U.N. sounds environment alarm ahead of Rio summit

Wed Jun 6, 2012 9:30am EDT

* Only four of 90 goals making significant progress

* Climate change, fish stocks showing little or no progress

* Rio+20 conference on sustainability from June 20-22

By Jeff Coelho and David Fogarty

LONDON/SINGAPORE, June 6 (Reuters) - Population growth, urbanisation and consumption are set to inflict irreversible damage on the planet, the United Nations said on Wednesday, and called for urgent agreement on new green targets to save the environment.

The U.N. Environment Programme sounded the alarm in its fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) report, published two weeks before the Rio+20 summit in Brazil, one of the biggest environment meetings in years.

The June 20-22 meeting is expected to attract more than 50,000 participants from governments, companies and environmental and lobby groups and attempt to set new goals across seven core themes including food security, water and energy.

The GEO-5 report, three years in the making and the United Nations' main health-check of the planet, urges governments to create more ambitious targets or toughen existing ones, most of which have failed to deliver.

Time was running very short, U.N. Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, as the planet heads for 9 billion people by 2050 and the global economy consumes ever larger amounts of natural resources.

"If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail and cannot be reversed and 'decoupled', then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation," Steiner said in a statement.

Of the 90 most important environmental goals in existence, only four are making significant progress, the report said.

Some of the successful goals included those to prevent ozone depletion and providing access to clean water supplies. But it detected little or no progress in 24 goals, such as those aiming to address climate change, depleting fish stocks and expanding desertification.

UNEP called on governments to focus their policies on the key drivers behind climate change, notably population growth and urbanisation, fossil fuel-based energy consumption and globalisation.

Scientists have linked the burning of fossil fuels - oil, coal and natural gas - to an acceleration of climatic changes such as severe drought and flooding. There are also economic costs.

The annual economic damage from climate change is estimated at 1-2 percent of world GDP by 2100, if temperatures increase by 2.5 degrees Celsius, UNEP says.

Current models suggest greenhouse gas emissions could double over the next 50 years, leading to rise in global temperature of 3 degrees Celsius or more by the end of the century.

Most of the impacts from climate change will be felt in many developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, where population growth and rising consumption are putting more stress on dwindling natural resources, the GEO-5 report said.

BACK TO RIO

The Rio+20 summit will not seek to repeat the same outcome of the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, which led to the Kyoto Protocol on capping greenhouse gas emissions and a treaty on biodiversity.

This month's summit is set against a backdrop of a faltering global economy and deep concerns over Europe's financial future. The goals this time in Rio are aspirational, not mandatory, yet negotiations on a draft text have been fraught. About a fifth of the text has now been agreed ahead of the meeting, the United Nations said on Monday.

Even mandatory targets have made little or no progress since 1992.

Global carbon dioxide emissions have increased nearly 40 percent between 1992 and 2010, led mainly by rapid growth in large developing nations such as Brazil, China and India, UNEP data shows.

Biodiversity is also on the wane, most notably in the tropics with a 30 percent decline since 1992.

Last month, environmental group WWF said the world would have to be 50 percent bigger to have enough land and forests to provide for the current levels of consumption and carbon emissions.

The Asia-Pacific region, home to more than half of humanity, is key to creating a greener future, says the GEO-5 report. The region is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions globally and is also rapidly urbanising.

Transport-related emissions are expected to increase by 57 per cent worldwide between 2005 and 2030, with China and India accounting for more than half, the report says.

The region is also facing increased demands for water for agriculture and industry yet aquifer levels are falling, rivers are increasingly polluted and being dammed for irrigation and power generation.

The GEO-5 report said goals with specific, measurable targets demonstrated the most success, such as the bans on ozone depleting substances and lead in petrol.

It also says it is crucial for governments to put a price on natural resources such as mangroves, rivers and forests and include this in national accounts.

Steiner called on nations to act.

"The moment has come to put away the paralysis of indecision, acknowledge the facts and face up to the common humanity that unites all peoples." (Reporting by Jeff Coelho and David Fogarty; Editing by Rosalind Russell)