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Simply not sustainable

Twenty years ago, a commission convened by the United Nations put forward the concept of “sustainable development” as a way that capitalism, growth and protection of the environment could live in perfect harmony. The World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) called its report Our Common Future. Yesterday the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) had to admit failure as it painted a bleak picture in an assessment of the two decades since the original report.

The Bruntland Commission, far from offering a way to defend the environment, offered global corporations a green light. They could on growing at a rapacious rate, ripping out resources and burning fossil fuels as long as they could demonstrate they were doing their bit for “sustainability”. Twenty years later the bill has come in. UNEP, in a report prepared by about 390 experts and reviewed by more than 1,000 others across the world, admits: "There are no major issues raised in Our Common Future for which the foreseeable trends are favourable." The critical findings of the GEO-4 report include:

A best estimate for this century's rise is expected to be between a further 1.8°C and 2°C. Ice cores show that the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane are now far outside their ranges of natural variability over the last 500,000 years: the Earth's climate has entered a state unparalleled in recent prehistory. The average temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as rapidly as in the rest of the world. Sea-level rise caused by thermal expansion of water and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets will continue for the foreseeable future.

More than 50,000 compounds are used commercially, hundreds more are added annually, and global chemical production is projected to increase by 85% over the next 20 years. Environmental exposure causes almost a quarter of all diseases. More than two million people worldwide are estimated to die prematurely every year from indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Losses in total global farm production, due to insect pests, have been estimated at about 1%. Since 1987 the expansion of cropland has slackened, but land use intensity has increased dramatically. Unsustainable land use is causing degradation, a threat as serious as climate change and biodiversity loss. It affects up to a third of the world's people.

About 60% of the ecosystem services that have been assessed are degraded or used unsustainably; populations of freshwater vertebrates declined on average by nearly 50% from 1987 to 2003, much faster than terrestrial or marine species. Over half the world's 6,000 languages are endangered, and some believe up to 90% of all languages may not survive this century.

Of the world's major rivers, 10% fail to reach the sea for part of each year because of irrigation demands. In developing countries some 3 million people die annually from water-borne diseases, most of them under-five-year-olds. An estimated 2.6 billion people lack improved sanitation services.

There is absolutely no sign that the warnings contained in the UNEP report, as well as the conclusions on global warming reached by other UN groups, will have any impact on the way business is conducted. The report admits, for example, that while climate change is a "global priority", demanding political will and leadership, it finds "a remarkable lack of urgency", and a "woefully inadequate" global response. GEO-4 even acknowledges that "... some industrial sectors that were unfavourable to the...[Kyoto] Protocol managed successfully to undermine the political will to ratify it”.

Given this muted indictment of corporate power, GEO-4’s call for "fundamental changes in social and economic structures, including lifestyle changes” if rapid progress is to be achieved are simply hot air. What the UNEP report inadvertently does is to demonstrate conclusively that sustainability and global capitalism are incompatible. An economic system where nature is exploited as just another source of profit in the name of growth, is the problem and not the solution.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor
26 October 2007

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