We desperately need to change course

To counter the effects of global warming, the world needs to rapidly move towards cleaner sources of energy such as that generated by the Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm in the Eastern Cape. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

To counter the effects of global warming, the world needs to rapidly move towards cleaner sources of energy such as that generated by the Jeffreys Bay Wind Farm in the Eastern Cape. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)


Everybody knows that a periodic medical checkup is good for your health. Once a year, everyone would do well to visit a doctor who can listen to your heart and lungs, measure your blood pressure, and ask how you’ve been feeling lately. These kinds of exams are critical because they can help to catch potential problems at an early stage, when there’s still a chance to treat them effectively.

The same goes for our planet — whose health, I’m afraid to say, isn’t as good as it used to be.
The United Nations Environment’s Sixth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO6), which we’re publishing this week, is the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the world’s environment. The report offers a detailed overview of the state of the planet, as well as a rigorous analysis of our prospects for a healthy future.

So what’s the prognosis? Our planet is suffering. The climate is warming, species are going extinct, natural resources are being wasted and many of our ecosystems are under stress.

But there’s good news too: we’re making progress against hunger, we’re seeing many positive examples of sustainable approaches to economic growth, and innovation is happening on a scale and at a pace that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

GEO6 offers more than just a health check. It also provides a comprehensive treatment plan, a set of actions that can put us firmly on the path to a sustainable future, as set out in the UN’s 2030 Agenda. The report concludes that the time has come for truly transformational change to the systems that run our lives. We can make enormous progress by focusing on the environmental health of three of these systems: food, energy and waste.

First, let’s look at food. To transform our food system, we need to give farmers strong incentives to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and use their water and land as efficiently as possible. We need to stop the loss and waste of food across the value chain. As the global population grows and climate pressures increase, we will have to start producing our food with greater efficiency and resilience, and we will have to empower and encourage people everywhere to adopt diets that are healthier and more sustainable. In many cases, that means eating less meat.

The second system we need to transform is energy. Renewable energy production has grown significantly over the past decade, but about two-thirds of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels. And although the amount of electricity generated globally has more than doubled since 1990, nearly one billion people still don’t have electricity at home.

Our goal should be to decarbonise our energy supply completely: we need to break the link between energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, and the air pollution generated by it. We need regulations, policies and innovations that push people towards cleaner sources of energy. We need to reduce our energy use by increasing energy efficiency and reducing energy loss.

Finally, we need a complete change in the way we think about waste. For centuries, we’ve had a “take, make, waste” approach to economic growth. Humanity used 90-billion tonnes of resources in 2017. More than 50% of that was dispersed or emitted as waste and less than 10% was put back into the economy.

It’s time for us to embrace “circularity” and start viewing our waste not just as a challenge to be managed but also as critical resource to be tapped.

Governments everywhere should impose taxes on the use of virgin materials and create incentives for companies to design sustainable or recyclable products.

Companies themselves need to target wasteful “hotspots” in their value chains and make products that can be recycled or repurposed after consumers are finished with them.

And consumers need to be more conscientious about how they buy and how much they throw away.

Building a world that can safely and humanely sustain 10-billion people is perhaps the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced. We can do it, but only if we manage to nurse our planet back to health.

The Fourth UN Environment Assembly, which is gathering in Nairobi this week, provides us with an important opportunity to commit to concrete actions to help us to realise the transformations that our planet requires.

What’s at stake is life and society as most of us know it and enjoy it today. We have no time to lose.

Joyce Msuya is the acting executive director of UN Environment, which sets the global environmental agenda

Joyce Msuya

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