14.03.2019 |

Environmental threats put human health in peril, UN warns

We need to protect our planet (Photo: CC0)

Unsustainable human activities have degraded the Earth’s ecosystems, endangering the ecological foundations of society. Environmental damage to our planet is so dire that human health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken. This is the grim warning of the Global Environment Outlook 6, a landmark UN report released on March 13 as environmental ministers from around the world are gathering in Nairobi. The report, which was compiled by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries in a five-year process, says that an unhealthy planet leads to unhealthy people. And the planet is suffering. The climate is warming, species are going extinct, natural resources are being wasted, and many ecosystems are under enormous stress. “Providing a decent life and well-being for nearly 10 billion people by 2050, without further compromising the ecological limits of our planet and its benefits, is one of the most serious challenges and responsibilities humanity has ever faced,” the authors stress. The good news is that we can get there, but only if we prioritize the health of our planet. The scientists recommend we should focus on fundamentally changing three essential systems: food, energy and waste.

The 745-page report gives a detailed overview of current environmental threats and the impact for human health. Air pollution is a major contributor to the global burden of disease, leading to between 6 million and 7 million premature deaths annually. The report also warns that genetic diversity is declining, threatening food security and the resilience of ecosystems, including agricultural systems and food security. “The critical pressures on biodiversity are habitat change, loss and degradation; unsustainable agricultural practices; the spread of invasive species; pollution and overexploitation, including illegal logging and trade in wildlife,” the authors write. Our oceans and coast are also in a bad state: marine ecosystem degradation and loss, including death of coral reefs, and marine litter, including plastics and microplastics, are just some of the issues. Moreover, land degradation and desertification have increased and unsustainable farming systems have caused environmental and soil degradation. Pressure on water resources is also growing. Pollutants in our freshwater systems will see anti-microbial resistance become a major cause of death by 2050 and endocrine disruptors impact male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment, the report warns.

At present, the world is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and internationally agreed environmental goals. Urgent action is now needed to reverse those trends. The food system is one of the three essential systems that require a transformation. The report says a huge amount of progress can be made by focusing on just three measures. First, we need to give farmers strong incentives to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and use their land as efficiently as they can. Second, we need to stop the loss and waste of food across the value chain. At the moment, about one-third of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted. Just over half (56%) of all food waste is generated in high-income countries, while 44% comes from poorer countries, where the causes of food waste vary greatly. Third, we need to encourage and empower people to adopt more sustainable and healthier diets. In many cases, that means eating less meat. Meat production uses 77% of agricultural land worldwide and industrial meat production and livestock operations are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing red meat intake in countries with high consumption, especially of processed meat, would also improve human health. The scientists say that adopting these three measures would reduce the need to increase food production by 50% in order to feed 10 billion people in 2050.

The report highlights the fact that the world has the science, technology and finance it needs to move towards a more sustainable development pathway. “What is currently lacking is the political will to implement policies and technologies at a sufficient speed and scale,” said Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins, co-chairs of the process. Policy interventions that address entire systems – such as energy, food, and waste – rather than individual issues, such as water pollution, can be much more effective, according to the authors. “The science is clear. The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “This report 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.” (ab)

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Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
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