A complete overhaul of the way the planet is managed is urgently needed if the challenges of global sustainability are to be met for seven billion people.
This is the conclusion of a wide-ranging Foresight Process conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), involving a Foresight Panel and 400 leading scientists and experts from around the world.
UNEP's Foresight Process was an eight-month process to identify and rank the most pressing emerging issues in the sphere of the environment-- issues which perhaps do not currently receive the attention they deserve - but which have a huge impact on the planet and on human well-being.
While the scientific community is on the frontline of assessing emerging threats and finding innovative solutions to environmental challenges, the report reveals that they need more support from international political and delivery structures if real progress is to be made and a sustainable century realized.
Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The Foresight Process has brought a unique and sharp focus to the emerging issues the world is facing. It is a snapshot of expert scientific opinion, underlining how even long standing issues such as governance, food security and water scarcity are evolving and metamorphosing as accelerating environmental change presents fresh and fundamentally new challenges".
"The findings dovetail with the summary for policy makers of GEO-5, which comes in advance of the full report - to be launched in early June-- just weeks before Rio+20. The final report will offer the analysis and the scientific foresight that can not only inform governments, the public and civil society on just how far the current development path is stretching the planet and fast forwarding 'tipping points'. It hopefully will be also read, understood and digested by everyone interested in transforming sustainable development from theory and patchy success into implemented day to day practice," he said.
UNEP's Foresight Panel consists of 22 distinguished members of the scientific community from 16 developing and industrialized countries, covering all world regions and who are internationally recognized because of their expertise in one or more environmental or related issues.
The Panel, whose findings were released today at the opening of the 12th Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum, selected a preliminary list of 21 emerging issues after a first round of debate on more than 90 issues.
These were put out for consultation and feedback from more than 400 leading scientists and researchers worldwide.
Based on their responses, the panel produced a ranked list of "21 Issues for the 21st Century", concluding that the number one issue facing the planet is Aligning Governance to the Challenges of Global Sustainability.
The current system of international environmental governance, with its maze of interlocking multilateral agreements evolved during the 20th century, is believed by the vast majority to be unsuitable and ill-equipped to meet the risks and deliver the opportunities for the 21st century.
Some commentators believe that this system lacks the necessary representation, accountability and effectiveness for the transition to sustainability, and that a much higher level of participation and transparency is needed.
New models of governance are being tested, ranging from public-private community partnerships to alliances between environmentalist and other civil society groups. However, the effectiveness of novel governance arrangements is unclear and requires further scrutiny.
The second most pressing emerging issue is Transforming Human Capabilities for the 21st Century: Meeting Global Environmental Challenges and Moving towards a Green Economy.
A wide-ranging upgrade is needed in the skills and education of the global workforce if the opportunities of the Green Economy are to be seized.
Action is needed to close the skills gaps in the green sector; update educational institutions to better meet educational needs for sustainability work; train managers to better identify and respond to global environmental change; and encourage research to address the sustainability challenge.
Ranked number 3 of the 21 emerging issues is Ensuring Food Safety and Food Security for 9 Billion People.
Although food security is a long standing issue, the world needs to confront a new set of challenges such as climate change, competition for land from bioenergy production, heightened water scarcity, and possible shortfalls of phosphorus for fertilizer.
- Food safety also faces new challenges from increasing disease transmission from animals to people and food contamination
- There is an urgent need to increase the security and safety of the world's food supply by setting up more comprehensive early warning systems, supporting smallholder farmers, reducing food waste, and increasing agricultural efficiency.
The Other Top Ten of Emerging Issues Ranked are:
- 4 - Broken Bridges: Reconnecting Science and Policy
- 5 - Social Tipping Points? Catalyzing Rapid and Transformative Changes in Human Behaviour Towards the Environment
- 6 - New Insights on Water-Land Interactions: Shift in the Management Paradigm?
- Joint 7th - Accelerating the Implementation of Environmentally-Friendly Renewable Energy / Beyond Conservation: Integrating Biodiversity Across the Environmental and Economic Agendas / New Challenges for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: Managing the Unintended Consequences
- 10 - Greater Risk than Necessary? The Need for a New Approach for Minimizing Risks of Novel Technologies and Chemicals.
The launch of the Foresight Report comes in advance of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 20-22, 2012 under the theme of a Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.
The second overarching theme is the institutional framework for sustainable development.
The report is aimed at providing governments, civil society and business with fundamental scientific assessments in order to forge a forward-looking outcome by the end.
Global Survey Illuminates Regional Concerns with Boosting Renewable Energy to Water Scarcity Topping the List
A regional breakdown of the global survey of 400 leading environmental scientists shows a remarkable consensus on the need to prioritise Renewable Energy.
Respondents from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe all placed Accelerating the Implementation of Environmentally-Friendly Renewable Energy Sources number one on their list of priorities for the 21st Century.
Respondents from North America and West Asia placed it at number two, behind Getting a Grasp on Conflicting Water Uses and New Challenges for Improving Food Safety and Security, respectively.
Global Environment Outlook-5
The findings from the Foresight Process and Panel also come in advance of UNEP's authoritative state of the environment report - Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) to be launched on and around World Environment Day in Brazil in early June -weeks before the Rio+20 summit.
Today, UNEP released the GEO-5 Summary for Policy Makers as a prelude to the full report.
The Summary, which was negotiated and endorsed by governments on 31 January 2012, warns of the continued deterioration in the state of the global environment, pointing out that internationally agreed goals have only been partially met:
- The internationally agreed goal of avoiding the adverse effects of climate change is presenting the global community with one of its most serious challenges that is threatening overall development goals.
- The rate of forest loss, particularly in the tropics, remains alarmingly high.
- Today, 80 per cent of the world's population lives in areas with high levels of threat to water security, affecting 3.4 billion people, mostly in developing countries.
- At least 415 coastal areas have exhibited serious eutrophication and only 13 of these are recovering.
- Up to two thirds of species are threatened with extinction. Since 1970, vertebrate populations have fallen by 30 per cent and degradation has resulted in declines of 20 per cent of some natural habitats.
The Summary for Policy Makers calls for policies that focus on the underlying drivers of environmental change (such as the negative aspects of population growth, consumption and production, urbanization) rather than just concentrating on reducing environmental pressures or symptoms.
- The use of timely and accurate data to inform decision-making;
- Reversal of policies that generate unsustainable outcomes;
- The creation of incentives to advance sustainable practices;
- Urgent, ambitious and cooperative action by governments to meet internationally agreed goals;
- Strengthening access to information;
- The engagement of civil society, the private sector and other relevant actors in policy-making processes.
The summary contains a number of priority areas for action and includes examples of promising policies and practices that can be scaled-up in all regions to help countries meet internationally agreed goals. It reinforces the Foresight Report's call for improved international environmental governance.
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