By Alfred Nyakinda

The release of the 6th Global Environmental Outlook calls for urgent measures to protect the environment as lack of action will lead to dire health consequences.

The panel during the launch of the report

“This report is an outlook for humanity, we are at a crossroads,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment, “Do we continue on our current path which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway?”

The UN report released at the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, identifies the major drivers of environmental change and warns that climate change has itself become a driver of environmental problems. The major drivers include: population growth, rapid urbanization and the link between resource use and environmental degradation.

According to Siim V. Kiisler, Estonian Minister of Environment and President of UNEA, the report will enable improved environmental data monitoring.

“The main priority to me has been comparing the environmental data, then we can build on it,” he said, “without comparing the environmental data we can not do anything.”

In its examination of the state of the environment, the Outlook shows that emissions from human activity continue to reduce air quality and drive climate change. It further states that a major species extinction event is in progress, threatening the planet’s integrity and capacity to meet human needs.

Major changes from the previous Outlook include greater evidence of damage in respect to biodiversity, the urgency of climate change and the need for action and greater emphasis on the impact on polar regions as well as oceans, which support between 58 million and 120 million people in the small scale fishery sector.

The link between environmental damage and health has also been better illustrated, such as the observation that a quarter of diseases worldwide are caused by modifiable environmental circumstances.

While commending efforts made by different countries towards the reduction of plastic use, Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins, co-chairs of the GEO-6 process, stressed the need for a groundswell of support to realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 or 2050.

“Unless the people demand these changes ever more strongly and ever more urgently, the politicians won’t feel that they have the mandate to act,” said Prof. Ekins.

Professor Gupta stressed that equity should be prioritized in the course of achieving targets, saying that the report looked at who was responsible for doing the most damage and who were the most affected. She noted that data in the report shows that 22 percent of the world’s population look after 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, these being indigenous people in local communities.

“We may have to look closely at our equality right now, and within countries and within cities, we have to be able to address these environment and health issues in a systemic manner,” she said.

Huge structural changes will be required to meet the SDGs. These will include all jobs becoming green through a revitalized food system that focuses on farming techniques that don’t damage the environment and a surge of industrial transformation that will see a shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy jobs.

The report shows that the health savings of a strategy to reach less than two degrees by the end of the century are estimated to be more than double the global policy costs US$22.1 trillion.

The experts stated that two thirds of the infrastructure that will be used in 2050 has not yet been built, and how it is done will determine the future of the global environment.

Examples of desirable changes mentioned include energy positive homes that generate more energy than they use and the normalization of environmentally responsible behaviors after recognizing that they don’t reduce the quality of life.