The Health of the Earth 2000

Excerpts from the United Nations Environment Program's report on the environmental health of the planet.

Global Environment Outlook 2000

GEO-2000 involved experts from more than 100 countries coopeerating to produce "a truly global participatory assessment process" to monitor the state of the world's environment, and to "guide international policy setting". Below are some extracts from this lengthy document. Points which deal specifically with forests or biodiversity have been written in bold text. Link here for full report

RIC comments: The Global Environment Outlook 2000 contains valuable information and provides a much-needed overview of the Earth's environmental predicament. It is important to remember, however, that GEO 2000 inevitably reflects the values of those who produced it. For another perspective it is useful to look at the Worldwatch Institute's annual State of the World reports. One of the most startling findings of GEO 2000 is that "A tenfold reduction in resource consumption in the industrialized countries is a necessary long-term target if adequate resources are to be released for the needs of developing countries".

Global Perspectives

  • Average global per capita income has now passed US$5 000 a year but more than 1300 million people still live on less than US$1 per day. 

  • Although world military expenditure fell by an average of 4.5 per cent a year during the decade 1988-97, serious armed conflicts have been accompanied by increased pressure on ecosystems.

  • The private sector has enormous capacity to influence the outcome of environmental issues. In 1996, private investment was about US$250 000 million compared to overseas development assistance of less than US$50 000 million.

  • The efforts required to meet the natural resources needs of an additional 3 000 million people in the next 50 years will be immense.

  • A tenfold reduction in resource consumption in the industrialized countries is a necessary long-term target if adequate resources are to be released for the needs of developing countries.

Major global trends

  • Global emissions of CO2 reached a new high of nearly 23 900 million tonnes in 1996 – nearly four times the 1950 total.

  • Without the Montreal Protocol, levels of ozone-depleting substances would have been five times higher by 2050 than they are today.

  • In 1996, 25 per cent of the world's approximately 4,630 mammal species and 11 per cent of the 9,675 bird species were at significant risk of total extinction.

  • If present consumption patterns continue, two out of every three persons on Earth will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025.

  • More than half the world's coral reefs are potentially threatened by human activities, with up to 80 per cent at risk in the most populated areas.

  • Exposure to hazardous chemicals has been implicated in numerous adverse effects on humans from birth defects to cancer. Global pesticide use results in 3.5–5 million acute poisonings a year.

  • Some 20 per cent of the world's susceptible drylands are affected by human-induced soil degradation, putting the livelihoods of more than 1 000 million people at risk.


  • Africa is the only continent on which poverty is expected to rise during the next century.

  • An estimated 500 million hectares of land have been affected by soil degradation since about 1950, including as much as 65 per cent of agricultural land.

  • As a result of declining food security, the number of undernourished people in Africa nearly doubled from 100 million in the late 1960s to nearly 200 million in 1995.

  • Africa lost 39 million hectares of tropical forest during the 1980s, and another 10 million hectares by 1995.

  • Fourteen African countries are subject to water stress or water scarcity, and a further 11 will join them by 2025.

  • Africa emits only 3.5 per cent of the world's total carbon dioxide now and this is expected to increase to only 3.8 per cent by the year 2010.

Asia and the Pacific

  •  There is great pressure on land resources in the region in which some 60 per cent of the world population depends on 30 per cent of its land area.

  • About one million hectares of Indonesia's national forests have been destroyed by fires that burned for several months from September 1997. More than 3 million hectares of Mongolian forests were burnt in 1996.

  • Increasing habitat fragmentation in Southeast Asia has depleted the wide variety of forest products that used to be the main source of food, medicine and income for indigenous people.

  • Expansion of coastal settlements, industrial growth and increased fishing activities have placed enormous and uncontrolled pressures on coastal ecosystems and have degraded marine and coastal resources.

  • Demand for primary energy in Asia is expected to double every 12 years while the world average is every 28 years.

Europe and Central Asia

  • In Western, Central and Eastern Europe, sulphur dioxide emissions were halved between 1985 and 1994 but Europe still produces approximately one-third of global greenhouse gases.

  • Soil acidification, erosion, salinization and waterlogging remain serious problems in many parts of the region.

  • Pollution of land by excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides and by contaminants such as heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants and radionuclides is widespread.

  • Forest area in Western and Central Europe has grown by more than 10 per cent since the 1960s – but nearly 60 per cent of forests are seriously or moderately damaged by acidification, pollution, drought or forest fires.

  • Most stocks of commercially exploited fish in the North Sea are in a serious condition – the North Sea fishing fleet needs to be reduced by 40 per cent to match fish resources.

  • Per capita waste production in Western Europe has risen 35 per cent since 1980; whilst recycling is increasing, 66 per cent of waste still ends up in landfills.

Latin America and the Caribbean

  • During the 1980s Central America increased agricultural production by 32 per cent but doubled its consumption of pesticides.

  • The natural forest cover continues to decrease in all countries. A total of 5.8 million hectares a year was lost during 1990–95, resulting in a 3 per cent total loss for the period.

  • Habitat loss is a major threat to biodiversity in this region, which contains 40 per cent of the Earth's plant and animal species; it is estimated that 1 244 vertebrate species are now threatened with extinction.

  • A large decrease in the marine fisheries catch is expected as a result of the 1997–98 El Nio.

  • Many cities have severe air pollution. In So Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, air pollution is estimated to cause 4 000 premature deaths a year. Waste disposal is also a major urban problem.

North America

  • Emissions of CO, VOCs, particulates, SO2 and lead have been markedly reduced over the past 20 years.

  • Fuel use is high – in 1995 the average North American used more than 1 600 litres of fuel (compared to about 330 litres in Europe).

  • The oxygen-depleted 'dead zone' that now appears off the US Gulf Coast each summer – at the peak of fertilizer run-off from the Corn Belt – is the size of New Jersey.

  • Fish stocks off the east coast have nearly collapsed. The Atlantic finfish catch declined from 2.5 million tonnes in 1971 to less than 500 000 tonnes in 1994.

  • Global warming could move the ideal range for many North American forest species some 300 km to the north, undermining the utility of forest reserves.

West Asia

  • Most land is either desertified or vulnerable to desertification. Large areas have been affected by salinization, alkalinization and nutrient deposition.

  • Groundwater resources are in a critical condition because the volumes withdrawn far exceed natural recharge rates.

  • Some 1.2 million barrels of oil are spilled into the Persian Gulf annually. The level of petroleum hydrocarbons in the area exceeds that in the North Sea by almost three times and is twice that of the Caribbean Sea.

  • Air pollution has risen to alarming levels, especially in cities of more than one million inhabitants.

  • The oil-producing countries generate from 2–8 times more hazardous waste per capita than does the United States.

The Polar Regions

  • Commercial forestry has depleted and fragmented boreal forests, especially in the European Arctic. Regeneration is very slow because of the harsh climate.

  • Some of the highest values of cadmium ever recorded in birds have been found in ptarmigan from northern Norway and the Yukon Territory in Canada.

  • Radioactive isotopes occur widely in Arctic marine sediments as a result of fallout from atmospheric weapons testing, military accidents and discharges from European reprocessing plants.

  • Conservative estimates put the annual albatross mortality from fishing in the Southern Ocean at 44 000; similar problems exist in the Arctic.

  • The reported legal catch of Patagonian toothfish in the Antarctic was 10 245 tonnes whereas the illegal catch was estimated at more than 100 000 tonnes in the Indian Ocean sector of the Southern Ocean alone.

  • Exploitation of large gas and oil reserves in the Arctic has been responsible for environmental damage from blowouts, tanker spills and leakages

Future Perspectives

Environmental issues that may become priorities in the 21st century can be clustered in three groups – unforeseen events and scientific discoveries; sudden, unexpected transformations of old issues; and already well-known issues to which the present response is inadequate.

The Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment of the International Council for Science conducted a special survey for GEO-2000 on environmental issues that may require attention in the 21st century. The survey was conducted among 200 scientists in 50 countries. Most of the responding scientists expect that the major environmental problems of the next century will stem from the continuation and aggravation of existing problems that currently do not receive enough policy attention. 

The issues cited most frequently are climate change, and the quantity and quality of water resources. These are followed by deforestation and desertification, and problems arising from poor governance at national and international levels. Two social issues, population growth and changing social values, also received considerable attention. Many scientists emphasized that the interlinkages between climate change and other environmental problems could be important. This includes the emerging scientific understanding of complex interactions in the atmosphere - biosphere - cryosphere - ocean system – which could lead to irreversible changes such as shifts in ocean currents and changes in biodiversity. 

The emphasis on interlinkages is not surprising. It has been repeatedly shown that sectoral policies taken in isolation do not always yield the desired results. One reason is that sectoral policies can solve one problem while aggravating others, particularly over a long time frame. Although the existence of interlinkages between environmental problems is now better known, we still lack understanding of exactly how the issues are linked, to what degree they interact and what the most effective measures are likely to be. One such issue that is identified throughout GEO-2000 is the need to integrate land- and water-use planning to provide food and water security. 

Alternative policies  

Since current policies will not lead to a sustainable future, at either the regional or the global level, region-specific studies were undertaken for GEO-2000 to investigate possible alternative policies. Each regional study focused on one or two specific issues selected on the basis of regional challenges identified in GEO-1.

In each study, several alternative policy responses were identified to address the issues at hand. Each of the selected responses has been implemented elsewhere with success. The results confirm that, in principle, the knowledge and technological base to solve environmental issues are available, and that if these alternative policies were implemented immediately and pursued with vigour they could indeed set the world on a more sustainable course.   A number of key conclusions emerge from the alternative policy studies. 

There is a clear need for integrated policies. For example, in Latin America a broad intersectoral approach is advocated to achieve sustainable forest development. In Europe and Central Asia, combined strategies to deal with acidification, urban air pollution and climate change could lead to an optimal use of opportunities for energy efficiency and fuel switching.  Market-based incentives, particularly subsidy reforms, have a role to play in all regions. Reform of unnecessary subsidies can encourage the more efficient use of resources such as energy, and thus help reduce pollution and degradation. 

Effective institutional mechanisms are essential. Too many institutions are weak and plagued with limited mandates and power, small financial resources and few human resources.  A main obstacle to successful policy implementation is lack of money. Attention is drawn to the crucial point that environmental management usually needs financing.  

The regional studies highlight major gaps in our knowledge and experience when it comes to analysing and directing macro-economical processes relating to the environment. A number of issues, including trade and financial flows, were not addressed because of a lack of relevant information and knowledge. There is an urgent need to improve understanding of the effects of economic and social developments on the environment, and vice versa.