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The future is now

The world is now split into the haves and the havenots by four major divisions, all of which continue to widen. These divisions became evident in the GEO-3 assessment and were addressed in the conclusions to Chapter 2. They are:
  • the environmental divide;
  • the policy divide;
  • the vulnerability gap; and
  • the lifestyle divide.

These four divisions are a serious threat to sustainable development. The environmental assessment in the preceding chapters shows that, despite increased awareness of the environment, efforts to stem deterioration have met with mixed results. There are notable successes and spectacular failures. Over the past three decades, massive investments of human and financial resources have been used to exploit the environment. On the other hand, research has opened up new frontiers in terms of humanity's understanding of the complex web of ecological processes.

Policies have been introduced to address many of the key issues. Targets have been set and met in some areas, such as the phase out of ozonedepleting substances, but success has been limited in others, for example the adoption of more stringent targets to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Many other initiatives critical to closing the lifestyle divide and the success of sustainable development have been identified. These include:

  • Alleviating poverty. The international community has set a target of halving by 2015 the proportion of the world population (currently 22 per cent) which survives on less than US$1 a day. The dayto- day lives of the majority of the poor are much more closely linked to the state of the environment than is the case for the better off - a healthy, productive environment is one of the few stepping stones out of poverty. As long as millions of the world's population remain poor, and the environment stays on the periphery of mainstream policy making, sustainable development will be an unachievable ideal.
  • Reducing the excessive consumption of the more affluent. As long as the richest 20 per cent of the world population continues to account for 86 per cent of total personal consumption expenditure, it is unlikely that sustainable development will ever be achieved. The resulting pockets of wealth in a sea of poverty heighten tensions and overexploit resources.
  • Improving governance has become a major issue, not only at the institutional and national levels, but also at the global level where disparities between North and South often fuel conflict and intransigence in negotiating policies for effective environmental management.
  • Providing adequate funding for environmental programmes is a major factor. Inadequate resources have been blamed for the unsatisfactory implementation of Agenda 21, and inaction may ultimately undermine this blueprint for a sustainable future.
  • Eliminating debt, particularly for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries, is also an important factor in a world in which debtor nations often use more foreign currency to repay debts than they earn. Indebtedness frequently leads to the overexploitation of the environment. As long as this situation is perpetuated, many of the debtor nations are unlikely to ever achieve sustainable development.

Many complex processes - social, economic and environmental - are at play in terms of greater impacts on people as a result of environmental change. Human vulnerability has been highlighted in Chapter 3, which emphasizes that everyone is at risk in one way or another to environmental change. The main difference is in coping capacity and ability to recover, and this difference means that the poor are generally more vulnerable. This vulnerability gap is undermining sustainable development. Human vulnerability to environmental change encompasses the quality of the environment, threats to that environment and the differing coping strategies of individuals and communities in any location, country or region. Closing the vulnerability gap would have a huge impact on the well-being and security of millions.

Reducing and eliminating poverty are inextricably linked with sound environmental management, which includes such issues as property and usage rights, the provision of basic services to protect the environmental asset base, adequate infrastructure, and funding for development and environment activities. One way forward here would be for donors to give direct support to community-based initiatives, especially those channelled towards sustainable development activities, through funding channels accessible to low-income, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

Changes in consumption levels are needed by the more affluent individuals and nations of the world. Prosperity is closely linked to the ability to address environmental problems but it is also one of the forces behind excessive consumption, which is the cause of other problems with far-reaching impacts. Economic and political concerns have stalled attempts to change consumption patterns through new policies or instruments. A realization that changing consumption patterns does not have to curtail or prejudice quality of life, and can in fact do the opposite, must be brought home to the people concerned. There is sufficient evidence that this is the case but no coordinated effort to get the message across has yet been undertaken. Changing mindsets needs to go hand in hand with increased acceptance of responsibility for environmental and social impacts, and the creation of consumer ethics.

The provision of financial resources is insufficient in the absence of adequate capacity. Targeted capacity building and, more importantly, capacity mobilization and retention to minimize the brain drain are needed for more effective environmental governance and public participation. It is particularly important to ensure that capacity development is a shared experience rather than top-down or North-to-South instruction. With enhanced capacity, developing regions may be better able to cope with environmental change and disasters, which have increased their vulnerability.

The following are some of the additional environment-related challenges policy makers at all levels face over the coming decades:

  • Large numbers of people, especially in developing countries, in both rural and urban areas, still lack access to clean water and adequate sanitation, good outdoor and indoor air quality, cleaner energy and waste management. This continues to lead to the degradation of the natural assets base, ill health and vulnerability to environmental threats.
  • Unresolved conflicts remain over the ownership and management of common property resources (such as water, air, land, forests and oceans).
  • Highly complex environmental issues which are not yet adequately addressed include the increasing prevalence of persistent toxic substances, unsafe handling, disposal and dispersal of chemical and hazardous wastes, non-point pollution sources, management of transboundary river systems and shared water bodies, and excessive nitrogen loading.
  • Climate change will cause inevitable damage in the medium and long term (low-lying islands and coastal areas, arid and semi-arid ecosystems, increased scale and intensity of environmental disasters). Developing countries, particularly Small Island Developing states, are the least able to adapt to events caused by climate change but are the most likely to be affected by them.
  • The global environmental impact (ecological footprint) of the developed world and prosperous communities elsewhere is larger than that of the poor in the developing world but future economic development and population growth in the latter are likely to dramatically increase environmental impacts.