Chronic environmental degradation today’s silent emergency threatens people worldwide and undercuts the livelihoods of a least half a billion people. Poor people themselves, having little choice, put pressure the environment, but so does the consumption of the rich. The growing export markets for fish, shrimp, paper and many other products mean depleted stocks, less biodiversity and fewer forests. Mostly the costs are borne by the poor though it is the world’s rich who benefit most.
Just as a country’s economy can be swamped by global economic forces it has little power to control or deflect, its environment can be threatened by activities taking place beyond its borders and its control. In some low income countries the threats may be severe enough to jeopardize further sustainable development. Climate changes, for example, could raise ocean levels, swamping the homes of millions of people in low lying countries like Bangladesh. Governments acting alone, and even regional organizations, cannot respond effectively to this kind of environmental problem. The response must be global. Industrial countries are responsible for most of the existing Global environmental problems especially man made greenhouse gases but developing countries are catching up rapidly. Their capacity to contribute to future environmental damage increases as they grow.
The world has already seen one genuine environmental success story in the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which brought all countries together to address a common environmental threat. The Montreal Protocol attempts to solve the problem of chlorofluorocarbon emissions, which reduce ozone concentrations in the upper atmosphere. In the 1980s scientists realized that allowing these emissions unchecked would dangerously increase ultraviolet radiation in the higher latitudes, raising rates of skin cancer and cataracts and damaging the environment. Thanks to the Montreal Protocol and follow on agreements, global international production of chlorofluorocarbons has fallen steeply, and global cooperation to reduce ozone depletion appears to be succeeding.
The world faces a number of other pressing environmental problems that threaten the global commons. Perhaps the best known is climate change, which is associated with increasing emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Others include biodiversity loss, which is occurring at an alarming rate; desertification; the depletion of fish stocks, the spread of persistent organic pollutants, and threats to the ecology of Antarctica.
The ozone success story provides a model for future international agreements on global environmental issues. The scientific case for addressing the risk of environmental damage needs to be made forcefully in open and robust public debate. The world’s people and their governments must share the belief that the costs of environmental damage are heavy enough to justify immediate action. Alternatives to current behavior must be technically feasible and reasonably inexpensive and all countries must be wiling to participate in international accords. Sometimes this willingness will come at a price, with high income countries paying low income economies to comply with an agreement and groups of signatories imposing penalties on countries that fail to meet the standards the agreement sets. Finally, the standards themselves must be flexible, because very rarely is there a one size fits all solution to global problems. The conditions surrounding biodiversity and climate change suggest that teaching international agreement on these issues will be more complex than it was with ozone depletion. But the international community has already begun seeking solutions. The Convention on Biological Diversity and the framework Convention on climate Change crated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit form a basis for moving forward. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is a joint initiative of the United Nations Development Program, the United National Environment Program, and the World Bank. The GEF provides grants and concessional funds to cover additional costs countries incur when a development project also targets one or more of four global environmental issues: climate cage, biodiversity loss, the pollution of international waters, and depletion of the ozone layer. National governments can take a number of actions that improve domestic welfare while helping preserve the global commons. Removing fuel; subsidies and improving public transportation, for example, not only are in the best interests of individual economies but also contribute to reducing global carbon dioxide emissions that affect other countries.