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Germany

A Real Eye-Opener

The future of the global environment looks grim, if world leaders don’t take radical action. The UN Environment Programme says the world is at an environmental crossroads.

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Water could become an even more precious resource.

Over 70 percent of the Earth's land surface could be affected by the impacts of roads, mining, cities and other infrastructure developments in the next 30 years unless industrial nations take urgent action.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found in its third Global Environment Outlook (GEO-3) report that more than half of the world’s population could be living in severely water-stressed areas by 2032 if market forces drive the globe's political, economic and social agenda.

"Fundamental changes are possible and required," said UNEP executive director Klaus Töpfer. "It would be a disaster to sit back and ignore the picture painted."

The GEO-3 report, released this week, hopes to kick world leaders into action ahead of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in late August. "The choices made today are critical for the forests, oceans, rivers, mountains, wildlife and other life support systems upon which current and future generations depend," it said.

A market or sustainability-driven future?

The report painted four possible approaches leading to different outcomes over the next 30 years. They ranged from a future driven by market forces to one defined by far-reaching changes in values and lifestyles, firm policies and cooperation between all sectors of society.

In a "Markets First" world, three percent of the Earth's surface will disappear under concrete by 2032. More than half of the population will be living with drought, 70 percent of the remaining land and animals will be under threat and 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide will be belched into the air each year from fossil fuels.

"Sustainability First" paints a very different picture. Here, cities and highways eat up less land, drought is kept at bay by better water management, the pressure on land and animals stabilizes and global carbon dioxide emissions balance out at just half the levels of the market-dominated route.

Grim, but not hopeless

Töpfer (photo), a former German environment minister, stressed that while the picture was bleak it was not beyond redemption. "GEO-3 is neither a document of doom and gloom or a gloss over the acute challenges facing us all," he said. "It is the most authoritative assessment of where we have been, where we have reached and where we are likely to go."

Klaus Töpfer bei der UNEP (Umweltschutzprogramm der UN) in Genf, Schweiz

Klaus Töpfer

The facts in the report underlined the huge amount of knowledge that has been accumulated about the condition of the Earth. This information needed to be used, he stressed, calling on the Johannesburg Summit to take urgent steps.

"Decisive action can achieve positive results. Our motto for Johannesburg is planet, people, prosperity."

He urged the meeting to set clear, achievable and effective targets to tackle poverty and deprivation without destroying the environment. "We now have hundreds of declarations, agreements, guidelines and legally-binding treaties designed to address environmental problems and the threats they pose to wildlife and human health and well-being," he said.

"Let us now find the political courage and the innovative financing needed to implement these deals."

But, he added, it isn’t the responsibility of politicians alone. "We need concrete actions, we need concrete timetables and we need an iron will from all sides. We are all shareholders in this enterprise."

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