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GEO Year Book 2003  
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UNEP began 2003 with the 22nd session of the Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GC/GMEF). By the end of that important week, a total of 24 decisions had been adopted. One of them is GC/22/1/IB which requests the preparation of an annual Global Environment Outlook (GEO) statement to highlight significant environmental events and achievements during the year and raise awareness of emerging issues from scientific research and other sources.

The GEO Year Book is UNEP’s response to this GC/GMEF decision. It is based on comprehensive tracking – at global and regional level – of issues and developments as they unfolded during the year, and collaboration between UNEP and many partners at both levels. The Year Book also becomes the latest addition to the set of products developed within UNEP’s GEO process for integrated environmental assessment. Like them, it aims to bridge the gap between science and policy, and make environmental information easily accessible to policy-makers and other readers.

Designing a new product is like being faced with a blank canvas. The options for filling it are numerous, but space is limited and choices have to be made. Decisions on the focus of the Year Book, and what it should or should not include, were a major part of the process which shaped this first report in the annual GEO series. We have used our best judgment to reach a formula that will provide a timely overview of environmental change, highlight progress, contribute to the knowledge base for decision-making, stimulate debate, and be visually informative and attractive all at the same time.

One of the overall objectives of the GEO Year Book, which will be published annually between major GEO reports, is to present, in a clear and timely manner, an analytical overview of issues and developments which, for better or worse, have most influenced the environment during the year and may continue to be major factors in the years ahead. While some of the issues and developments made headline news during the course of the year, and galvanized action, others hardly registered on the radar. But that does not mean that they were, or are, less important. All the issues – no matter how local, regional or global – have a bearing on how the environment can either enhance human security or increase human vulnerability.

The issues and developments of the year are presented at both global and regional levels in the Overview section. Some of the issues, such as climate change impacts, loss of biodiversity, and environment and security, are manifested both globally and regionally, demanding action at many levels. The short analyses are reinforced with boxes highlighting specific examples of policy developments and instruments.

An example of one of the major policy developments at regional level is the increasing attention being given by African governments to phasing out leaded vehicle fuel. Progress in 2003 is encouraging.
Also in the Overview section is a short analysis of key issues of critical importance to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – countries of special significance for the international meeting in Mauritius in August 2004 to review the Barbados+10 Plan of Action. The SIDS section focuses on the major challenges which these countries face rather than specifically on developments in 2003.

The GEO Year Book 2003 includes a Feature Focus on Water that highlights the important role that water plays in realizing various internationally-agreed development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration which arose out of the UN Millennium Summit of Heads of State and Government convened in 2000. Water is a crucial component of ecosystems. Its quantity and quality have a fundamental role in defining the range of organisms that can live in a given ecosystem and the ability of water-related goods and services to sustain human life and well-being. It is clearly recognized that, without concerted action, about a third of the world’s population is likely to suffer from chronic water shortages within a few decades. We must, therefore, work to ensure that different water stakeholders understand and appreciate that freshwater resources are precious, sensitive and finite. Water is not only critical in terms of the environment and human security but also provides key sustainable development opportunities. With 2003 designated as the International Year of Freshwater, and water issues receiving attention throughout the year through activities such as the Third World Water Forum, it is only fitting that the GEO Year Book 2003 reinforces the need to keep water high on the international agenda. This vital resource is also on the agenda of the forthcoming 12th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD 12). The Year Book is designed to provide an input to the CSD 12 and other deliberations at different levels, including UNEP’s own governing bodies.

The section on Emerging Challenges – New Findings describes some of the latest available knowledge that may assist society in recognizing and better understanding ongoing and emerging environmental compexities and help decision-makers in designing appropriate responses. Our ability to identify and respond to environmental challenges is closely related to our scientific understanding of the phenomena. The GEO Year Book 2003 focuses on science research findings related to the nitrogen cycle and marine fisheries. The science behind these issues is broadening and has significant implications on how we manage them. Nevertheless, their extent, magnitude and impacts vary significantly, for example, while problems related to nitrogen occur all over the world there is too much in some places, and too little to meet human needs in others. Local and regional perspectives are, therefore, important to advancing our understanding of the nature of these issues and their impact in various places, and appropriate interventions which can be put in place.

The Year Book uses GEO Indicators to highlight trends in some of the major global and regional environmental issues which have been addressed in previous GEO reports. While the availability of reliable, up-to-date global data sets still limits the choice of indicators, the core set selected for this report aims to give a consistent and harmonized overview of major environmental changes on an annual basis and thereby facilitate tracking of major environmental issues over the years.

It is our duty individually and collectively to take stock of the issues and developments of 2003 and of the measures taken during the year to achieve a more sustainable future for the environment. Ultimately we rely on you, as the reader, to assess whether your needs are being met. It is our intention that the GEO Year Book 2003 and subsequent issues in this annual series will be a constant reminder that good long-term planning for a sustainable future begins with what is happening around us today and every year. Your feedback on this Year Book, and suggestions for future editions, are most welcome.

Klaus Töpfer
United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director,
United Nations Environment Programme

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