Policy First - 2003

As the world looks back after three decades, there are mixed feelings. Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done. Although not all the long-range targets have yet been achieved, the world is on a fair trajectory to meet them. It is clear, though, that there are significant differences in progress on the different goals and in different regions.

There has been broad success in reducing extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, improving gender equity, reducing infant and child mortality and improving reproductive health. International debt relief has contributed to the funding required to meet these targets in many developing countries. Areas of concern remain, including much of Africa, where 10 per cent of the population go hungry in most sub-regions. But even this represents reductions of two-thirds to three-quarters over the 30- year period. Similarly, the more technology-dependent environmental targets — increases in materials use efficiency and reductions in the releases of toxic materials — have proved to be achievable.

A key role has been played by the private sector, which has accepted major responsibility and ploughed more profits back into research and development and into global and regional business coalitions. These new groupings have actively supported technology transfer to developing countries. The effect of private sector initiatives is further reflected in the achievement of such goals as improving urban air quality and providing access to safe water.

For the goals related to water stress, land degradation, deforestation and marine overfishing, significant though costly advances have been made, but considerable risks remain. Growing (although stabilizing) populations and improving lifestyles continue to intensify demands for water, food, forest resources and space. Changes in climate have contributed to these concerns. Whilst the percentage of the population living in areas of high and severe water stress remains stable, the total number of persons potentially affected has risen.

Crises have been prevented through expensive infrastructural developments and pricing policies, which place a greater financial burden on end users. The amount of land at risk from water-induced soil degradation has risen significantly due to agricultural expansion into marginal lands and climate changes. But the rate at which degradation is actually taking place has fallen substantially over the period as farmers have implemented more stringent land conservation measures in response to changing tax and subsidy structures. By 2032 there is almost no net advance of degradation.

There has been success in halting deforestation. Total forest area has even increased in most regions, in part because the area under plantations has expanded. However, the level of exploitation of forests has continued to increase. Similarly, growth in aquaculture and better management of fishery systems (including stricter controls on marine fish catches) have prevented further decline in most fish stocks, but overall exploitation has not fallen significantly.

Finally, the scale and nature of the efforts needed to address climate change and biodiversity decline have proved to be enormous. Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per unit of economic activity have fallen significantly throughout the world and absolute levels have fallen in the wealthier regions. More rapid economic development and continued population growth in other regions have resulted in higher absolute emissions, even though per capita emissions in these regions remain relatively low. The net result is a continuing rise in global emissions.

Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 continue to climb, indicating that much more stringent measures will be required in the future to bring them back down to the target levels. Global temperatures have risen by nearly 0.75°C since the turn of the century and continue to increase, although models indicate that, as reductions already negotiated take effect, this rate of increase has reached a plateau and will begin to decline in a few decades. The regional manifestations of climate change and the infrastructure development that has taken place to meet growing human needs and to achieve the other goals have placed many human and natural systems at increased risk.

In summary, the forces driving the world in unsustainable directions, while not necessarily defeated, appear to be on the way to being tamed. Not all the alarming trends have been reversed, though even in the worst cases ‘things are getting worse at a slower rate’ (Meadows 2000). The actions that have been required to keep the world on track to meet the long-term goals have not always been popular and have often been expensive. Halting deforestation, land degradation and marine overfishing has required drastic measures, at times including total bans on human activity in some areas.

Efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases have required fairly high levels of taxation on most energy sources and certain industrial chemicals, as well as expensive shifts in agricultural practices.

There is a question as to how much more can be accomplished with similar policies, even given fresh technological advances. There is also a question mark over how long businesses and the general public will carry on accepting such policies. Without fundamental changes in human behavior and demands, the achievement of sustainability could well mean an ever more managed, bureaucratic, technocratic and ultimately dehumanized world.

Copyright © 2002, United Nations Environment Programme

Policy First is the liberal U.S. Democratic paradigm - it is the backbone of most labor/liberal political movements worldwide.

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