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Targeting goals

Neeyati Patel

Outreach Support and Publications Scientific Assessment Branch, UNEP/Division of Early Warning and Assessment

Charles Davies
Programme Officer,
Capacity Development Branch, UNEP/Division of Early Warning and Assessment

Measured by the number of treaties and international agreements adopted over the last four decades, the world’s response to the environmental challenges it faces has been impressive. Over 500 international environmental agreements have been concluded since 1972, the year of the Stockholm Conference and the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). These include landmark conventions on climate change, biological diversity and desertification adopted at the Rio Summit in 1992, several treaties governing chemicals and hazardous waste, and a host of important regional agreements.

But despite the impressive number of legal instruments and good intentions, real progress in solving the environmental challenges themselves has been much less comprehensive.

UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook-5 (GEO-5) assessment, published on June 6th, has measured progress towards — and gaps in — achieving internationally agreed environmental goals. The assessment — which provides the international community with up-to-date information on the state and trends of the global environment — selected 90 environmental goals and objectives of particular relevance to policy makers as a starting point. Goals are negotiated and agreed to by the international community in order to achieve an intended purpose — development that meets the needs of the current generation without compromising those of future generations. Some include targets and indicators to help measure progress.

The sector by sector analysis highlighted the following:

Significant progress has been made in eliminating substances that deplete the ozone layer, as well as through the phaseout of lead in gasoline — but there has been little or no progress on serious issues such as indoor air pollution and climate change.

There has been some progress in terms of policy responses, such as by increasing the coverage of protected areas, but little or no progress on many issues such as the risk of extinction of species, and a continuing, serious decline in the condition of wetlands and coral reefs.

Significant progress has been made in increasing the number of people with access to clean drinking water, accompanied by some in advances in access to sanitation and water efficiency measures. But little or no progress has been made on some issues such as marine pollution, and there is increasing concern that the total freshwater supply is being used unsustainably in many regions, especially through groundwater depletion.

Some progress has been made to ensure better access to food, although combating desertification and droughts has seen little or none.

There has been some progress is dealing with heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants and radioactive waste.

GEO-5 concludes that lack of progress is partly due to the lack of specific, measurable targets and data. Few international environmental goals incorporate such targets. Those that do exist include: the Millennium Development Goal 7 targets to reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation; the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, to conserve by 2020 at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas; the complete phase-out of certain chemicals, such as ozone-depleting substances (under the Montreal Protocol), the use of lead in gasoline, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) listed under Annex I of the Stockholm Convention. It is worth noting that the few issues that do have measurable targets include all of those on which significant progress has been made — eliminating substances that deplete the ozone layer; phasing out lead in gasoline; and, to some extent, improving access to safe drinking water.

The availability of specific, measurable, agreed targets is particularly poor in such areas as chemicals and waste management, the extent of critical habitats such as wetlands and coral reefs and for freshwater, marine and air pollution. GEO-5 also found that there is a need for more reliable data on issues such as freshwater pollution, groundwater depletion, land degradation and chemicals and waste. Moreover, even many countries that do have data follow their own national guidelines rather than standard international ones, making it difficult to determine global trends or compare the situation in different countries.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) show how adopting specific, measurable targets can spur great efforts to collect and coordinate data on the issues they cover. As the 2011 Millennium Development Goals report states:

“As a result of recent efforts, more data are now available in the international series for the assessment of trends for all MDGs. In 2010, 119 countries had data for at least two points in time for 16-22 indicators; in contrast, only four countries had this data coverage in 2003. These advances are the result of increased national capacity to venture into new data collection initiatives, as well as to increase the frequency of data collection.”

In summary, despite the large number of international environmental goals, the international community has made very uneven progress in improving the state of the environment. In fact, there has been little or no progress — or further deterioration — on about half of the environmental issues reviewed in GEO-5.

Among other things, GEO-5 demonstrates the value of establishing specific, measurable targets that cover a broad range of environmental challenges. If priority is given to issues the international community has made least progress in addressing so far, it indicates, these would include: climate change; indoor air pollution; extinction risk of species; extent and condition of natural habitats, especially coral reefs and wetlands; invasive alien species; loss of traditional knowledge; access to food; desertification and drought; freshwater supply; fish stocks; marine pollution; and extreme events.

The GEO Process

The GEO process is conducted every five years with hundreds of scientific and policy experts and institutions from around the world. It culminates in UNEP’s flagship assessment report — the Global Environment Outlook. To date, four assessment reports have been produced in the GEO series, with the fifth in the series, GEO-5, published on 6 June. These assessment reports provide a comprehensive analysis of the state, trends and outlooks of the global environment as well as policy options for action.

In the lead up to the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, GEO-5 provides an update of the state and trends of the global environment, including from an Earth System perspective; considers the drivers of environmental change; analyses promising policy options in the regions and provides policy options that could help countries speed up their realisation.

For access to GEO products and more information on the GEO Process visit www.unep.org/geo

Additional resources:
Keeping Track of our Changing Environment report www.unep.org/geo/GEO5_Products.asp
GEO-5 Summary for Policy Makers report www.unep.org/geo/GEO5_SPM.asp

Forthcoming Published reports:
Measuring progress towards meeting goals and the full GEO-5
Assessment report are available at www.unep.org/geo

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