The United Nations released yet another damning report on Wednesday on the status of terrestrial life; it warns that absence of urgent action to curb climate change will increasingly threaten people’s health.
The “ecological foundations of society” are in peril, the landmark report concludes, attributing it to “unsustainable human activities globally”, which have degraded Earth’s ecosystems.
In identifying two key environmental concerns, climate change and biodiversity, the 700 plus-page report urges immediate action, as global temperatures continue to rise, before it is too late.
The report also sounds a major warning for existing ecosystems and their resource pool; it says, “A major species extinction event, compromising planetary integrity and Earth’s capacity to meet human needs, is unfolding.”
Nearly 250 scientists and experts from over 70 countries have put together the sixth Global Environment Outlook from the UN Environment Programme; they released it at a conference in Nairobi, Kenya. According to CNN, it is the UN’s most comprehensive report on the state of the global environment since the fifth edition in 2012.
Human life in danger
According to the authors of the study, unprecedented action on a global scale, including drastically cutting carbon emissions and improving water management and reducing pollution, can help to secure a future with less poverty and hunger while preserving the environment.
A dangerous concoction of human-made pollution, mass extinctions, and population explosion is the reason for about 25% of all premature deaths and diseases around the world (about 9 million in 2015), the report said. Each year, air pollution kills 7 million people worldwide and costs society about $5 trillion, while water pollution kills 1.4 million.
These figures will reach millions, accounting for lives prematurely lost across large swaths of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa by the middle of this century.
In addition to pollution, other concerns are antimicrobial resistant bacteria in water supplies, which may spawn life-threatening infections and become a major cause of death by 2050.
Unchecked land degradation will further threaten farming and agriculture, it says. Thirty-three percent of edible food is wasted worldwide, with more than half thrown out in industrialised nations, the report adds.
‘Our window of action is closing fast’
Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of UN Environment, said, “The science is clear. The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment.”
“This report is an outlook for humanity,” Msuya said. “We are at a crossroads. Do we continue on our current path, which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway? That is the choice our political leaders must make, now.”
The report is “a dramatic warning and a high-level road map” on what to do “to prevent widespread disruption and even irreversible destruction of planetary life-support systems”, observed Jonathan Overpeck, environment dean at University of Michigan.
Despite the dire prognosis, all hope is not lost.
The authors stress that we have the science, technology, and money to protect the environment to sustain the 10 billion people expected to inhabit Earth by 2050.
“There is every reason to be hopeful,” report co-editors Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins said. “There is still time, but the window is closing fast.”
Need of the hour: Global measures to global systems
The report offers hope by outlining treatment plans for the planet that will preserve environmental and human health, but plans of action must address global systems and be implemented on a global scale, not just individually.
What we need is the political and economic will so that the governments we elect take cognisance of the task at hand, instead of standing in the way of implementing urgent changes. The US, for instance, refuses to implement carbon taxes on industries.
Echoing the chief sentiment among environmentalists, especially last fall’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the latest report also argues that it bodes well for the global economy in the long run to make sustainable changes to the existing model.
The need of the hour is to develop climate policies that capitalise on benefits and reduce harms, as opposed to the current efforts, which are far too inadequate for keeping carbon emissions down, under the Paris Agreement (and those outlined by the UN panel to limit global warming), to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
What can India do?
For India, with its long coastline, the consequences are dire on several levels. Not only will whole towns submerge if sea levels rise, but it will also affect several industries, result in devastating loss of lives and property, and bring new incurable diseases in its train. Embracing indigenous modes of energy, cultivating a sustainable lifestyle, and cutting down on food and water waste are some individual means of climate conservation.
On a policy level, the government needs to protect forests and wetlands from coming under corporate cover; it should focus on actionable measures to reduce air pollution in the six Indian cities that are among the world’s 10 most polluted ones.
Authorities also need to pay close attention to the country’s population as resources to sustain life grow scarce. In terms of biodiversity, there need to be stronger laws against poaching, hunting, and illegal trading of animal parts.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.