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Outlook 2002-32

GEO-3 emphasizes that the next 30 years will be as crucial as the past 30 for shaping the future of the environment. Old troubles will persist and fresh challenges will emerge as increasingly heavy demands are placed upon resources that, in many cases, are already in a fragile state. The increasing pace of change and degree of interaction between regions and issues has made it more difficult than ever to look into the future with confidence. GEO-3 uses four scenarios to explore what the future could be, depending on different policy approaches. The scenarios, which span developments in many overlapping areas, including population, economics, technology and governance, are described in the boxes that follow. They are:

  • Markets First
  • Policy First
  • Security First
  • Sustainability First.
Markets First
Most of the world adopts the values and expectations prevailing in today's industrialized countries. The wealth of nations and the optimal play of market forces dominate social and political agendas. Trust is placed in further globalization and liberalization to enhance corporate wealth, create new enterprises and livelihoods, and so help people and communities to afford to insure against - or pay to fix - social and environmental problems. Ethical investors, together with citizen and consumer groups, try to exercise growing corrective influence but are undermined by economic imperatives. The powers of state officials, planners and lawmakers to regulate society, economy and the environment continue to be overwhelmed by expanding demands.
Policy First
Decisive initiatives are taken by governments in an attempt to reach specific social and environmental goals. A coordinated pro-environment and anti-poverty drive balances the momentum for economic development at any cost. Environmental and social costs and gains are factored into policy measures, regulatory frameworks and planning processes. All these are reinforced by fiscal levers or incentives such as carbon taxes and tax breaks. International 'soft law' treaties and binding instruments affecting environment and development are integrated into unified blueprints and their status in law is upgraded, though fresh provision is made for open consultation processes to allow for regional and local variants.
Security First
This scenario assumes a world of striking disparities where inequality and conflict prevail. Socio-economic and environmental stresses give rise to waves of protest and counteraction. As such troubles become increasingly prevalent, the more powerful and wealthy groups focus on self-protection, creating enclaves akin to the present day 'gated communities'. Such islands of advantage provide a degree of enhanced security and economic benefits for dependent communities in their immediate surroundings but they exclude the disadvantaged mass of outsiders. Welfare and regulatory services fall into disuse but market forces continue to operate outside the walls.
Sustainability First
A new environment and development paradigm emerges in response to the challenge of sustainability, supported by new, more equitable values and institutions. A more visionary state of affairs prevails, where radical shifts in the way people interact with one another and with the world around them stimulate and support sustainable policy measures and accountable corporate behaviour. There is much fuller collaboration between governments, citizens and other stakeholder groups in decision-making on issues of close common concern. A consensus is reached on what needs to be done to satisfy basic needs and realize personal goals without beggaring others or spoiling the outlook for posterity.

Some of the global and regional environmental implications arising out of the four scenarios are highlighted below.

The absence of effective policies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the Markets First and Security First scenarios leads to significant increases over the next 30 years. However, the policy actions taken under a Policy First scenario, notably carbon taxes and investments in non-fossil-fuel energy sources, effectively curb growth in global emissions and lead to actual reductions starting around 2030. The behavioural shifts under Sustainability First, together with improved production and conversion efficiencies, result in a rapid levelling off of emissions and a decline by the middle of the 2020s.

Biodiversity will continue under threat if there is no strenuous policy action to curb human activity. Continued urban and infrastructure expansion, plus the increased impacts of climate change, severely deplete biodiversity in most regions in all scenarios. Pressures will also increase on coastal ecosystems in most regions and scenarios.

The scenarios carry important implications for the provision of basic human needs. Growing populations and increased economic activity, particularly in agriculture, will lead to increased demand for freshwater in most scenarios. Similarly, the demands for food and the ability to meet them in the different scenarios reflect a combination of shifts in supply and demand, influenced by social, economic and environmental policies. In Markets First, even with a decrease in the percentage of the population facing hunger, the total number affected changes relatively little and even increases in some regions as populations grow. Under Policy First and Sustainability First the targeting of hunger reduction as a key goal, and the emphasis on more balanced development between regions, help to achieve dramatic reductions in the percentages and total numbers of people affected. The sharp increases in most regions in Security First points to the unsustainability of such a scenario in terms of social acceptability.

Infrastructure affects 72 per cent of the world's land area (black and red areas are the worst affected) by the year 2032 under a Markets First scenario - see map
In Africa, there is increasing risk of land degradation. In Policy First and Sustainability First, easier access to support services helps farmers to manage soils better and policies based on integrated land management become commonplace in the region. At the other end of the spectrum, in a Security First scenario, while reasonable conditions are maintained in the protected areas serving the land-owning elite, the high concentration of people elsewhere contribute to severe land degradation and soil erosion. Similar problems arise in Markets First as better quality agricultural land is taken over for commodity and cash crop production.

Under the Markets First scenario in Asia and the Pacific, water withdrawals are expected to increase in all sectors, leading to an expansion of areas with severe water stress in South and Southeast Asia. Slower economic growth under Security First tempers growth in demand. With effective policies and lifestyle changes under the Policy First and Sustainability First scenarios, water withdrawals remain at current levels or even decrease in most of the region.

The ability of Europe to address the issues of large-scale air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions will depend heavily upon developments in the areas of energy use and transportation. Extremely active policies to improve public transportation and energy efficiency can be expected in Policy First and Sustainability First worlds, but not in Security First or even Markets First circumstances.

Land and forest degradation as well as forest fragmentation remain among the most relevant environmental issues in Latin America and the Caribbean in all scenarios. Significant loss of forest area occurs in a Markets First scenario. In a Security First world, the control over forest resources by transnational companies that create cartels in association with the national groups in power, promotes the growth of some forest areas, but this is not enough to stop net deforestation. More effective management ameliorates some of these problems in Policy First. Unsound deforestation stops almost completely in a world of Sustainability First.

Key to charts
Percentage of 2002 cropland that becomes so degraded by 2032 that it is of little value for production, for each of the four scenarios - see chart
As the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, North America plays a major role in determining the future climate of the planet. In Markets First, the region's refusal to participate significantly hampers international efforts to control the emissions of these gases, and per capita and absolute emissions remain high. The collapse of parts of the transport infrastructure and restrictions on fossil-fuel vehicle ownership in Security First result in even greater increases in emissions in this scenario. Under Policy First, emissions are reduced through increased fuel efficiency and greater use of public transport but most spectacular results are achieved in Sustainability First.

West Asia is one of the most water-stressed regions of the world, with more than 70 million people living in areas under severe water stress. Under the Markets First and Security First scenarios, population and economic growth lead to strong increases in withdrawals for households and industry, resulting in an increase in areas with severe water stress and affecting over 200 million people by 2032. A range of policy initiatives help to counteract additional demands related to economic growth in both Policy First and Sustainability First. Although total withdrawals drop in both scenarios, water scarcity persists and demand continues to exceed available water resources.

The environmental implications of the various scenarios illustrate the legacy of past decades and the level of effort that will be needed to reverse powerful trends. One of the major policy lessons from the scenarios is that there can be significant delays between changes in human behaviour, including policy choices, and their environmental impacts, specifically:

  • Much of the environmental change that will occur over the next 30 years has already been set in motion by past and current actions.
  • Many of the effects of environmentally relevant policies put into place over the next 30 years will not be apparent until long afterwards.