News / Science & Technology

UN Warns of Irreversible Damage to Planet

Zulima Palacio
A United Nations report says the world faces irreversible change to life support functions if humanity does not change its ways.  The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) issued the report ahead the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, set for Brazil at the end of June.

The Global Environmental Outlook, or GEO5, says the world is on an unsustainable path, despite more than 500 international agreements. And scientific evidence says Earth's systems are being pushed toward their limits.

"We have some specific examples: carbon emissions are continuing to grow, not decline," said Amy Fraenkel, who directs the U.N.'s Environmental Program in North America. "We already exceeded the safe levels of where scientists say we need to be reaching in the atmosphere for greenhouse gases. Biodiversity has declined, our oceans are not in good shape, our fisheries are not in good shape."

The report warns of unprecedented damage if the current pattern of production and consumption of natural resources is not reversed.    

James Dobrowolski, with the U.S. Agriculture Department, is one of the report's lead authors.  He says population growth, urbanization, unsustainable consumption and the use of fossil fuels for energy all cause environmental change.

"Geo5 reports that 4.9 million deaths were attributable to environmental exposure to chemicals in 2004," said Dobrowolski. "That is from the World Health Organization. And chemical consumption in developing countries could account for a third of the global consumption by 2020."  

Dobrowolski  also cites computer and electronic waste as a major new source of pollution.

"Estimated at 20 to 50 million tons per year, e-waste has been identified as one of the really important emerging issues in GEO5," he said.

The report cites some successes, notably bans on lead in gasoline and ozone-depleting substances.

"The political challenge is to get the message across so even in financially difficult times, dealing with the environment is not an afterthought, is something that we do right now," said Fraenkel.

Fraenkel says there's an urgent need for a green economy and that's the message to the Rio+20 conference.

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