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UN issues warning on sustainability

Updated: 2012-06-07 07:00
( Xinhua)

UNITED NATIONS, - The UN Environment Program (UNEP) warned on Wednesday that a renewed commitment from global leaders is the only way to put the world back on track to sustainable development.

The warning came in the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), as it was launched just two weeks before the opening of Rio+20, the sustainable development conference marking two decades since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.

While the report was officially launched by UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in Rio, it was quickly followed by regional news conferences around the world, including at UN headquarters which, in turn, was trailed only minutes later by UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon's session on sustainability with the media.

He had a more positive outlook on negotiations leading up to Rio+20, what has been described by some as "the largest event in the history of the United Nations," but, he also called for a new "model" to be employed in the search for prosperity.

World leaders, representatives of the private sector, non- governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups were expected in Rio June 20 to shape how poverty can be reduced, social equity advanced and environmental protection ensured.

Discussions were to focus on building a green economy, achieving sustainable development and lifting people out of poverty, all the while improving international coordination for sustainable development.

The GEO-5 launch said the world was speeding down "an unsustainable path despite over 500 internationally agreed goals and objectives to support the sustainable management of the environment and improve human well-being."

It assessed 90 of the most-important environmental goals and objectives and found that significant progress had only been made in four: eliminating the production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer, removal of lead from fuel, increasing access to improved water supplies and boosting research to reduce pollution of the marine environment.

However, it also admitted some progress was shown in 40 other goals, including the expansion of protected areas such as national parks and efforts to reduce deforestation.

"Little or no progress was detected for 24 -- including climate change, fish stocks, and desertification and drought," it said. Further deterioration was posted for eight goals including the state of the world's coral reefs while no assessment was made of 14 other goals due to a lack of data.

The report said that if humanity does not urgently change its ways, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which abrupt and generally irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur.

"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," said UNEP's Steiner, also a UN under-secretary general.

Meeting an ambitious set of sustainability targets by the middle of the century is possible if current policies and strategies are changed and strengthened, and given many examples of successful policy initiatives, including public investment, green accounting, sustainable trade, the establishment of new markets, technological innovation and capacity building, the report said.

"GEO-5 reminds world leaders and nations meeting at Rio+20 why a decisive and defining position towards a low-carbon, resource- efficient, job-generating Green Economy is urgently needed," said Steiner. "The scientific evidence,built over decades, is overwhelming and leaves little room for doubt."

"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," he said. "Rio+20 is a moment to turn sustainable development from aspiration and patchy implementation into a genuine path to progress and prosperity for this and the next generations to come."

The report also called for a greater focus on policies that target the drivers of environmental change -- such as population growth and urbanization, unsustainable consumption patterns, fossil fuel-based energy consumption and transport, and globalization.

Also on Wednesday, Ban, the UN secretary-general, followed up a rather clinical presentation of GEO-5 in the Dag Hammarskjold Library Auditorium at headquarters with his outlook.

"Rio+20 is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real progress towards the sustainable economy of the future," Ban told reporters. "It can help us to build a more equitable world -- a world of greater prosperity and inclusive, dynamic green growth for a healthy planet.

Taking a more positive approach, the secretary-general said he saw progress in the latest round of negotiations over a final outcome document for Rio+20. However,with less than two weeks to go, he admitted, "There is still much work ahead."

Ban said he aspires to nothing less than "generational change."

"Ultimately, Rio+20 will be measured in the transformation it sets in motion -- the lives it changes for the better," he said. " For too long, we have tried to consume our way to prosperity.  Look at the cost: polluted lands and oceans, climate change, growing scarcities of resources, from food to fresh water, rampant inequality."

"We need to invent a new model -- a model that offers growth and social inclusion -- a model that is more respectful of the planet's finite resources," Ban said.

"Our hopes for future prosperity, health and stability rest on finding a path that integrates the economic, social and environmental pillars of development, "the secretary-general added. "Agreeing on that roadmap is what Rio+20 is about."