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A 'dire' health checkup for Earth and us all

Leaders called for urgent improvement to the planet's health, echoing findings of a U.N. report for the highest-level decision-making body on the environment.

NAIROBI, Kenya (AN) — World leaders called for urgent improvement to the planet's health, echoing findings of a major U.N. report released at a meeting for the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and France's President Emmanuel Macron said nations must dramatically curb pollution and waste, and increase their conservation and use of renewable energy sources.

"Current global statistics are quite sobering and projections for future generations are dire and demand urgent action," Kenyatta told political and business leaders, policy experts and other delegates to the U.N. Environment Assembly. "Climate change continues to be a major threat to sustainable development worldwide. And its impact places a disproportionately heavy burden on the poor and vulnerable."

U.N. Environment put the planet's health thorough its most thorough checkup of the past five years, issuing a major report that found Earth's condition so degraded and "dire" that many people's lives will worsen unless "unprecedented action" is taken to improve things.

Its sixth Global Environment Outlook report, which is the Nairobi-based U.N. Environment's flagship global assessment, cautioned that millions of premature deaths could occur by the mid-21st century unless cities and regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East drastically improve their environment protections.

The report was released on the sidelines of this year's U.N. Environment Assembly. The first such report was released in 1997.

"We need to act," Macron urged the assembly. "We must put environment and biodiversity at the heart of the economy."

A major cause of death by 2050 will likely be anti-microbial resistance from pollutants in freshwater systems, the report warned, while endocrine disruptors will likely have major effects on children's neurological development and on female and male fertility.

U.N. Environment's global assessments have become a touchstone among scientists, policy experts and decision makers. This year's 740-page tome was produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries.

“The science is clear. The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment,” said Joyce Msuya, U.N. Environment's acting executive director.

“This report is an outlook for humanity. We are at a crossroads," she said. "Do we continue on our current path, which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway? That is the choice our political leaders must make, now.”

A catalogue of problems

With a population of 7.7 billion, and an expected population of 8.6 billion by 2030 and 9.8 billion by 2050, Earth has finite resources that will become even more stretched, particularly in Africa and Asia, where most of the growth is concentrated. That is causing growing pollution to land and water.

In 2012, more than 12.6 million people died of environmental causes such as polluted land or water — nearly a quarter of all deaths worldwide that year.

At the same time, more people are moving to cities, severely pressuring those areas. By 2050, the report said, about 68% of the world's population will live in urban areas, up from little more than 50% today.

"Unsustainable human activities globally have degraded the Earth’s ecosystems, endangering the ecological foundations of society," the report said. Human-caused global warming is a prominent one.

“Time is running out to prevent the irreversible and dangerous impacts of climate change,” the report said. The world, it said, is “on course to exceed the temperature threshold” of warming in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Almost 200 nations agreed in December on a set of rules for the Paris treaty. The rulebook spells out how countries must report carbon emissions and pay for climate action. The aim is to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or 1.5 degrees C. if possible.

U.N. Environment infographic

What to do

U.N. Environment's report includes solutions, too. It said there are scientific, technological and financial means to put the planet on a path towards more sustainable development if the public, along with political and business leaders, will only support them.

Nations must put 2 per cent of their GDP towards "green investment" in buildings, utilities and other infrastructure, with fewer impacts on climate change, water and land, and eliminate 8 million tons of plastic pollution a year that goes into oceans, the report said. Reductions in food waste and meat consumption could cut by 50% the amount of food production that will be needed to feed 9.8 billion people in 2050.

Paying for climate mitigation actions under the Paris climate treaty would cost about US$22 trillion, the report said, but the resulting decreases in air pollution would generate US$54 billion in combined health benefits.

“The report shows that policies and technologies already exist to fashion new development pathways that will avoid these risks and lead to health and prosperity for all people,” said Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins, co-chairs of U.N. Environment's GEO-6 production of the report.

“What is currently lacking is the political will to implement policies and technologies at a sufficient speed and scale," they said. "The fourth U.N. Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March needs to be the occasion when policymakers face up to the challenges and grasp the opportunities of a much brighter future for humanity.”