A landmark UN report published on Wednesday warned the world to drastically scale up environmental protections, or cities and regions in Asia, the Middle East and Africa could see millions of premature deaths by mid-century.

The most comprehensive and rigorous assessment on the state of the environment completed in the last five years warned damage to the planet is so dire that people’s health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken.

Produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries, the report — Sixth Global Environmental Outlook — is special because it combines information from all environmental issues as well as links up with health consequences of environmental problems.

It warns that pollutants in the freshwater systems will see anti-microbial resistance become a major cause of death by 2050 and endocrine disruptors impact male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment.

But the report highlights the fact that the world has the science, technology and finance it needs to move towards a more sustainable development pathway, although sufficient support is still missing from the public, business and political leaders who are clinging to outdated production and development models.

The report has been released while environmental ministers and delegates from 170 countries are here to participate in the world’s highest-level environmental forum, the Fourth UN Environment Assembly.

Negotiations at the Assembly are expected to tackle critical issues such as stopping food waste, promoting the spread of electric mobility, and tackling the crisis of plastic pollution in oceans, among many other pressing challenges.

“Innovation is a huge part of the progress we’ve made so far on environmental challenges. It will play a vital role in tackling all manner of pollution as well,” UN Environment acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya told IANS.

“If we don’t think beyond our traditional approaches to environmental problems, we will only be treading water. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see innovation coming from all corners, especially developing countries like India,” she said.

Innovative policy options

The projection of a future healthy planet with healthy people is based on a new way of thinking where the ‘grow now, clean up after’ model is changed to a near-zero-waste economy by 2050.

According to the Global Environmental Outlook, green investment of two per cent of countries’ GDP would deliver long-term growth as high as the presently projected but with fewer impacts from climate change, water scarcity and loss of ecosystems.

At present, the world is not on track to meet the SDGs by 2030 or 2050.

Urgent action is required now as any delay in climate action increases the cost of achieving the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, or reversing the progress and at some point, will make them impossible.

The report advises adopting less-meat intensive diets, and reducing food waste in both developed and developing countries, as it would reduce the need to increase food production by 50 per cent to feed the projected 9-10 billion people on the planet in 2050.

At present, 33 per cent of global edible food is wasted, and 56 per cent of waste happens in industrialised countries, the report states.

While urbanization is happening at an unprecedented level globally, the report says it can present an opportunity to increase citizens’ well-being while decreasing their environmental footprint through improved governance, land-use planning and green infrastructure.

Furthermore, strategic investment in rural areas would reduce pressure for people to migrate.

The report calls for action to curb the flow of the eight million tons of plastic pollution going into oceans each year.

While the issue has received increased attention in recent years, there is still no global agreement to tackle marine litter.

“The report shows that policies and technologies already exist to fashion new development pathways that will avoid these risks and lead to health and prosperity for all people,” said Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins, co-chairs of the report process.

“What is currently lacking is the political will to implement policies and technologies at a sufficient speed and scale.”

What does this report mean for India?

“Inequality has to be addressed, especially in the growing cities of India, but also more has to be invested in rural India in order to nurture a healthy and happy population,” Gupta, who is Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South Governance and Inclusive Development with University of Amsterdam, told IANS.

“While clearly, in some areas of pollution the rich countries have a big footprint both in terms of production and consumption patterns and pressure has to be put on them to change their behaviour.

“Within India, there needs to be rapid transformation to ensure that pollution does not itself become the limiting factor for the development of the people,” she added.

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