[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE UN Environment’s sixth Global Environment Outlook 2019 (GEO-6) has called on decision-makers to take immediate action to address pressing environmental issues to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as well as other internationally agreed environment goals, such as the Paris Agreement.
The Global Environment Outlook is often referred to as UN Environment’s flagship environmental assessment. The first publication was in 1997 and was originally requested by member-states. It is a flagship report because it fulfils the core functions of the organization, which dates back to the UN General Assembly resolution that established the UN Environment Programme in 1972.
Published in time for the Fourth United Nations Environmental Assembly, a major part of GEO-6 points to premature deaths and to the fact that approximately 25% of the world’s diseases are the direct result of man-made pollution, chemicals polluting drinking water and the accelerating destruction of the ecosystem from2015. It also notes the continuing rise of greenhouse gases amid a preponderance of droughts, floods and superstorms made worse by rising sea levels.
Due to lack of access to clean drinking supplies 1.4 million people die each year from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea and parasites linked to pathogen – riddled water and poor sanitation.
The report calls for a root-and-branch detoxifying of human behaviour while insisting that the situation is not unassailable. Food waste for instance, which accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, could be slashed. The world currently throws away a third of all food produced. In richer nations, 56% goes to waste.
The report makes a strong case for a rapid drawdown in greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide use to improve air and water quality. It also notes the lack of any international agreement for the environment close to covering what the 2015 Paris accord did for the climate.
GEO-6 assets the urgent need to re-evaluate our development models and reconfigure society, building significantly on a precautionary approach. It shows that given the rising demand for resources to meet the consumption needs of a growing world population, the problem will only worsen unless serious action is taken. It argues for not just looking at ways to address impacts but also to look at the underlying consumption and production patterns and the inequality that characterises global development.
Some good news
There is some good news. Production of food may increase; sanitation services may improve; modern energy may be within grasp, and health services could lead to a decline in the deaths of children under the age of five. This may translate into achieving the Sustainable Development Goals on food, energy, sanitation, health, and gender although it is not clear if mere availability will also address the politics of distribution.
Other good news could be that there are sustainable pathways which can enhance human well-being; these include a combination of changed consumer behaviour with better production processes. What we need is a better sustainable development plan to save the environment. Damage to ecosystems runs into trillions of dollars and an additional existential and displacement cost to the poorest which is not always calculated.
The bottom line is that as long as environment policy remains within a relatively powerless environment ministry without the ability to control the other more powerful ministries of the economy – energy, industry, water, health and agriculture its policies will be underfunded and under-supported politically.
GEO-6 makes a convincing case for the environment ministry to join hands with the ministries of health and those that focus on poverty and gender to come together in a show of strength to demand change from the rich and powerful of this generation both within and outside India.
What does all this mean for India? India will become the country with the largest population and its increasing use of resources and emissions of pollutants will require it to also think of its global impact. The Indian government’s ‘think tank’, NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India), can play a relevant role in promoting development while simultaneously achieving social and environmental goals.
Today many cities in India face an environmental emergency. Delhi, the capital city, is one of the most polluted cities in the world. There is a severe water shortage in Chennai Hyderabad and Bangalore. Farmers’ suicide due to drought in several parts of the country, particularly Maharashtra is everyday news now. Floods in states like Orissa and Assam are devastatingly routine.
Global warming, deforestation, pollution, drought, floods, mass extinction of flora and fauna etc are directly or indirectly results of the mess humans have created and it is time for us to start cleaning up this mess now.