UN report: Rising consumption rates and 'extract-make-use-dispose' model unsustainable
- A new UN Environment report calls for "urgent, sustained and inclusive action" directed at combating environmental degradation worldwide — including climate change, pollution, land degradation, biodiversity loss and water scarcity.
- The "grow now, clean up later" approach employed in certain regions, the report observes, has proven inadequate in the face of rapid urbanization, technological innovation, economic development and other human population megatrends. Left unfettered, global consumption and production rates will continue to wreak havoc on natural systems and human health via ocean plastic pollution, mismanaged e-waste, illegal dumping and other harmful practices.
- Decoupling environmental damage from economic growth, according to the authors, requires the scaling-up of existing sustainable practices, ambitious policies around waste management and resource accounting, and "fundamental transitions in the ways we produce, consume and dispose of goods and materials across society" — transitions which are "likely to be more effective if supported by long-term, comprehensive, science-based targets that provide the objective basis for future directions and actions."
Compiled by approximately 250 scientists from 70 countries, the sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) paints a bleak portrait over its 700-plus pages of the escalating repercussions of environmental deterioration. The international community, it warns, is not on track to achieve global environmental targets — and continued failure to meet stated goals will inevitably result in "ongoing and further potentially irreversible adverse impact, including on critical environmental resources and human health."
Achieving transformative change, according to the authors, requires the "mainstreaming" of environmental issues into social and economic considerations, improved governance and policy coordination at all levels, alignment of financing flows with environmental priorities, receptivity of scientific information, and strengthened commitment and cooperation from all stakeholders. The consequences of prolonged inaction, on the other hand, are readily apparent. Air pollution — the world's leading environmental contributor of disease — results in between six to seven million premature deaths per year, while swelling global populations and rapid urbanization continue to strain overexploited natural resources. Climate change and biodiversity loss are at critical junctures, placing agricultural systems and food security in jeopardy.
Accompanying rising consumption rates and linear economic activities ("extract-make-use-dispose") is a steep increase in global waste generation — a trend that bears "harmful consequences at all levels from the local to the global." Two out of five people around the world lack access to controlled waste disposal facilities, while illegal waste practices — including those related to food waste, e-waste, marine litter and waste trafficking — continue to proliferate. And while developed countries have policies in place to promote waste reduction and resource efficiency, developing countries "still face basic management challenges, such as uncontrolled dumping, open burning and inadequate access to services." Circular principles — reducing, reusing, remanufacturing and refurbishing products — are identified as one possible approach toward achieving more sustainable development.
The report also highlights the ecological and health impacts of the 8 million metric tons of plastics entering the ocean each year, identifying improvements in waste management — including recycling and end-of-life management — as "the most urgent short-term solution to reducing input of litter to the ocean." Longer-term solutions include improved governance at all levels, behavioral and systemic changes aimed at reducing plastic production and use, and increased recycling and reuse.
Ultimately, GEO-6 emphasizes, the scientific evidence around environmental degradation's global toll is clear and abundant — the sole remaining question is how governments, industries and other stakeholders will choose to respond in the months and years ahead.
"The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment," said Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of UN Environment, in a statement. "This report is is an outlook for humanity. 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."
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