From: Jeremy Lovell
Published October 25, 2007 07:42 PM

U.N. says world in dire straits

LONDON (Reuters) - Two decades after a landmark report sounded alarm bells about the state of the planet and called for urgent action to change direction, the world is still in dire straits, a U.N. agency said on Thursday.

While the U.N. Environment Program's fourth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-4) says action has been successfully taken in some regions and on some problems, the overall picture is one of sloth and neglect.

"The global trends on climate, on ozone, on indeed ecosystem degradation, fisheries, in the oceans, water supplies ... are still pointing downwards," UNEP head Achim Steiner said in a short film accompanying the report's release.

The 540-page report calls for emissions of climate warming greenhouse gases to be cut by between 60 and 80 percent, and notes that 60 percent of the world's ecosystems have been degraded and are still being used unsustainably.

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"We are facing an escalating situation. Partly because we have been very slow in reversing the degradation that we have documented and secondly because the demands on our planet have continued to grow during this period," Steiner said.

"That equation cannot hold for much longer. Indeed, in parts of the world it is no longer holding," he added.

The report is a litany of planet-wide death and degradation.

Two decades after former Norwegian premier Gro Harlem Brundtland warned that the survival of humankind was at stake, GEO-4 finds that three million people die needlessly each year from water-borne diseases in developing nations -- mostly children under five.

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Fishing capacity is nearly four times more than is sustainable, species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than fossil records show, and 12 percent of birds, 23 percent of mammals and over 30 percent of amphibians face extinction.

UNEP deputy head Marion Cheatle told a London news conference the world had suffered five mass extinctions in its history and was now undergoing a sixth.

The report, drawn together by 388 scientists and vetted by 1,000 others, praises international treaties on saving the ozone layer, desertification and biodiversity and actions in some cities on urban atmospheric pollution.

But it describes as "woefully inadequate" the global response to problems such as cutting emissions of carbon gases from power and transport that scientists say will boost average temperatures by up to four degrees Celsius this century.

"We do have solutions but we are just not applying them at the speed we need," said Cheatle. "Time and again we see not enough effort being put in."

Region by region the report highlights the good and the bad -- and in most cases the bad is winning.

In Africa it is land degradation exacerbated by climate change and conflicts, while in the Asia and Pacific air pollution is the major threat to life and in Europe it is profligate consumption and overuse of carbon-based energy.

In Latin America it is massive social inequality and deforestation, while in North America it is rising carbon emissions and urban sprawl and in the Middle East it is wars, poverty and growing water scarcity.

But all is not gloom and doom.

This year has been the one in which a combination of politics, natural events and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change established a momentum to fight global warming.

Steiner hopes that his report will have the same effect on the fight to save the planet's ecosystems.

"Our hope is that with this GEO-4 report UNEP can in a sense help to bring about a tipping point, just as we are seeing in 2007 with climate change," he said.

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