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A selection of short items of good news and bad news about the environment, organized by chapters and programme areas in Agenda 21

(with date of last update)
Introduction on emerging environmental issues
Sustainable development: Trade and environment (Agenda 21, Programme area 2B)
Consumption patterns(Agenda 21, Chapter 4)
Reducing consumption - 6 August 1999
Demography(Agenda 21, Chapter 5)
Exceeding carrying capacity
Health (Agenda 21, Chapter 6)
Growing disease problems
    Health risks from pollution/hazards (Agenda 21, Programme area 6E)
Antibiotic resistance from environmental pollution?
Hormone disrupters - 9 July 1999
Declining sex ratios - 1 April 1998
Chemical interactions
Air pollution and health
Noise pollution - 6 August 1999
Electromagnetic radiation- 6 August 1999
Human settlements(Agenda 21, Chapter 7)
Disaster threats
Kosovo Conflict Environmental Impacts - 14 October 1999
Environment and development: Policy, planning and management (Agenda 21, Programme area 8A)
Atmosphere(Agenda 21, Chapter 9)
Interacting problems
   Addressing uncertainties (Agenda 21, Programme area 9A)
Climate change - 22 January 2001 
   Sustainable development: energy, transportation, industry, resources/land use (9B)
Risks from new technologies (space mirrors) - 9 July 1999
   Ozone depletion (Agenda 21, Programme area 9C)
Damage to the ozone layer - 1 December 2000
   Atmospheric pollution (Agenda 21, Programme area 9D)
New air pollution problems
Nitrogen saturation- 6 August 1999
Forests(Agenda 21, Chapter 11)
Forest loss - 26 July 2000 
Forest fires - 14 February 1999
Desertification (Agenda 21, Chapter 12)
Land degradation - 16 June 2000 
Agriculture and rural development (Agenda 21, Chapter 14)
Food security - 1 March 1998
Biological Diversity(Agenda 21, Chapter 15)
Tiger crisis - 17 January 2000
Biodiversity assessment
Biotechnology(Agenda 21, Chapter 16) - 15 February 1999
Threats of unintended gene transfers
Oceans (Agenda 21, Chapter 17)
Widespread Coral Bleaching - 3 November 2000 
Coral reefs under pressure - 14 August 2001 
Coastal threats - 15 August 1998
Crisis in ocean fisheries - 28 July 2000 
    Small islands (Agenda 21, Programme area 17G)
Freshwater(Agenda 21, Chapter 18)
Freshwater assessments
Toxic chemicals(Agenda 21, Chapter 19)
Heavy metals - 9 July 1999
POPs - 9 July 1999
Hazardous wastes(Agenda 21, Chapter 20)
Weapons as wastes - 4 August 1999
Implementing the Basel Convention - 4 August 1999
Solid wastes/sewage(Agenda 21, Chapter 21)
Waste disposal and reduction - 4 August 1999
Space junk - 9 July 1999
Radioactive wastes (Agenda 21, Chapter 22)
Military waste problems  - 4 August 1999
Civilian radioactive waste - 4 August 1999
International legal instruments (Agenda 21, Chapter 39)

Introduction on emerging environmental issues

Too often we think of the state of the environment as we see it at a moment in time.  It is more difficult to conceive of the environment as a series of dynamic and interconnected processes and planetary systems changing and interacting over time, even if at time scales where movement seems almost imperceptible.  These short items which review what has changed in the years since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit illustrate the significance of the shift from a static to a dynamic perspective.Even several years is a very short time to judge environmental change, and few comprehensive reports exist to document such change at a global level.  Yet scientists have recently uncovered significant new symptomsof planetary stress, and improved assessments have clarified known or suspected problems.  There are even encouraging signs that environmental management efforts are bringing concrete improvements.  Some of these, compiled from the recent scientific literature and UN reports by the UN system-wide Earthwatch with the cooperation of UN system partners, are summarized here. They are organized by the chapters and programme areas of Agenda 21, the action plan adopted by governments at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 (numbers in parentheses).

This selection of issues only features what is new since Rio.  It does not aim to review all important issues or to show their priority, but to illustrate how our environment, our perceptions of problems, and the responses of society are dynamic and changing, even over as short a period as the last several years.  Many of these issues are still controversial, even within the scientific community, as it takes time to achieve consensus.  New discoveries and advances in science are bound to alter some of the viewpoints expressed here.  These emerging issues are examples of science in motion.

Apart from the separate issues reviewed here, one significant broad result of the Rio process and Agenda 21 has been the growing recognition that all the different aspects of sustainable development described in its forty chapters are interrelated, and only integrated approaches will make it possible to approach sustainability.  New evidence since Rio shows that these interrelationships also apply to the major environmental problems, such as those for which international conventions have been adopted.  There are significant interactions between climate change, ozone depletion, desertification and biodiversity loss, for instance, requiring greater attention to synergistic effects between these problems, and integrated approaches to research, assessment and management.

for other sections see separate pages linked from contents

International legal instruments (Agenda 21, Chapter 39)

With over 1,000 international environmental agreements negotiated, compliance issues and monitoring effectiveness are quickly gaining priority. This has produced two distinct trends since UNCED: a reduction in distinctions between international and national law; and a growing move towards the inclusion of innovative legal mechanisms that reduce administrative workloads at national and international levels. The growing interaction between international and national levels has seen the paradigm for international environmental law change from one that is static, to one that is dynamic, requiring involvement of non-governmental organizations to assist in ensuring that the accords work.  Further, transparency of information is generally increasing world-wide with associated positive effects (UNU).


It is apparent that the global message of the several years since the Rio Conference is one of rapid advance in our scientific understanding of the environment, and in the adoption of international legal instruments and other management measures, but much slower progress in implementing real changes in human behaviour and technology, and in restoring the quality and productivity of our environment.  Even the best assessments and scientific understanding carry little weight when confronted with the short-term self interest of nations and peoples. The greatest threat to the necessary balance between environment and development in achieving sustainability may be in our social inertia and resistance to change, even when change is in our common interest.A similar inertia is found in the recovery of natural systems, since it is generally easier and cheaper to damage something than it is to restore it.  The complex physical, chemical and biological systems of the planet are all interconnected, and any imbalance we cause in one can have repercussions elsewhere, including on ourselves.  The emerging environmental problems of the last decade illustrate some of these surprising connections.  The most reliable prediction that can be made for the decades ahead is probably that there will continue to be unpleasant surprises, newly discovered relationships, and changes in emphasis and priority.  This underlies the importance of the precautionary approach.  We must act on the basis of present knowledge, but should always leave room for the unexpected.

This also demonstrates the importance of the global environmental observation and assessment processes under Earthwatch.  Our understanding of environmental processes and mechanisms, and the forward projections on which our policy-making must be based, need to be updated and adjusted constantly as new information becomes available, and the effectiveness (or not) of management actions becomes clearer.  The flow of information for decision-making must be constant, with regular environmental observations and scientific research feeding national, regional and global assessments, such as UNEP's Global Environment Outlook (UNEP, 1997, UNEP, 1999), as a basis for policy and action.

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  UNEP. 1997. Global Environment Outlook. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford. http://www.grid.unep.ch/geo1/

UNEP. 1999. Global Environment Outlook - 2000. United Nations Environment Programme. Earthscan Publications, London. http://www.unep.org/geo2000


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UN System-wide Earthwatch Coordination, Geneva