The world is up against a multitude of environmental challenges — from climate change to biodiversity loss to plastic pollution — and we’re running out of time to tackle them. This week, the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) released the sixth edition of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO6), its flagship report that provides the first comprehensive assessment on the state of our environment since 2012.
Similar to the climate change reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a collection of experts from across the globe author and rigorously review the Global Environmental Outlook report. But beyond just focusing on climate science, this report covers four thematic areas at both global and regional levels: air, water, land, and biodiversity, while also looking at five drivers of environmental change: population, economic growth, urbanization, technology, and climate change.
To learn about the key takeaways from the report, I spoke with Melinda Kimble, a member of the High-Level Review Group for GEO6 and a Senior Fellow with the UN Foundation. Melinda has spent much of her career working on international environmental policy on behalf of the U.S., including roles with the Bureau of Oceans and the International Environment and Scientific Affairs, and leading environmental negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.
Chandler Green: What are some of the most striking findings in the Global Environmental Outlook? What stands out to you?
Melinda Kimble: I was struck by three major findings. One is the fact that species collapse has a lot more knock-on effects that we ever imagined. We’ve known for about 15-20 years that the links between ecosystems and species are very important, but we’re just starting to see the research that shows how when species die off, the entire ecosystem changes as well. For example, if you lose insects, then you lose birds. If you lose a keystone species, then the entire ecosystem changes. We are dependent on ecosystems, so it’s very, very much a threat to human health and prosperity.
Another finding that we’ve talked about at the UN Foundation for a decade is the health impact of air pollution. Our data now is so advanced, we truly understand that air pollution impacts every country on the globe. It’s particularly a challenge for cities, and it is severely impacting the health of children and women in many communities because it compromises our respiratory and immune systems. We now know that there are 6-7 million preventable deaths per year from air pollution. So, if we’re talking about the biggest pollution challenge right now, it’s air pollution.
The third major finding underscored in this report is the lack of data. We might find that water pollution and chemical waste is equally as bad as air pollution when it comes to health impacts — at least in some communities. But we don’t have the data to prove this, so it’s really important to consider how best to do water quality monitoring. This is true of developed as well as developing countries. All we have to do is look at Flint, Michigan in the U.S. Their decision to change the water source for the municipal system poisoned children in many areas of the city due to toxic levels of lead. Flint is a warning because almost every pre-1900 sanitation system in the U.S. has lead and could put lead into the water system without careful analysis.
CG: What new information does the report give about the connections among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? Can you highlight a few specific examples?
MK: The report details how policymakers can assess issues and identify cross-linkages among both the thematic areas and the drivers of environmental change. It also encourages people to think creatively about how to approach problems and recognize that global or regional action is often essential due to the transboundary nature of many environmental problems.
Air pollution is a great example. If you consider greenhouse gases a pollutant and their impact is climate change — that can’t be solved without global cooperation. This is true of the air, it’s true of biodiversity, and it’s certainly true of the ocean.
Another example: the report outlines interlinkages among pollution and water quality. If we can control nutrient input into water systems, which comes from agriculture, sewage, and other sources, we can clean up rivers and bring life back. We also can improve our coastal zone management. Natural systems for coastal zone management, such as re-establishing oyster populations and reducing sediment and phosphorus, are being tried right here in the Chesapeake Bay. These steps and others can enhance water quality and restore underwater grasses, which are a critical component of the ecosystem.
And of course, if you want to reduce poverty and hunger — SDG 1 and SDG 2 — the way we address them is not just through economic policies but through good environmental practices. We need to improve agricultural biodiversity among important grains, fruits, and vegetables to make agriculture production more resilient to climate change and disease. The world technically depends on seven or eight major grain crops. If one crop goes — as in 2007 when we had a number of wheat and corn crop failures — household food insecurity rises rapidly within poor and low-income areas. Many people have less access to adequate and highly nutritious food and price increases contribute to increased poverty. It is extremely difficult to ensure household food security when you’re dependent on so few crops, and companies solely cultivating one type of crop raises the risks that diseases and/or extreme weather can wipe out major producers.
CG: You’ve outlined some important policy recommendations in GEO6. Now, how do we get policymakers to listen to them?
MK: First of all, I think policymakers have to have a vested interest in the health of their population, so it’s about approaching these policies from a health standpoint. For example, in Africa, policymakers in places like Rwanda, Tanzania, and Tunisia have brought the health agenda into the overall policy agenda. When they do that, they then have to think about the environmental agenda.
For example, if you want to reduce malaria prevalence, you have to think about water and sanitation (SDG 6). Improving water quality and ensuring that people have access to clean water can reduce a lot of water-borne disease — not just malaria but everything from intestinal viruses to cholera. This can have massive, positive knock-on effects. You have a healthier society that’s more productive and engaged in the overall economy. And the overall economy produces more, which means you become more of an income-generating society than when you were dealing with endemic diseases and children were suffering.
I think the policies that have proven most effective look at how you can make agricultural systems more sustainable. That means looking at how you can use less nutrient input — things like fertilizers and pesticides, how you manage through integrated pest control, and how you diversify the crops you grow. The ability to produce and provide nutritious food is crucial for the health and stability of a country. So, it’s about making the argument that these policies have multiple benefits for our health, our economies, and our environment — and we’re definitely seeing that.
To learn more about the latest Global Environmental Outlook, read the summary and full report here.