June 6, 2012 11:28 pm

UN says action on environment goals too slow

More than 500 globally agreed goals and targets have failed to stop the world hurtling towards potentially sudden and irreversible environmental damage, the UN warned on Wednesday.

In a comprehensive report unveiled on the eve of the biggest international environmental conference in 20 years, the UN Environment Programme said “significant progress” had only been made on four of the 90 most important objectives.

These were phasing out substances that deplete the ozone layer, removing lead from fuel, increasing access to water supplies and boosting marine pollution research.

Some progress had been made on 40 other key goals, UNEP added, including efforts to reduce deforestation and expand national parks.

But “little or no” improvement was detected for 24 of the 90 key objectives to tackle problems such as decimated fish stocks, the spread of deserts, climate change and drought – while further deterioration had been recorded for eight of these goals, including improving the state of the world’s coral reefs.

“If humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur,” said Nairobi-based UNEP, which did not assess a further 14 key goals because of a lack of data.

The study is the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the planet UNEP has performed in five years. It comes two weeks before more than 100 world leaders meet in Rio de Janeiro for Rio+20 , a conference on tackling environmental degradation and poverty held 20 years after the 1992 UN earth summit that was also held in Rio.

The 1992 conference launched a series of environmental agreements, including treaties to address climate change and species loss. But negotiations on the outcome of the Rio+20 conference have been so fractious in recent weeks that doubts have arisen about whether the summit will even make meaningful promises, let alone progress.

The UNEP report shows why this vacillation must end, said Achim Steiner, the programme’s executive director.

“The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision, acknowledge the facts and face up to the common humanity that unites all peoples,” he said. “Rio+20 is a moment to turn sustainable development from aspiration and patchy implementation into a genuine path to progress and prosperity.”

But the extent of the challenge facing leaders in Rio is underlined by the UNEP report, which found that despite past goals to cut significantly the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010, about 20 per cent of vertebrate species – fish, birds, mammals – are now under threat.

Marine life faces particular risks. Of all living organisms, those in most danger are coral reefs, whose condition has declined by 38 per cent since 1980 and is forecast to deteriorate even faster over the next 40 years.

In addition, industrial fishing techniques have led to “unprecedented deterioration” in fish stocks, while the number of coastal “dead zones” has increased dramatically.

At the same time, regular supplies of safe drinking water are expected to be beyond the reach of more than 600m people by 2015, while 2.5bn will not have access to basic sanitation.

Water scarcity is expected to increase in some countries, forcing governments to rely more heavily on energy-intensive desalination plants, to the point that by 2030 an estimated $11bn will be spent each year on extra water infrastructure, particularly in developing countries.

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