Overhaul of Global Environmental Governance to Meet 21st Century Challenges Tops Emerging Issues Selected by UN Scientific Panel Mon, Feb 20, 2012

Re-tooling the Global Work Force for a Green Economy and Increased Threats to Food Security and Safety Ranked Second and Third Findings Come as Global Environment Outlook-5 Summary Released to World's Environment Ministers at UNEP Governing Council

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Nairobi, 20 February 2012-A complete overhaul of the way the planet is managed is urgently needed if the challenges of global sustainability are to be met for seven billion people.

This is the conclusion of a wide-ranging Foresight Process conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), involving a Foresight Panel and 400 leading scientists and experts from around the world.

UNEP's Foresight Process was an eight-month process  to identify and rank the most pressing emerging issues in the sphere of the environment- issues which perhaps do not currently receive the attention they deserve - but which have a huge impact on the planet and on human well-being.

While the scientific community is on the frontline of assessing emerging threats and finding innovative solutions to environmental challenges, the report reveals that they need more support from international political and delivery structures if real progress is to be made and a sustainable century realized.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The Foresight Process has brought a unique and sharp focus to the emerging issues the world is facing. It is a snapshot of expert scientific opinion, underlining how even long standing issues such as governance, food security and water scarcity are evolving and metamorphosing as accelerating environmental change presents fresh and fundamentally new challenges".

"The findings dovetail with the summary for policy makers of GEO-5, which comes in advance of the full report - to be launched in early June- just weeks before Rio+20. The final report  will offer the analysis and the scientific foresight that can not only inform governments, the public and civil society on just how far the current development path is stretching the planet and fast forwarding 'tipping points'. It hopefully will be also read, understood and digested by everyone interested in transforming sustainable development from theory and patchy success into implemented day to day practice," he said.

UNEP's Foresight Panel consists of 22 distinguished members of the scientific community from 16 developing and industrialized countries, covering all world regions and who are internationally recognized because of their expertise in one or more environmental or related issues.

The Panel, whose findings were released today at the opening of the 12th Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum, selected a preliminary list of 21 emerging issues after a first round of debate on more than 90 issues.

These were put out for consultation and feedback from more than 400 leading scientists and researchers worldwide.

Based on their responses, the panel produced a ranked list of "21 Issues for the 21st Century", concluding that the number one issue facing the planet is Aligning Governance to the Challenges of Global Sustainability

The current system of international environmental governance, with its maze of interlocking multilateral agreements evolved during the 20th century, is believed by the vast majority to be unsuitable and ill-equipped to meet the risks and deliver the opportunities for the 21st century.

Some commentators believe that this system lacks the necessary representativeness, accountability and effectiveness for the transition to sustainability, and that a much higher level of participation and transparency is needed.

New models of governance are being tested, ranging from public-private community partnerships to alliances between environmentalist and other civil society groups. However, the effectiveness of novel governance arrangements is unclear and requires further scrutiny.

The second most pressing emerging issue is Transforming Human Capabilities for the 21st Century: Meeting Global Environmental Challenges and Moving towards a Green Economy.  

A wide-ranging upgrade is needed in the skills and education of the global workforce if the opportunities of the Green Economy are to be seized.

Ranked number 3 of the 21 emerging issues is Ensuring Food Safety and Food Security for 9 Billion People.

Although food security is a longstanding issue, the world needs to confront a new set of challenges such as climate change, competition for land from bioenergy production, heightened water scarcity, and possible shortfalls of phosphorus for fertilizer.

  • Food safety also faces new challenges from increasing disease transmission from animals to people and food contamination

  • There is an urgent need to increase the security and safety of the world's food supply by setting up more comprehensive early warning systems, supporting smallholder farmers, reducing food waste, and increasing agricultural efficiency.

 

The Other Top Ten of Emerging Issues Ranked are:

  • 4 - Broken Bridges: Reconnecting Science and Policy
  • 5 - Social Tipping Points? Catalyzing Rapid and Transformative Changes in Human Behaviour Towards the Environment
  • 6 - New Insights on Water-Land Interactions: Shift in the Management Paradigm?
  • Joint 7th - Accelerating the Implementation of Environmentally-Friendly Renewable Energy / Beyond Conservation: Integrating Biodiversity Across the Environmental and Economic Agendas / New Challenges for Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation: Managing the Unintended Consequences
  • 10 - Greater Risk than Necessary? The Need for a New Approach for Minimizing Risks of Novel Technologies and Chemicals.

The launch of the Foresight Report comes in advance of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 20-22, 2012 under the theme of a Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

The second overarching theme is the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The report is aimed at providing governments, civil society and business with fundamental scientific assessments in order to forge a forward-looking outcome by the end.

Global Survey Illuminates Regional Concerns with Boosting Renewable Energy to Water Scarcity Topping the List

A regional breakdown of the global survey of 400 leading environmental scientists shows a remarkable consensus on the need to prioritise Renewable Energy.

Respondents from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe all placed Accelerating the Implementation of Environmentally-Friendly Renewable Energy Sources number one on their list of priorities for the 21st Century.

Respondents from North America and West Asia placed it at number two, behind Getting a Grasp on Conflicting Water Uses and New Challenges for Improving Food Safety and Security, respectively.

Global Environment Outlook-5

The findings from the Foresight Process and Panel also come in advance of UNEP's authoritative state of the environment report ? Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) to be launched on and around World Environment Day in Brazil in early June ?weeks before the Rio+20 summit.

Today, UNEP released the GEO-5 Summary for Policy Makers as a prelude to the full report.

The Summary, which was negotiated and endorsed by governments on 31 January 2012, warns of the continued deterioration in the state of the global environment, pointing out that internationally agreed goals have only been partially met:

  • The internationally agreed goal of avoiding the adverse effects of climate change is presenting the global community with one of its most serious challenges that is threatening overall development goals.
  • The rate of forest loss, particularly in the tropics, remains alarmingly high.
  • Today, 80 per cent of the world's population lives in areas with high levels of threat to water security, affecting 3.4 billion people, mostly in developing countries.
  • At least 415 coastal areas have exhibited serious eutrophication and only 13 of these are recovering.
  • Up to two thirds of species are threatened with extinction. Since 1970, vertebrate populations have fallen by 30 per cent and degradation has resulted in declines of 20 per cent of some natural habitats.

The Summary for Policy Makers calls for policies that focus on the underlying drivers of environmental change (such as the negative aspects of population growth, consumption and production, urbanization) rather than just concentrating on reducing environmental pressures or symptoms.

Recommendations include:

  • The use of timely and accurate data  to inform decision-making;
  • Reversal of policies that generate unsustainable outcomes;  
  • The creation of incentives to advance sustainable practices;
  •  Urgent, ambitious and cooperative action by governments to meet internationally agreed goals;
  • Strengthening access to information;
  • The engagement of civil society, the private sector and other relevant actors in policy-making processes.

The summary contains a number of priority areas for action and includes examples of promising policies and practices that can be scaled-up in all regions to help countries meet internationally agreed goals. It reinforces the Foresight Report's call for improved international environmental governance.

Notes to Editors

About the Foresight Report

  • The Foresight Report is accessible online at: http://www.unep.org/publications/ebooks/foresightreport/
  • The Foresight Process was organized by UNEP's Chief Scientist's Office and the Division of Early Warning and Assessment. At the core of the process is a Foresight Panel consisting of 22 distinguished members of the scientific community recruited from developing and industrialized countries and internationally recognized because of their expertise in one or more environmental and related issues. The Panel covers a wide spectrum of research disciplines from environmental governance to marine sciences. 5 Panel members are from Africa, 6 from Asia and the Pacific Region, 3 from Latin America, 5 from Europe, and 3 from North America. 14 work mostly in the natural sciences and 8 in economics or the social sciences. 15 are men and 7 women.
  • An electronic consultation was organized in order to obtain input from a wide sampling of scientists worldwide. An interactive electronic questionnaire was prepared with a list and descriptions of the 21 priority issues from the first Panel meeting. This questionnaire was sent to 933 scientists around the world who were asked to score the issues according to their importance (i.e., 1 = not so important, up to 10 = very important). They were also requested to provide comments on the issues, suggest additional issues, and suggest issues that should be dropped.
  • The response rate was considered excellent (428 responses, giving a nearly 1 in 2 response ratio). The regional distribution of responses was also thought to be very good (Africa 17%, Asia/Pacific 16%, Europe 27%, Latin America 13%, North America 18%, West Asia 10%). The disciplinary and gender balance of responses reflected current realities in the scientific community (natural science 76%, social science and economics 24%; male 73%, female 27%).
  • Data from the electronic consultation were analyzed by computing the average score and weighted scores based on region, expertise, and gender. These scores were used to rank the issues. The results served as the main input for the Foresight Panel meeting which then consolidated them into the Foresight Report.
  • The Fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-5) Summary for Policy Makers is available at http://www.unep.org/geo/pdfs/SPM_Report.pdf

About GEO 5

  • The Summary for Policy Makers is part of a series of Global Environment Outlook (GEO) products that report on the state, trends and outlooks of the environment and thus inform environmental decision-making while facilitating the interaction between science and policy. See www.unep.org/geo
  • GEO-5 assessed progress and gaps in meeting 90 internationally agreed goals. Significant progress was found for just 4 goals; some progress has been made for 40 and for 32 goals there was very little or no progress. Furthermore, GEO-5 regional policy analysis provides over 90 promising policies and 116 case studies which can help countries speed up meeting our internationally agreed goals.
  • The GEO-5 Summary for Policy Makers (GEO-5 SPM) is based on the scientific findings of the Global Environmental Outlook-5 report. It was developed by UNEP with the guidance of the GEO-5 High Level Intergovernmental Advisory Panel and with technical inputs from the GEO-5 authors. Governments convened in Gwanju city, Republic of South Korea to negotiate the GEO-5 Summary for Policy Makers and endorsed it on 31 January 2012.
  • The GEO-5 Assessment report will be launched on 6 June 2012 in Brazil.
  • The Green Economy in the context of Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication is one of the main themes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development ? Rio+20. More information is available at: http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/

For more information, please contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Acting Director and Spokesman, Tel. +41 795 965 737 or +254 733 632 755 or email nick.nuttall@unep.org

Shereen Zorba, Head, UNEP Newsdesk, Tel. +254  788 526000,  email: unepnewsdesk@unep.org

 
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