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Environment damage behind one in four global deaths, disease, says UN report

Updated March 14, 2019

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Nairobi: Global Environment Outlook co-chair Joyeeta Gupta (left) addresses a press conference. Estonia’s minister and President of the UN Environment Assembly Siim-Valmar Kiisler is also seen.—AFP
Nairobi: Global Environment Outlook co-chair Joyeeta Gupta (left) addresses a press conference. Estonia’s minister and President of the UN Environment Assembly Siim-Valmar Kiisler is also seen.—AFP

NAIROBI: A quarter of all premature deaths and diseases worldwide are due to manmade pollution and environmental damage, the United Nations said on Wednesday in a landmark report on the planet’s parlous state.

Deadly smog-inducing emissions, chemicals polluting drinking water, and the accelerating destruction of ecosystems crucial to the livelihoods of billions of people are driving a worldwide epidemic that hampers the global economy, it warned.

The Global Environment Outlook (GEO) — a report six years in the making compiled by 250 scientists from 70 nations — depicts a growing chasm between rich and poor countries as rampant overconsumption, pollution and food waste in the developed world leads to hunger, poverty and disease elsewhere.

As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise amid a preponderance of droughts, floods and superstorms made worse by climbing sea levels, there is a growing political consensus that climate change poses a future risk to billions.

But the health impacts of pollution, deforestation and the mechanised food-chain are less well understood. Nor is there any international agreement for the environment close to covering what the 2015 Paris accord does for climate.

The GEO compiles a litany of pollution-related health emergencies. It said that poor environmental conditions “cause approximately 25 per cent of global disease and mortality” — around nine million deaths in 2015 alone.

Lacking access to clean drinking supplies, 1.4 million people die each year from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea and parasites linked to pathogen-riddled water and poor sanitation. Chemicals pumped into the seas cause “potentially multi-generational” adverse health effects, and land degradation through mega-farming and deforestation occurs in areas of Earth home to 3.2 billion people.

The report says air pollution causes 6-7 million early deaths annually. “Urgent action at an unprecedented scale is necessary to arrest and reverse this situation,” said a note to policymakers accompanying the report.

“If you have a healthy planet it supports not only global GDP but it also supports the lives of the very poorest because they depend on clean air and clean water,” Joyeeta Gupta, GEO co-chair, said. “If you turn that around, an unhealthy system has massive damage on human lives.”

The report called for a root-and-branch detoxifying of human behaviour while insisting that the situation is not unassailable.

Food waste for instance, which accounts for nine per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, could be slashed. “Everyone is saying that by 2050 we have to feed 10 billion people, but that doesn’t mean we have to double production,” Gupta said. “If we reduce our waste and perhaps have less meat you could immediately reduce that problem.”

The GEO draws on hundreds of data sources to calculate the environmental impact on over 100 diseases. Its unveiling at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi is likely to add to the debate over who bears the greatest responsibility for the damage already borne by Earth.

Published in Dawn, March 14th, 2019