negotiations fail through other multilateral processes.

The past few years have seen climate change become the single most important issue on governments' environmental agendas, often to the detriment of their work on other issues. Governments' environmental departments have seen their budgets for non-climate-related work shrink.

We raise a serious note of caution about this too. Putting everything under the banner of 'climate change' is not a solution to the problems we are facing. It is critical that we remember that climate change will definitely make things worse; but things are already going in the wrong direction. We need to address other priority environmental and development issues, along with addressing climate change. It is unlikely that more than a handful of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be fulfilled, and even those that were on track are now under threat with the present economic crisis. MDG 7 on environmental sustainability didn't adequately address the challenges we face in the area of environmental threats.

The excellent United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) publication Global Environmental Outlook 4 (GEO4) (UNEP, 2007a) did point out the key trends that we really do need to address:

• The world's population has grown by 34 per cent to 6.7 billion in 20 years.

• Human consumption has far outstripped available resources. Each person on Earth now requires one third more land to supply his or her needs than the planet can supply.

• Irrigation for agriculture already takes about 70 per cent of available water; yet meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger will mean doubling food production by 2050. By 2025, water use will have risen by 50 per cent in developing countries and 18 per cent elsewhere.

• Sixty-four per cent of ecosystems are degraded and are being used unsustainably.

• Over 73,000 square kilometres of forest are lost across the world each year - 3.5 times the size of Wales.

• An estimated 75,000 people each year are killed by natural disasters.

• Three million people die needlessly each year from water-borne diseases in developing nations - mostly children under five.

• Sixty per cent of the world's major rivers have been dammed or diverted.

• Populations of freshwater fish have declined by 50 per cent in 20 years.

• More than half of all cities exceed World Health Organization (WHO) pollution guidelines.

• Biodiversity is seriously threatened by the impact of human activities: 30 per cent of amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12 per cent of birds are under threat of extinction, while one in ten of the world's largest rivers runs dry every year before it reaches the sea (UNEP, 2007a).

The report further states that land degradation affecting about 5 million square kilometres of Africa - one sixth of the continent - is the biggest threat to the region realizing its full potential.

As Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP, said:

But all too often [the response] has been slow and at a pace and scale that fails to respond to or recognize the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet... 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. (Steiner, 2007)

The GEO4 report underlined the findings in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) Fourth Assessment Report when it said: 'irreversible damage to the world's climate will be likely unless greenhouse gas emissions drop to below 50 per cent of their 1990 levels before 2050. To do this, it [the IPCC)] said that developed countries must cut emissions by 60 to 80 per cent by 2050 and developing countries must also make significant reductions'. (UNEP, 2007)

In response to the report David Nussbaum, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the World Wide Fund for Nature-UK (WWF-UK) pointed out: 'If everyone consumed resources in the way that we do in the UK or Europe, we would need three planets to support us' (Nussbaum, 2007). And this by 2030!

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