Thursday, October 25, 2007

UNEP Global Environmental Outlook

The UN Environmental Programme puts out its Global Environmental Outlook report today (about half an hour ago). You can download assessment brochures at the hyperlinked site.

The Herald Tribune gives a general assessment of the report's contents:
"The human population is now so large that the amount of resources needed to sustain it exceeds what is available at current consumption patterns," Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP, said in a telephone interview. Efficient use of resources and reducing waste now are "among the greatest challenges at the beginning in of 21st century," Steiner said.

UNEP described its report, which is prepared by 388 experts and scientists, as the broadest and deepest of those the UN has issued on the environment, and called it "the final wake-up call to the international community."...

Persistent problems identified by the report include a rapid rise of so-called dead zones, where marine life no longer can be supported due to depleted oxygen levels from pollutants such as fertilizers, as well as the resurgence of diseases linked with environmental degradation...

Steiner said environmental tipping points, where degradation can lead to abrupt, accelerating or potentially irreversible changes, would increasingly occur in locations such as a particular river or forest, where populations would lack the ability to repair damage because the gravity of the problem would be far beyond their physical or economic means.

Looking ahead, Steiner said parts of Africa could reach an environmental tipping point if changing rainfall patterns stemming from climate change turned semi-arid zones into arid zones, and made agriculture that sustains millions of people much harder...

The report said 250 percent more fish are being caught than the oceans can produce in a sustainable manner, and that global fish stocks classed as collapsed had roughly doubled to 30 percent over the past 20 years.

The report said that current changes in biodiversity were the fastest in human history, with species becoming extinct a hundred times faster than the rate in the fossil record. It said 12 percent of birds are threatened with extinction; for mammals the figure is 23 percent and for amphibians it is more than 30 percent.

Steiner said another tipping point triggered by climate change could occur in India and China if Himalayan glaciers shrink so much that they no longer supply adequate amounts of water to populations in those countries...

The report said concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were about one-third greater than 20 years ago, and that the threat from climate change now was so urgent that only very large cuts in greenhouse gases of 60 to 80 percent could stop irreversible change.
It might be a happy thought to believe - as is central to the faith of neoclassical economics - that technological innovations can save the day. Here and there, they might, but only in terms of small-scale, patchwork solutions. The ecological problems far out-pace any human innovations on the horizon both on the scale of rapid, short-term ecological developments and long-term environmental harms, given the complexity and enormity of the problems. The remaining alternative, of course, is adaptation rather than mitigation in the case of, say, climate change. But we don't need to do any serious analysis to assume adaptation. We'll simply be forced into it - we already are. The question is the more serious policy question. Are we willing to do some hard work in reevaluating our short-term interests and desires in order to sustain our communities into the future? If we use standard economic tools, which typically discount the future given increasing uncertainty of theoretical models and empirical information as we extend analyses into the future, we can end up giving short shrift to the nature of the problems we face, even going so far as to misidentify them. Again, collective decisions to truly mitigate ecological damage, and to sustain communities we have reasons to value, may have nothing at all to do with economic assessments. Policy must absolutely be driven by such non-economic policy questions, and only the economic ones when relevant (after all, economics is mostly about efficiency of means, not appropriateness of ends, even if many economists assume otherwise). It's a huge mistake to do it the other way around.

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