Genesis of Eden

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Mission Earth New Scientist 13 Dec 97

At millennium's brink, the rundown state of the global environment looms large. lt is, after all, our only homeand one in urgent need of DIY. Can international law provide the scaffolding for the biggest repair job ever?

STARTING in 1968, photographs of Earth began to come back with the Apollo Moon missions, and for the first time we were able to see our planet entire. Those stunning images have made it easier for us to think about the global environment-the landmasses, oceans and atmosphere, the systems of climate and currents, and the surface layer, or biosphere, where life inhabits this physical world. But the real picture is not so pretty. From ozone depletion to climate change and deforestation, human activity is disrupting Earth's natural systems in unprecedented ways. And persistent social problems-poverty, war, population growth and the rise of citiescomplicate the picture by both contributing to environmental degradation, and exacerbating the problem of the uneven distribution of resources. As the well-being of Earth is ultimately our own, the state of the planet is now an international issue, inspiring some of the most far-reaching and hotly debated policies of our time. It is strange, now, to think how long we took Earth for granted. Natural history, as the study of the environment was first known, became immensely popular in the 19th century, and awareness of how humankind affects the natural world grew in the early 20th century. But it was not until the 1930s that the web of relationships among organisms and their habitats began to be known, and not until the late 1960s that ecology-the formal study o those relationships-exploded into public consciousness. One of the igniting sparks was Silent Spring (1962), marine ecologist Rachel Carson's revelation of how a manufactured chemical could permeate every part of an environment-water, soil, plants, animals-by working its way up the food chain.

Club of Rome Thinking globally

ECODISASTERS are not the whole story, however. The pressing problem of meeting humanity's basic needs has forced environmental movers and shakers of every stripe to think in the long term and concentrate on changing our wasteful ways. A framework for putting these ideas into practice has been in the works since the early 1970s. At this time the Club of Rome, a nonpolitical, international alliance of scientists, businessmen and politicians, was for mulating a global model that would spur governments and the UN to act. Their researchers' report was published as The Limits to Growth in 1972 - the same year the seminal UN Conference on the Human Environment took place in Stockholm (Box 1). The Limits to Growth was hugely influential, identifying the main areas of global concern as human population increases, industrialisation, pollution, food production and depletion of resources - substances and energy sources that can be used by humanity. It asserted that if current opping up an trends persisted, the limits d, costly and to growth on our planet reflection of would be reached within a lean up even century. It further opined ecodisasters that it was possible to change these patterns in favour of economically and ecologically sustainable conditions-that is, ways of meeting human needs without compromising the productivity or health of the environment. These environmental buzzwords are ore complex than they appear at first ance. Resources may be biotic or physial, renewable or nonrenewable. Physical sources that are nonrenewable, or never aturally replaced once taken, range from etals and stone to fossil fuels such as oal. Biotic resources include fuels such s biogas and fibres such as cotton, wool r cellulose from wood. These are newable but often overused, and certain spects of their production-clearfelling of rees, for instance-damage the environent.Biotic resources are in fact prey to n insidious squeeze: demand for them ontinues to rise as both populations and expectations increase, yet there is only so much land that can be given over, say, to growing cotton. So to our notion of Earth as a fund of resources must be added limits-and these make sustainability imperative. Sustainability is not a new idea. In the early 19th century the British economist Thomas Malthus developed the idea that nature is not simply a neverending resource ripe for human exploitation. His concern was that improvements in the means to support life, such as food production, are outstripped by poulation growth. Now, Malthus's simple concept has been rethought as sustainable development-that is, encouraging social and economic balance, maintaining genetic diversity and protecting ecological systems. Twenty years after The Limits to Growth, the report's authors re-examined their material and concluded, in Beyond the Limits, that levels of use of many resources and the generation of many pollutants had passed sustainable limits, but that sustainability was, given an international effort, still attainable. Meanwhile, 1987 had seen the publication of Our Common Future. This key report on sustainable development was put together by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norway's then prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Our Common Future delved into many by now familiar issues, adding biodiversity-the diversity of life-and energy use to the list. It also picked up current negotiation on the Law of the Sea t reinforce the concept of the global com mons-the seas and oceans, atmosphere, outer space and Antarctica. Seven year later, the UN Convention on the Law o the Sea, signed by 159 countries, entered into force as the legal basis for a cooperative approach to the world's oceans. The Antarctic Treaty, which now has 43 sig natories, has kept the region demilitarised and environmen tally safeguarded, allowing only cooperative international research, for nearly 40 years. And the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed in 1987-international action performed at breakneck speed. The biggest international gathering on development and the environment yet was the 1992 Earth Summit. More than 100 world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro to produce a general Declaration of Principles, conventions on climate change and biodiversity, a statement of principles on forestry, and Agenda 21 - a worldwide programme of action on sustainable development into the next century. That year, the Basel convention on the movement and dis posal of hazardous wastes, came into force. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification followed in 1994. Five years after Rio, however, there was a special session of the UN General Assembly to review progress, and for all the talk, little had been achieved. Of the industrial countries only three of them-Britain, Germany and Russia-will fulfil their Rio undertaking to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a prime player in global warming, to 1990 levels by 2000. Some of the worst offenders are still wrangling over their responsibilities. Population increase, the degradation of forests, pollution and poverty are still with us-as never before. It doesn't look good for planet Earth. But through these and future conferences and conventions, the UN agencies and nongovernmental organisations (Box 1) that attend and administer them continue to construct a legal and policy framework for action working at local, national and international levels. The 1972 Stockholm conference, for example, incorporated much work on environmental impact assessment (Figure 2). Arising from American legislation of the late 1960s, EIA provides a statutory framework obliging all levels of government and other decision makers to take account of the environment during any proposed development. EIA also allows for public participation, and procedures for appeal and resolution of disputes. EIA is intended to minimise the negative effects of development on all aspects of the environment-from the atmosphere to housing and employment opportunities. There are a number of methods for carrying out EIA, such as cost-benefit analysis (CBA), but all suffer some defects. For a road-building project, say, CBA dictates that anything improving human wellbeing, such as savings in travel time, is a benefit, while anything reducing it, such as loud traffic noise, is a cost. The pros and cons are then weighed up. But CBA is often criticised as involving too many value-laden judgments. Future costs are normally given less value, which has the overall effect of minimising them: in our hypothetical example, environmental damage is more likely to occur later-when noxious exhaust fumes pollute the air, for example. But in the short term the benefits may outweigh the costs.

Movers and shakers

OF ALL the actors on the environmental stage, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), whether tiny pressure groups or intemational charities, have been the power behind public environmental awareness. The UN and its agencies have meanwhile played a coordinating role in global environmental efforts. We have come a long way since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Environment. This had four important outcomes: an emphasis on human development, compromises on what development really meant, the involvement in and recognition of many NGOs, and the creation of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). At present, UNEP has its internal problems, but the message of sustainable development has reached nearly all the UN agencies and associated bodies, including the World Bank. And the new UN Commission on Sustainable Development has helped to bring together the strands of environment and development worldwide. While intemational recognition came late for NGOS, they were far ahead of the UN in getting to grips with environmental issues. Envirorunental groups were forming in Britain and the US as early as the 19th century. And they have become enormously popular: a 1997 MORI poll indicated that 4.5 million Britons-about 10 per cent of the adult population-had been members of environmental organisations over the past two years, By 1989, there were more than 20 000 such organisations worldwide. Many direct action groups-notably Greenpeace -were set up to focus on one source of pollution, such as nuclear waste. In France, Germany and other countries, proposals for nuclear power plants have triggered violent protests over the hazards of waste storage and plant operation. Accidents in March 1978 at Three Mfle Island in Pennsylvania and in April 1986 at Chernobyl have heightened these fears. In developing countries, environmental activism has quietly burgeoned. Kenya, for instance,% has a well-developed network of NGOs, with more than 60 devoted to tree planting.,The National Council of Women in Kenya, led by Wangari Maathai, is one of the most prominent. And India has one of the world's most energetic NGOs in the Centre for Science and Environment, which reports on the state of the country's environment. Small pressure groups were also the catalyst for Green parties, which now, in many cases, have faded from view. But their aims, and those of thousands of NGOS, have at least partly been met: environmental concerns are firmly entrenched in mainstream party politics.

A crowded, dirty place

POPULATION growth and pollution are inextricably joined: as the former rises, the latter spreads. And we have already had a lavish foretaste of how serious the effects of pollution can be. Mediyl isocyanate poisoning in Bhopal, India, killed 3600 people in 1989the same year the Exxon Valdez oil spill left some 1740 kilometres of Alaskan coast contaminated. Pollutants-substances that are in the wrong place and are harmful to organisms can be found in nature, but generally in minute quantities. Many of them are manufactured chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)-widely used in the production of plastics-while forms of energy such as radioactive beta particles, which are carcinogenic, also count. As a rule, the more polluted the area, the more crowded it is, and the poorer. But poverty also ensures that little is wasted, and much is scavenged and recycled. As prosperity increases, the amount of material available for recycling increases, but the activity itself tends to decrease. More waste goes to landfill, or is exported to poorer or less densely populated areas. Eventually, recycling comes back into vogue-as in the West from the 1970s onwards. Fully sustainable waste management is the ultimate goal, but no country has yet achieved it. it will most likely happen in nations with the highest population densities and pressure on resources, such as Japan. Pollution of water-to take only one sortis on the increase worldwide. No part of the oceans is exempt, and the demand for fresh water is doubling every 21 years. Coastal waters are also essential as spawning and breeding grounds for many marine organisms, and much of our fish comes from them. But coasts and reefs are highly vulnerable to pollution such as oil spuls (Figure 1) and development pressures, and many are already in deep trouble. How to stem the tide? One of the strongest solutions is, as we have seen, lowering rates of population growth. But protecting the physical environment demands an improvement in the social environment. Sustainable development will only happen if people have in hand the right tools-health, prosperity, knowledge-to get on with the job. Nearly half the world's population lives on or near coasts, and face the prospect of sealevel rises which, according to the Intergovemmental Panel on Climate Change, could be as much as half a metre by the end of the next century. The result could be devastating.

Value judgment Paying the price

THERE are cases when costs or benefits cannot be quantified: military defence might override environmental considerations, or there might be a need to preserve a certain ecosystem. Cost-effectiveness analysis may then be brought into play. In essence, CEA tries to find a way to meet environmental objectives at lowest cost. The results are often artificial, indicating that some things cannot be valued in monetary terms, and that judgment-subjective as well as objective-is necessary. Another significant legislative concept, the polluter-pays principle, was introduced in 1972 by member countries of the Organization for Economic Development (OECD). The principle makes industry itself responsible for protecting the environment, and consumers pay the costs involved. Many countries have, however, failed to apply the principle because assessing the costs and liabilities of a pollution incident and its long-term effects is so difficult. Still, pollution taxes-in which an independent panel of experts assesses costs-have been mooted, carbon taxes being one example of these. So much for general procedures to prevent rampant environmental abuse. But what of specific responses to the big issues of our day, the ongoing threats to lifeincluding human life-on Earth? Human population growth lies at the heart of most environmental problems and, along with the distribution of resources and technological change, is one of the prime shapers of our future (Figure 3). Environmental damage is intimately linked to it: rapid growth makes heavy demands on all available resources and vastly increases the generation of waste (Box 2). The UN and other bodies have attempted to estimate rates of population growth. In general terms, human fertility is falling, but world population is still increasing by about 80 million people a year-that is, 440 million since the 1992 Earth Summit alone. In China, the UN expects the population to rise from 1-2 billion to 1-5 billion by 2030. How can population growth be restrained? The issues were fully debated at the UN Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, where a broad programme of action was agreed. Vitally, the conference recognised the need modern contraception more widely available, and educate young people, particularly girls. In a few countries, fertility rates have fallen to replacement levels (that is to say an average of one child per head of population), but in the poorest, even with AIDS now a demographic factor, rates are still very high. Meanwhile, it's hotting up: the warmest years on record are clustered in the 1990s. The greenhouse effect that triggers global warming is a natural phenomenon making life on Earth possible, but concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are at their highest ever now, pumped up artificially by industry, cars and other sources. In 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Programme, was set up to establish the science behind the phenomenon, measure the human impact and suggest what to do about it. The IPCC, which represents the best available scientific con sensus, is now preparing its thir assessment. Its latest conclusion is tha human activity is already having a dis cernible effect on climate. The work of the IPCC greatly influence the preparation of the Framework Con vention on Climate Change signed at th 1992 Earth Summit, and is now a point o reference. As this article went to press, th next step for signatories to the conventio was a conference at Kyoto early this month, where it was hoped that targets would be set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in industrialised countries. Our continuing dependence on fossil fuels and the cult o the car were particular areas of concern.

If we go on using fossil fuels at the same rate, we seem bound to exceed the safe limits within a century with potentially dire consequences for world climate - (based on Greenpeace estimates)

Diversity shrinks: Fuelling the future

THE loss of biodiversity-at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels-has also emerged as a vital concern. Some think it is the most important of all. We take natural services for granted, yet by destroying habitats and species at what has been calculated as a thousand times the natural rate, we are impoverishing the life systems on which we depend. In his Gala hypothesis, the British scientist James Lovelock drew attention to the ability of organisms and the planet as a whole to help create and regulate the environment. We make this increasingly difficult, for example by destroying the rainforests, with results that cannot be predicted. The World Conservation Union Red Data Book records the status of many endangered species, but the loss of some may go largely unheralded. The introduction of Nile perch into Lake Victoria, for instance, killed off between 200 and 300 species of native cichlid fish. Keeping abreast of extinctions is difficult. Since 1992 alone, for instance,worldwide deforestation has led to the extinction of more than 130 000 species. Yet the destruction could be curbed. in Amazonia, it is estimated that if all deforestation continues at present levels to the year 2000, 15 per cent of all plant species there will have disappeared; if it continues until only parks and reserves are left, 66 per cent will have gone. Genetic diversity is important because it confers reproductive vitality to species and allows them to adapt to changing circumstances. For domestic plants and animals, it can be a matter of life and death. Intensive cultivation and globalisation of transport together tend to spread pests around the world, but genes in the wild forebears of domestic species can play a vital role in keeping crop plants healthy and pro ductive. In 1970, for instance, the US maize crop was damaged by fungal infection, and losses amounted to $2 billion. The problem was solved by incorporating genes for resistance from Mexican stocks. The Rio Convention on Biological Diversity is no more than a start. The US signed the convention, but under pressure from industrial interests has so far failed to ratify it. Many of the issues covered by the convention remain unresolved-notably, that the signatories were left with wide discretion in their use of wild native species. This leaves a thorny problem. Who owns the plant products, often found in the poorest and wildest parts of the world, that pharmaceuticals companies develop and synthesise at vast profit? If royalties are payable on oil, wherever it is found, why should they not be paid on commercially useful plants? And if so, to whom should the payments be made? Finally, energy use is a growing global problem (Figure 4). Most of our energy needs are currently derived from nonrenewable sources such as gas, coal and nuclear fuels. Globally, energy use is often expressed in terawatts-1 terawatt being 1 trillion watts, equivalent to the buming of a billion tonnes of coal. In 1980, global energy use was about 10 terawatts, and it is estimated to rise to 14 terawatts a year by 2025-unless worldwide consumption reaches the levels seen in industrialised countries, in which case the figure would be a whopping 55 terawatts. As any rises mean an increase in global warming, pollution levels and risk from nuclear accidents and waste storage, a lowenergy future is desirable, as is a move away from fossil fuels. At the moment, renewable sources such as solar and wind power provide only 2 terawatts a year, but are capable of up to 13 terawatts. Given such variable predictions, and the vagaries of human behaviour despite the worthiest of intentions, the ftiture health of our planet seems uncertain. But as with many enduring issues, what was once radical and little accepted has become policy: environmental awareness and action have come a long way in the 20th century.

Further Reading: (see New Scientist)

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