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UN paints grim global picture

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Source: Boston Globe

Order UNEP Global Environment Outlook 2000

UN paints grim global picture

Time running out for ecology, report warns; new threat is found

By Rosalind Russell, Reuters, 09/22/99

NAIROBI - It is too late to halt global warming and time is quickly running out to prevent other potential environmental catastrophes, the UN's environment agency said in a major report yesterday.

''Global Environment Outlook 2000'' offers a gloomy view of the planet's condition on the eve of the next millennium. It points to new threats - such as increased levels of nitrogen in the water supply - that the world has not yet tackled.

''The gains made by better management and technology are still being outpaced by the environmental impacts of population and economic growth. We are on an unsustainable course,'' Klaus Toepfer, head of the United Nations Environment Program, said at the launch of the report in Nairobi.

The report says emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming have quadrupled since the 1950s, and that ''binding'' targets to reduce emissions, agreed by governments at the summit last year in Kyoto, Japan, may not be met.

The rate at which humans are destroying the environment is accelerating, often because of excessive consumption by the rich, and to the detriment of the poor.

About 20 percent of the world's population lack access to safe drinking water, and 50 percent have no access to a sanitation system. This state of affairs will deteriorate as the world's population, set to reach 6 billion next month, will increase by 50 percent in the next 50 years.

Eighty percent of the world's original forest cover has been cleared or degraded, and logging and mining projects threaten 39 percent of what forest remains.

A quarter of mammal species are at risk of extinction, while more than half the world's coral reefs are threatened by human activity.

There were 850 contributors to the report, which took two and a half years to compile, and which highlights some lesser-known environmental problems.

Disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires are increasing in frequency and severity, and have killed 3 million people in the past three decades. Armed conflicts and refugee flows are causing greater damage to the environment than ever before.

There is also mounting evidence that humans are seriously destabilizing the global nitrogen balance. Huge amounts of nitrogen are being deposited on land and in water through intensive agriculture and the burning of fossil fuels.

Eventually, this problem could make fresh-water supplies unfit for human consumption, the report says.

''The full extent of the damage is only now becoming apparent as we begin to piece together a comprehensive overview of the extremely complex, interconnected web that is our life support system,'' said Toepfer, a former German environment minister.

Much of the damage is irreparable, but through a huge mobilization of resources and political will, much can be done to prevent further destruction, the report says.

A long-term target of a 90 percent reduction in the consumption of raw materials in industrialized countries may seem far-fetched, but without it hundreds of millions of people will be condemned to a life of suffering, the report concludes.

This story ran on page A05 of the Boston Globe on 09/22/99. Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

Order UNEP Global Environment Outlook 2000

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