Worldwatch: Political Will to Save Global Environment Falters

WASHINGTON, DC, January 15, 2001 (ENS) - Signs of "accelerated ecological decline" and a loss of political momentum on environmental issues are emerging simultaneously, according to State of the World 2001, issued by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington based research organization.

"Governments squandered a historic opportunity to reverse environmental decline during the prosperity of the 1990s," said Christopher Flavin, president of the Institute and coauthor of the report.

"If in the current climate of political and economic uncertainty, political leaders were to roll back environmental laws or fail to complete key international agreements, decades of progress could unravel," Flavin warns.

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Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute (Photo courtesy Worldwatch)
New scientific evidence indicates that many global ecosystems are reaching dangerous thresholds that raise the stakes for policymakers, reports Worldwatch.

The Arctic ice cap has already thinned by 42 percent, and 27 percent of the world's coral reefs have been lost, suggesting that some of the planet's key ecological systems are in decline, say the Institute's researchers.

Environmental degradation is leading to more severe natural disasters, which have cost the world $608 billion over the last decade - as much as in the previous four decades combined.

With many life support systems at risk of long term damage, the choice before today's political leaders is historic, even evolutionary, in nature, says Flavin.

The choice is whether to move forward rapidly to build a sustainable economy or to risk allowing the expansion in human numbers, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the loss of natural systems to undermine the economy.

There are some encouraging signs, Worldwatch notes. In December, negotiators from 122 countries agreed to a historic legally binding treaty that will severely restrict 12 persistent organic pollutants.

Iceland launched a pioneering effort to harness its geothermal and hydropower to produce hydrogen, which will be used to fuel its automobiles and fishing boats - an effort that is attracting investments from major oil and car companies.

Organic farming, which avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, has surged to a worldwide annual market of $22 billion and may get a further boost from strict organic farming standards issued by the U.S. government in December.

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Miners in the Amazon bathe in polluted waters. (Photo courtesy Rain-Tree Pharmaceuticals)
But, Worldwatch warns, unless fossil fuel use slows dramatically, the Earth's temperature could rise to as high as six degrees above the 1990 level by 2100, according to the latest climate models. Such an increase could lead to acute water shortages, declining food production, and the proliferation of deadly diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

One sign of ecological decline described in this year's State of the World is the risk of extinction that hangs over dozens of species of frogs and other amphibians around the globe, due to pressures that range from deforestation to ozone depletion. Co-author Ashley Mattoon describes amphibians as "an important bioindicator - a sort of barometer of Earth's health - more sensitive to environmental stress than other organisms."

People, too, are suffering from ecological stress. Even after a decade of declining poverty in many nations, 1.2 billion people lack access to clean water and hundreds of millions breathe unhealthy air.

Poor people in countries such as the Philippines and Mexico are pushed to destroy forests and coral reefs in a desperate effort to raise living standards.

"Environmental degradation is worsening many natural disasters," said coauthor Janet Abramovitz. "In 1998-1999 alone, over 120,000 people were killed and millions were displaced, mainly poor people in regions such as India and Latin America," she says.

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Aerial view of the eye of Hurricane Mitch. (Photo courtesy PAHO)
Population growth has led people to settle in flood prone valleys and unstable hillsides, where deforestation and climate change have increased their vulnerability to disasters such as Hurricane Mitch, which produced economic losses of $8.5 billion in Central America in 1998 - equal to the combined Gross National Productss of Honduras and Nicaragua, both hit by the hurricane.

"Mobilizing the worldwide response needed to bring destructive environmental trends under control is a daunting task," said coauthor Gary Gardner. "But people have surmounted great challenges before, from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, to the enfranchisement of women in the early twentieth. Change can move quickly from impossible to inevitable."

Industry is one key to environmental progress. Last year, Ford Motor Company chairman, William Ford, questioned the long term future of both the internal combustion engine and the personal automobile, as his company stepped up its efforts to develop new transportation technologies. At the same time, three oil companies announced that they are moving "beyond petroleum" to a broader portfolio of energy investments.

With oil, natural gas, and electricity prices all rising during the past year, Worldwatch says, the world has had a timely reminder that overdependence on geographically concentrated fossil fuels is a recipe for economic instability. In many regions, renewable energy is now the most economical and inflation proof energy source available, and can be installed much faster than the three year minimum for a natural gas fired power plant.

Worldwatch coauthors Hilary French and Lisa Mastny note that failure to enforce many existing international environmental agreements is hampering progress on many fronts.

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Combustion of fossil fuels is linked to rising global temperatures. (Photo courtesy Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)
State of the World 2001 calls for stronger enforcement of treaties, and for increased North-South cooperation, particularly among the environmentally and economically influential E9 countries: China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Japan, South Africa, and the European Union. "Globalization must go beyond commercial relationships to embrace strengthened political and civil-society ties between diverse nations if we are to avoid a shared catastrophe," according to the report.

One example of the potential influence of the E9 countries is the effort to slow climate change. These nine nations account for nearly three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions. A collective commitment by the E9 to new energy systems could have a dramatic impact on energy markets and reduce the rate of global warming.

"The prospect of a new U.S. President entering office has raised questions about whether the United States will choose to be a leader or an impediment to global environmental progress in the decade ahead," said Flavin. "The U.S. has the world's largest economy and its environmental impact is second to none, so the signal it sends is crucial."

Amid the December 1999 breakdown in global trade talks and the collapse of climate negotiations a year later, it is clear that the world is still searching for consensus on how to forge an environmentally sustainable economy. If the U.S. retreats to a more defensive view of global environmental threats, it would create a leadership vacuum. International negotiators are worried by the anti-environmental rhetoric of the Bush campaign, but hopeful that once in office, the new administration will follow through on the climate treaty and other policies that were launched by the earlier Bush administration a decade ago.

"The world is waiting for the United States to come forward in support of the greenhouse gas limitations in the Kyoto Protocol," head of the World Meteorological Organization, Professor G.O.P. Obasi, told ENS at a renewable energy conference in Las Vegas, Nevada last July. There will be little support for ratification of the international treaty to ease climate change among other nations if the United States Senate refuses to ratify it, Obasi said.

"The question now is one of leadership," Flavin said. "Will the United States help lead the world to a sustainable economy in the twenty-first century-as it led the way through global crises in the last century? Or will it be left to other countries to show the way to a sustainable economy in the new millennium?"

The full State of the World 2001 report is available online at: http://www.worldwatch.org