UNEP hands world homework for Earth Summit 2012

Among green geopolitical milestones there are a few true megaliths. Probably one can count in the world assemblees in Copenhagen and Kyoto, but the real foundations for international environmental cooperation were laid decades before.

UNEP report Rio Summit
Major examples are the 1972 Stockholm UN environmental conference [and from the same year the publication of The Limits to Growth] and Our Common Future, or the ‘Brundlandt Report’, by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, released in 1987 [the real environmental success of that year was however the Montreal Protocol].

But in the early 90s there was another big one: the Earth Summit or Rio Conference, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

It was then and there in Rio that the world decided a special climate treaty would be needed and the UNFCCC was established. As there are so many other environmental and development issues that require international cooperation the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs thought it would be nice to hold a reunion, from 4 to 6 June 2012.

The new summit will be called the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio +20 – as again Rio de Janeiro will be host city.

Today UNEP has published a report (PDF) with background data for the negotiating parties.

As derived from the UNEP report here is an overview of some of the heaviest bullet points, summarising where we stand. It is safe to say things have not quite improved since 1972 or 1992:

On population

  • As the world population has reached 7 billion, urban population has grown by 45 per cent since 1992
  • Yet the percentage of slum dwellers has dropped from 46 per cent in 1990 to a third in 2010, thanks to improved housing and sanitation
  • The number of megacities with at least 10 million people has grown from 10 in 1992 to 21 last year – a 110 per cent increase
  • 1.4 billion people globally have no access to reliable electricity or the power grid.

Climate change

  • Global C02 emissions continue to rise due to increasing use of fossil fuels, with 80 per cent of global emissions coming from just 19 countries.
  • The amount of CO2 per US$1 GDP has dropped by 23 per cent since 1992 underlining that some decoupling of economic growth from resource use is occurring.
  • Nearly all mountain glaciers around the world are retreating and getting thinner, with severe impacts on the environment and human well-being.
  • Diminishing glaciers not only influence current sea-level rise, but also threaten the well-being of approximately one-sixth of the world’s population.
  • Sea levels have been rising at an average rate of about 2.5 mm per year since 1992.


  • Tracking energy trends since 1992, the report indicates that the contribution of renewable energy (including biomass) to the global energy supply stood at an estimated 16% in 2010.
  • Solar and wind energy accounted for only 0.3% of the total global energy. Increased recognition of the need to move towards low carbon, resource efficient energy solutions can be seen in the 540% increase in investments in sustainable energy between 2004 and 2010.
  • Due to the decreasing prices of the technologies and adoption of new policies, growth in biodiesel as a renewable energy source has jumped 300,000 per cent, use of solar energy has increased by nearly 30,000 per cent, wind by 6,000 per cent and biofuels by 3,500 per cent.

Resource Efficiency

  • The global use of natural resources rose by over 40 per cent from 1992 to 2005. The report warns that unless concerted and rapid action is taken to curb and decouple resource depletion from economic growth, human activities may destroy the very environment that supports economies and sustains life.


  • Despite the net reforestation now seen in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific, ongoing forest loss in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean means that global forest area has decreased by 300 million hectares since 1990.
  • The annual 20 per cent rise in the number of forests receiving certificates for sustainable forestry practices shows that consumers are exerting influence on timber production. However, only around 10 per cent of global forests are under certified sustainable management.
  • A growing percentage of the world’s forests are ones that have been replanted – an area equaling the size of a country like Tanzania.

Food Security and land use

  • Food production has risen by 45% since 1992. These increased yields are heavily reliant on the use of fertilisers, which as well as enriching soil fertility, can also have a negative impact on the environment, such algal blooms in inland and marine waters.
  • Land used for organic farming is growing at an annual rate of 13 per cent.

Drinking Water

  • The world will meet, or even exceed, the Millennium Development Goals target on access to drinking water; indicating that by 2015 nearly 90 per cent of the population in developing regions will have access to improved sources of drinking water, up from 77 per cent in 1990.

The data compiled also indicates that environmental target-setting works best for well-defined issues such as phasing out leaded gasoline or ozone-depleting substances.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, for example, used mandatory targets to phase-out the pollutants that were damaging the planet’s protective shield.

Over 90 per cent of all ozone-depleting substances under the treaty were phased out between 1992 and 2009. Similarly, only a small number of countries still use leaded gasoline and they are expected to make the switch over the next year or two.

Other facts and figures from the report include:

  • 13 per cent of the world’s land surface, 7 per cent of its coastal waters and 1.4 percent of its oceans are protected. [See Nagoya results – planned increase to 17 percent.]
  • There is a growing concern that the oceans are becoming more acidic. This could have significant consequences on marine organisms which may alter species composition, disrupt marine food webs and potentially damage fishing, tourism activities.
  • The ocean’s pH declined from 8.11 in 1992 to 8.06 in 2007.
  • The number of tanker oil spills recorded has declined in 20 years.
  • Biodiversity has declined by 12 per cent at the global level and by 30 per cent in the tropics.
  • Eco-tourism is growing at a rate three times faster than traditional mass-tourism.
  • Plastics production has climbed by 130 per cent.

The UNEP publication also notes that many environmental issues, which were only emerging in 1992, are now firmly part of mainstream policymaking in many countries.

Some examples include:

  • New Multilateral Environmental Agreements and Conventions which have been established or entered into force to address emerging global environmental issues.
  • The greening of economy has taken off as a viable pathway of low-carbon, climate resilient and resource efficient economic development.
  • Carbon Trading has put a monetary value on Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
  • Recycling, or processing waste into new resources, is becoming policy and practice in many countries.
  • Commercialisation of renewable energy, with biofuels, solar and wind energy production growing.
  • Chemicals Management has led to the banning of a number of deadly chemicals.
  • Organic Products and eco-labeling are growing thanks to consumer demand.
  • Nanotechnology is growing, especially in the fields of energy, health care, clean water and climate change.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org

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