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Scientific developments

In the early years of the 3rd millennium, scientific advances continue to provide ethical and environmental challenges. A scientific breakthrough whose impact on humankind and ultimately the environment is still uncertain is the mapping of the human genome. The benefits of such mapping include learning the underlying causes of thousands of genetic diseases and predicting the likelihood of their occurrence in any individual. Genetic information might also be used to predict sensitivities to various industrial and environmental agents. While concerns about misuse and loss of personal privacy exist, many of the ramifications of mapping the human genome will be recognized only as science and technology merge in the future applications of this new tool (Human Genome Project 1996).

The costs of global warming

A report by Munich Re, a member of UNEP's financial services initiative, has estimated the potential financial consequences of the IPCC predictions:

  • Losses due to more frequent tropical cyclones, loss of land as a result of rising sea levels and damage to fishing stocks, agriculture and water supplies, could cost more than US$300 000 million annually.
  • Globally some of the biggest losses would be in the area of energy. The water industry worldwide faces US$47 000 million of extra cost annually by 2050.
  • Agriculture and forestry could lose up to US$42 000 million worldwide as a result of droughts, floods and fires if carbon dioxide levels reach twice their pre-industrial concentrations.
  • Flood defence schemes to protect homes, factories and power stations from rising sea levels and storm surges may cost US$1000 million annually.
  • Ecosystem losses, including mangrove swamps, coral reefs and coastal lagoons, could amount to more than US$70 000 million by 2050.
Source: Berz 2001

Also controversial is the increasing use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

As described in GEO-2000 (UNEP 1999), the rapid evolutionary character of microbes and viruses, coupled with increased transport, presents potential surprises in this millennium. The reality behind this statement was revealed by the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, and then more dramatically with the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom.

The effects of increased transport of livestock and feed material across political boundaries intensified the spread of these diseases, leading to the destruction of many farm animals and concern for transmission to and from wild populations. Although foot-and-mouth is commonly found in many developing countries, it is the industrialized nations that feel its effects most acutely. Although the disease is rarely lethal, it is debilitating and reduces productivity. In intensive industrial agricultural systems, where profit margins are low because of overproductivity, the economic impact of the disease cannot be tolerated.