On environmental damage

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Rampant overconsumption, pollution and food waste in the developed world leads to hunger, poverty and disease elsewhere

A quarter of all premature deaths and diseases worldwide are due to manmade pollution and environmental damage, the United Nations said Wednesday in a landmark report on the planet’s parlous state.

Deadly smog-inducing emissions, chemicals polluting drinking water, and the accelerating destruction of ecosystems crucial to the livelihoods of billions of people are driving a worldwide epidemic that hampers the global economy, it warned.

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) -- a report six years in the making compiled by 250 scientists from 70 nations -- depicts a growing chasm between rich and poor countries as rampant overconsumption, pollution and food waste in the developed world leads to hunger, poverty and disease elsewhere.

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise amid a preponderance of droughts, floods and superstorms made worse by climbing sea levels, there is a growing political consensus that climate change poses a future risk to billions.

But the health impacts of pollution, deforestation and the mechanised food-chain are less well understood.

Nor is there any international agreement for the environment close to covering what the 2015 Paris accord does for climate.

The GEO compiles a litany of pollution-related health emergencies.

It said that poor environmental conditions “cause approximately 25 percent of global disease and mortality” -- around 9 million deaths in 2015 alone.

Lacking access to clean drinking supplies, 1.4 million people die each year from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea and parasites linked to pathogen-riddled water and poor sanitation.

Chemicals pumped into the seas cause “potentially multi-generational” adverse health effects, and land degradation through mega-farming and deforestation occurs in areas of Earth home to 3.2 billion people.

The report says air pollution causes 6-7 million early deaths annually.

“Urgent action at an unprecedented scale is necessary to arrest and reverse this situation,” said a note to policymakers accompanying the report.

- ‘Massive human damage’ -

“If you have a healthy planet it supports not only global GDP but it also supports the lives of the very poorest because they depend on clean air and clean water,” Joyeeta Gupta, GEO co-chair, told AFP.

“If you turn that around, an unhealthy system has massive damage on human lives.”

The report called for a root-and-branch detoxifying of human behaviour while insisting that the situation is not unassailable.

Food waste for instance, which accounts for 9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, could be slashed. The world currently throws away a third of all food produced. That figure is fuelled by 56 percent in richer nations going to waste.

“Everyone is saying that by 2050 we have to feed 10 billion people, but that doesn’t mean we have to double production,” Gupta said.

“If we reduce our waste and perhaps have less meat you could immediately reduce that problem.”

The report also called for a rapid drawdown in greenhouse gas emissions and pesticide use to improve air and water quality, and a move towards more sustainable industry.

“There is a clear prognosis of what will happen if we continue with business as usual,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

A Guest Editorial