So what’s the state of the environment in 2019?

Welcome to the longest summary you may ever find, AKA an overview of the UN Environment’s Global Environmental Outlook 6. I couldn’t cover everything in this 700+ page document, but I tried to highlight what I personally found most interesting and the most shareable pieces of data.

While this summary focuses more heavily on the impact, I do discuss some of the policy and some ways to take further action at the end. Effective policy looks different everywhere, so take this information and use it in ways that can help your own community best.

Let’s begin.

What is the Global Environmental Outlook 6?

The Global Environmental Outlook 6 (GEO 6) is a massive report that seeks to not only assess how different factors of the environment are, but how their change affects humanity.

You can find the full Global Environmental Outlook 6 here (please don’t download it unless you’re on WIFI – it’s massive!) and download it for yourself. While I didn’t note the specific studies cited in the report just to save time, this outline follows the report closely. If one specific area sparks your interest, dive into that section of the report. Don’t be intimidated – the GEO 6 is written in a casual way that doesn’t make it feel too academic or hard to understand.

What I really appreciated about this report was that it not only spoke frankly about how we can’t fix our current system but its focus on humanity, more than just numbers. One of the basic drivers of the report was why all of this was critical to humanity’s well-being. They define human well-being as having:

  • the basic material for a good life, such as secure and adequate livelihoods, enough food at all times, shelter, clothing, and access to goods;
  • health, including feeling well and having a healthy physical environment, such as clean air and access to clean water;
  • good social relations, including social cohesion, mutual respect, and the ability to help others and provide for children;
  • security, including secure access to natural and other resources, personal safety, and security from natural and human-made disasters;
  • and freedom of choice and action, including the opportunity to achieve what an individual values doing and being. 

The drivers and pieces of the environment we’ll dive into next all have a close connection with human well-being. If we’re not doing right by the environment, we’re not doing right by ourselves.

Need the even shorter version? Grab a PDF one-pager that outlines everything in the report!

Find value in my work? It’s wildly fulfilling but posts like these don’t pay the bills. 

What are the main drivers influencing changes in the global environment?

The GEO 6 identifies five main drivers (factors) that are changing the global environment and are careful to not that most have the potential to influence positively or negatively. 

Population

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 population - Green Indy Blog

Population. How many people can this planet sustain. (Something you’ll get very different answers for depending on who you ask.)

What’s happened since the last report? The big takeaways that struck me regarding population were 1) the peak human population is probably going to be higher than previously projected and 2) recent times have shown a massive increase in migrants and refugees.

This higher population growth is going to be mainly in countries where people are poorer, the carbon footprints are lower per capita, and there’s slower income growth. (Countries with higher income per capita will stagnate.) This trend leads to several issues, all of which reinforces current divides/inequalities and environmental pressures:

  • High population growth is characterized by a greater lack of access to education and health services. Additionally, it signals lower life expectancy and higher maternal rates for women (higher child mortality rates also follower).
  • Massive population growth is coming at a time when our resources are getting more and more scarce, which will inevitably lead to conflict over limited resources. This also exacerbates the migrant and refugee situation.
  • One takeaway I really enjoyed was the point that a lot of (white, neoliberal) people want to ignore when talking population:

It should be stressed that population dynamics and population growth do not in themselves lead to an unsustainable environmental path. Rather, this path is the result of population growth happening with the current consumption and production patterns. Unsustainable consumption and production are each largely fuelled by heightened inequality. Both within and between countries, inequality remains one of the largest obstacles to environmental sustainability.

Economic development

What’s happened since the last report? The global economy is still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession, while there continues to be major concerns about the global debt crisis, income inequality, and instability due to trade wars.

I truly appreciate such a massively influential report hammering home the idea that economic development cannot just rely on GDP. Instead, we need to focus on human development as well (and take into account people marginalized from typical GDP numbers – mostly women – still contribute massively).

The GEO 6 goes even further to definitively state that growth as usual can’t continue. Still, they recognize that the idea of unending growth is very popular socially and politically around the world.

On a more data-driven level, there’s much to be done to level the quality of life for those disenfranchised. 783 million people – 10.7% of the global population – still live on less than $1.90/day, while 48.7% live on less than $5.50/day.

New technology

What’s happened since the last report? GEO 6 reports that climate change is incentivizing environmentally riskier ideas like nuclear power since we’re unwilling to make the much bigger, substantive systemic changes needed.

The report highlights throughout this part that new technology can be a positive or negative driver of environmental change, depending on how it’s utilized. Personally, I see a lot of people pinning their hopes on new technology (hybrid cars) rather than embracing simpler, lower-carbon but less “sexy” solutions (no car).

The report focuses on the need to balance between leveraging new technologies to make changes against turning them into sustainable nightmares, particularly in energy and agricultural technology.

Urbanization

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 Urbanization - Green Indy Blog

What’s happened since the last report? 50% of the world’s population is now urban, with a particular growth in the global south. The trend shows no signs of slowing down.

Urbanization is a driver of environmental change for many reasons. Urban living means higher income and consumption, which leads to greater pressure on natural resources per capita. That being said, cities can have greater efficiency in how they use their resources if there’s effective planning.

(Spoiler alert: there often isn’t. The report shared that many small to medium cities don’t have the ability to lead major urban development processes effectively. Bigger cities will probably not have the resources to grow efficiently.)

Some interesting statistics about urbanization that suggest massive upcoming issues:

  • 60% of the world will be living in urban areas by 2030; that jumps to 66.4% by 2050.
  • 90% of city growth will happen in low-income countries, with African cities growing the most and European the least.
  • We can expect to see a doubling of the global population in this century, but no more than another billion afterwards. We’re in a very brief, incredibly rapid growth period hurtling us toward disaster. 
Climate change

What’s happened since the last report? The warming of the climate system is unquestionable, and it’s now taken on a momentum independent of future human activity.

We’ve entered into an era of climate change which is already going to happen, regardless of any future change to our greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Perhaps most shocking to me was just how many GHGs we’re really emitting: from 1750-1970, the cumulative CO2 emissions were 910 gigatons. From 1970-2010, 1090 gigatons CO2.

All of these emissions are leading toward catastrophic consequences (we’ll talk more about these effects in the next sections): a global temperature increase, a disrupted water cycle, the warming of oceans, shrinking ice cover, increased catastrophic weather events, and much more.

Find value in my work? It’s wildly fulfilling but posts like these don’t pay the bills. 

How are people and their livelihoods affecting and affected by environmental change?

Both of these questions are addressed in the GEO 6’s sections on cross-cutting issues.

What are cross-cutting issues? An “issues-based approach to environmental assessment limit our ability to consider truly transformative pathways, cross-cutting and more integrated approaches are essential and must ultimately displace those based on single-issue analyses”.

The TL;DR? Massive organizations like the UN now realize problems and solutions don’t exist independent of others; in fact, societal issues overlap significantly. 

People and livelihood

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 People & livelihood - Green Indy Blog

The first section is firmly focused on how environmental changes affect people across the globe at the most basic level. It also addresses the very real fact that environmental racism and classism means that the brunt of any change falls onto people of color in the global south.

  • Issue #1: Health. Environmental change affects people’s health in many ways; physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially. The report also emphasizes other parts of health in a non-traditional sense: equity and safety, access to resources, and access to nature all lead to a healthy self.
  • Issue #2: Environmental Disasters. Both sudden-onset (earthquake, tsunami) and slow-onset (drought, desertification) disasters pose a threat to humanity. 24.2 million people were displaced by sudden-onset disasters in 2016, putting greater pressure on governments and organizations where they fled to.
  • Issue #3: Gender. As we all know from my favorite book ever (Drawdown), pursuing gender equity isn’t just noble – it’s one of the most effective ways to reduce our global carbon emissions! As GEO 6 reports, “when women are accorded equal voice in environmental decision-making, public resources are more likely to be directed towards human development priorities and investments”. Gender equity comes in menstruation education, general education, and entrepreneurial empowerment, among other things.
  • Issue #4: Education. Education is critical, both general and sustainable. (Imagine how different the world would be if earlier generations were educated more about sustainability and our impact on the planet!) GEO 6 talks about teaching many different competencies, like systems thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, and self-awareness.
  • Issue #5: Urbanization. As discussed earlier, the global trend is towards cities. When cities don’t have appropriate infrastructure to contain so many more people, inefficient – or even dangerous – systems begin.
Changing environments

As environments change, so much we to adapt or perish. Our environments are changing rapidly due to many different issues:

  • Issue #1: Climate Change. At current GHG emission rates, we’ll blow past the 1.5C Paris Agreement number by the 2040s. As the planet heats up, dry areas will become dryer while wet areas become wetter. Hotter oceans means more frequent, sustained and dangerous weather events will occur.
  • Issue #2: Polar Regions and Mountains. More than 70% of the planet’s fresh water is in the polar region’s ice – and it’s melting fast. If the Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, sea levels would rise by 58.3 meters.
  • Issue #3: Chemicals. While it’s true not all chemicals are bad, modern society has made more than 100,000 chemicals available on the market. Because of how much are used, there is a problem of persistent, toxic bioaccumulation globally which threatens our water, air, soil, and lungs.
  • Issue #4: Waste and Waste Water. It’s no surprise to any of us that our society wastes a lot, That’s the big reason why our personal zero waste efforts are never zero. We waste or lose 1/3 of the food meant for human consumption every year. Not only do we lose $750B – $1T, but it would feed more than double the amount of undernourished globally. On the other end of the spectrum, waster water is a dangerous issue. Globally, only 34% of rural and 26% of urban sanitation and wastewater services prevent humans from contacting waste during the process. Can you say disease-spreading?
Resources and materials

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 resources - Green Indy Blog

Individual zero waste tends to be very focused on resources and materials – and for good reason – our systems are incredibly wasteful. While there are plenty of ways to reduce your personal waste, we must remember our wasteful habits were born from a wasteful system.

  • Issue #1: Resource Use. This is where we get to talk about the circular economy and how the only true way to back down from the precipice we’re at is to seriously start designing waste out of our processes and consume less. This section was also a stark reminder that we can’t find new and accessible deposits of non-renewable resources as fast as demand for them is growing – a massive risk to the natural environment, particularly since many of these resources are in countries without appropriate political/economic infrastructure.
  • Issue #2: Energy. Again, the inequalities in our world are revealed. In 2015 we used the equivalent of 13.5 billion tons of oil for energy consumption, yet 1.2 billion people live without electricity and 2.7 billion people use traditional, highly polluting fuels for cooking and heat. GHG emissions from energy use are expected to rise from 33 gigatons of CO2 (2014) to 38 gigatons in 2040.
  • Issue #3: Food systems. Our current food systems are highly inefficient, and part of the reason why arguments for population control are weak. Keeping the same system we’re in, we’d need to increase global food production by 50% by 2050 to meet demand. But that’s not the answer, is it? We don’t need to push a terrible system further, we just need to become more efficient. (For example, livestock. It makes up half of agriculture’s GHGs, but only provides 18% of the world’s calories and 40% of its protein.)
Cross-cutting policy

So after all those issues and statistics… what do we do? The report talks about a lot of systemic changes we often discuss on an individual level within the zero waste movement such as:

  • adapting our systems to be more resilient to climate change and making sure those systems are equitable;
  • creating a sustainable agrifood system by incentivizing farmers to reduce practices that negatively impact the environment, reduce GHG in animal agriculture, deal with food loss and waste, and encourage healthy and sustainable diet patterns (ie. less meat, more local);
  • decarbonizing energy systems by moving away from fossil fuels and actually reducing our energy use;
  • embrace the concept of a circular economy by (to name just a few): decreasing demand for raw materials, replacing fossil-based, scarce materials with sustainably produced renewable raw materials, smart product design, and promoting thoughtful consumption.

The state of the global environment

Here’s where we reach the crux of the report – and the truly worrying results of a world consumed with infinite growth above all else.

What spoke to me most? This part: “Climate change and increased climate variability worsen existing poverty, exacerbate inequalities and trigger new vulnerabilities.” By continuing the same patterns, the privilege continue to oppress until the planet can literally no longer sustain us.

The state of Air

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 air - Green Indy Blog

One point the GEO 6 continued to press was that the results of climate change were affecting those already vulnerable. The elderly, very young, very sick, or very poor are much more susceptible to air pollution – and the highest risk comes to those people living in urban areas in low- and middle-income countries. Air pollution contributes to 6-7 million premature deaths every year.

Air pollution comes from any number of sources. The report names electricity and fuel production, transportation, residential and commercial, agriculture and forestry, natural emissions and land-use change (cropland expansion especially). The truly worrying part about all these air polluters is the fact that any decrease in emissions have been offset by larger increases in other areas.

The report points to the fact that the political will (and even ability) to manage air pollution varies significantly between countries which makes it very difficult to create a workable solution. Air pollution doesn’t just stay in the place where it’s created.

Some of the major impacts seen through increased air pollution includes:

  • Human health. The exposure to ambien PM2.5 – a class of air pollution – is the highest environmental risk factor of disease and 6th among all risk factors.
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion which can lead to skin cancer.
  • Climate change.
  • Food security.
  • Ecosystems. More and more plants and animals will die out as they are unable to cope with elevated pollution levels.
  • Social well-being. Air pollution can significantly degrade the materials we use to build with making our cities less beautiful and more toxic.

What policy options are there? National and international frameworks to establish targets since as pollution concentration or total pollutant loads. Emissions budgets. Technology and emissions standards. Market interventions like carbon offsets. Public education and information.

The state of Biodiversity

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 biodiversity - Green Indy Blog

The GEO 6 defines biodiversity as the “variability among living organisms from all sources including.. diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.” It’s a particularly critical part of our environment as the variability helps to regulate climate through carbon sequestration, controlling the rain, helping filter air and water, as well as mitigating the impact of natural disasters.

Unfortunately, we’re doing a terrible job of honoring biodiversity. We are losing species at a rate 1000x what would be considered baseline. The cycad species (think palm-y type plants) are at the greatest risk, with 63% of the species threatened. 41% of amphibians are threatened and 42% of terrestrial invertebrate are at risk of extinction.

The main reasons for biodiversity loss are:

  • Habitat stress and land-use change. This mainly refers to growing agriculture, but also urbanization, increased demand for resource extraction, and road building.
  • Invasive species. Non-native species create direct/indirect competition and are disease agents.
  • Pollution. 
  • Unsustainable use or over-exploitation. This includes land, resources, and fishing.
  • Climate change. Always climate change.

What policy options are there? Protection in the form of governmental organizations, protected areas, and permits/taxes for ecosystem services. Enabling actors through community-based conservation. Supporting investment such as banking genetic material.

Find value in my work? It’s wildly fulfilling but posts like these don’t pay the bills. 

The state of Oceans and coasts

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 ocean - Green Indy Blog

When we consider that the ocean makes up more than 70% of the Earth and 2.4 billion people will live in coastal areas by 2050, the need to address concerns over changes becomes even more clear.

As the oceans heat up due to climate change, we see not only more dangerous, sustained weather events, but we also run the risk of depleting a critical resource. Seafood accounts for at least 20% of animal protein for 3.1 billion people. What will happen as fish populations continue to dwindle or move to cope with depleted stock and changing temperatures? Attempts to limit the places and amounts people can fish have worked to mixed results – we’re still significantly over-fishing.

We’re also all heard about the significant damage toward coral reef bleaching which is a blow to the ocean ecosystem. Unfortunately, not much has been done since change requires a global policy to be effective.

Finally, let’s not forget about marine littler. If we’re talking about waste reduction, here it is. 275 million tons of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries a few years ago with 4.8-12.7 million tons washed into the oceans. By 2025 scientists estimate we’ll see 100-250 million tons of plastic in the ocean. Reducing our dependence on single-use plastics is critical for ocean conservation.

The report acknowledges there’s a major knowledge gap for the general public in understanding how plastic breaks down and where it eventually ends up (the ocean). Efforts should focus on prevention at the source.

What policy options are there? Enabling actors by creating educational campaigns and awareness. Creating legally-binding and voluntary rules on reducing over-fishing. Economic incentives such as transferable quotas.

The state of Land and soil

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 land and soil - Green Indy Blog

Land and soil – “provider of food, fodder, fiber, and forest products”. Catchy, no?

On the bright side, we lose less forest every year than we did in the 1990s. That being said, natural forests continue to decline as forest cover in more developed countries increases. (Human-made forests do not provide the same varied benefits that natural forests do.)

There are many reasons our land and soil quality continues to decline:

  • Population growth. In lower-income countries, the population will double or triple by the middle of the 21st century. Even the most efficient city requires massive land use to accommodate such a population explosion.
  • Urbanization. Again, the drive of bigger and bigger populations towards city life puts a huge strain on resources. Further, much of the population growth is happening on unsafe land. “Much of the increase in population in built-up areas has taken place in disaster-prone regions within 10 miles of low elevation coastal zone.” As oceans rise, more people will be at risk.
  • Food production. Right now, food production accounts for the largest anthropogenic (human activity) use of land – up to 38% of ice-free land or 50% of habitable land. If we continue to use our inefficient food systems to feed a growing population, land will become more and more scarce.
  • Land degradation and desertification. Soil erosion, salinization, compaction, contamination, organic matter decline, forest fires, and overgrazing – you name it, we’re doing it to the land. Globally, it’s all increased.

What policy options are there? Securing land rights for local communities to turn assets into development opportunities. Enabling actors to create a stakeholder network for responsible systems, particularly for indigenous people. Economic incentives and setting best practice standards. Promotion of innovation.

The state of Freshwater 

Summary of the Global Environmental Outlook 6 fresh water - Green Indy Blog

It’s no question that due to massive population growth, pollution, unsustainable development, and climate change, more and more pressure is put on the water supply. Slow-onset disasters like drought and famine will lead to increased migration – and will be distributed unequally across the world.

Add to that the fact that agriculture uses an average of 70% of all freshwater withdrawals – and up to 90% in many poor countries – and we’re facing potential catastrophe.

Globally, water quality has gotten worse since 1990 in most of the world because of pollution and micro-plastic waste. One in three lack access to safe sanitation. 1.4 million people die every year from preventable diseases due to drinking unclean water. 

It’s not all bad news – sort of. 1.5 billion more people got access to basic potable water services from 2002-2015. But women and children still bear the burden of transporting water in many developing countries, which reduces access to education and eats up time that could be used for business or other tasks. (Seriously. Women spend an estimated 16 million hours collecting water every day, compared to 6 million for men and 4 million for children.)

Again, it’s clear that the impact of environmental changes does not fall on all populations equally; indeed, it continues to hold up the same old inequity.

What policy options are there? Supporting investments like water pricing and free provision of basic water supply – economic benefit of $4.3 for every $1 invested in safe drinking water). Command and control water quality goals. Encourage technology innovation and policy to reduce water usage and increase water efficiency.

Conclusions?

Not so great, as you might imagine.

Without additional policies, trends in environmental degradation are projected to continue at a rapid rate and the related Sustainable Development Goal targets and internationally agreed environmental goals are not expected to be achieved, including on climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, excess nutrient run-off, land degradation and ocean acidification.

We know our current patterns are unsustainable, yet it make take several global catastrophes to make us willing to change. By then, it’ll probably be too late.

Still, there are clear pathways on how we can achieve the goals set out by the Paris Agreement. The big positive in all this is that we’re not going in without ideas. People much smarter than all of us have laid out a clear path – it’s up to us that understand there’s no more time to act to push everyone else in the right direction.

Are you up for it?


Further action (US-based):

Find value in my work? It’s wildly fulfilling but posts like these don’t pay the bills. 

So what's the state of the environment in 2019_ - Green Indy Blog (pin)