Tech Chemist Co-authors UN Report on the Environment

Great Lakes Research Center next to the Keweenaw Waterway
Great Lakes Research Center next to the Keweenaw Waterway
Sarah Green is a researcher in the Great Lakes Research Center.
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The report warns that human health is in dire straits without urgent actions to protect the environment. Sarah Green, professor of chemistry at Michigan Technological University, is a scientific reviewer.

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

GEO-6 Report Highlights

The Sixth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-6) report was produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries; GEO-6 shows that a healthy environment is a prerequisite and foundation for economic prosperity, human health and well-being. It addresses the main challenge of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, that no one should be left behind, and that all should live healthy, fulfilling lives for the full benefit of all, for present and future generations.

“We are not heading that way, however,” said Green, who is currently in Nairobi for the GEO-6 authors meeting. “We have many opportunities to reverse that direction and make a difference on the current trends in climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and other pressures to restore planetary and human health.”

The GEO-6 report highlights the fact that the world has the science, technology and finance it needs to move toward 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although sufficient support is still missing from the public, business and political leaders who are clinging to outdated production and development models.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 science is clear. The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “This report is an outlook for humanity. We are at a crossroads. Do we continue on our current path, which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway? That is the choice our political leaders must make, now.”

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 the goal of a near-zero-waste economy by 2050. According to the Outlook, green investment of 2 percent of countries’ GDP would deliver long-term growth as high as 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 sustainability goals by 2030 or 2050. Urgent action on climate change is required now as any delay increases the cost of achieving the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, risks reversing current progress and, at some point, will make it impossible to reach climate targets.

The GEO-6 report advises adopting less meat-intensive diets, and reducing food waste in both developed and developing countries to better meet the need to increase food production by 50 percent to feed the projected nine to 10 billion people on the planet in 2050. At present, 33 percent of global edible food is wasted, and 56 percent of waste happens in industrialized countries.

woman in hat standing next to a sign
Sarah Green, professor of chemistry, is a scientific reviewer of the new GEO-6 report out today. 

While urbanization is happening at an unprecedented level globally, the report says well-managed urbanization 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 also 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 scientists note advancements in collecting environmental statistics, particularly geospatial data, and highlight the huge potential for advancing knowledge using big data and stronger data collection collaborations between public and private partners.

Policy interventions that address entire systems – such as energy, food and waste – rather than individual issues can be much more effective, according to the authors. For example, a stable climate and clean air are interlinked; the climate mitigation actions for achieving the Paris Agreement targets would cost about $22 trillion, but the combined health benefits from reduced air pollution could amount to an additional $54 trillion.

“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 GEO-6 process. “What is currently lacking is the political will to implement policies and technologies at a sufficient speed and scale. The fourth United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in March needs to be the occasion when policymakers face up to the challenges and grasp the opportunities of a much brighter future for humanity.”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

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