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World: Global Environment Continues To Worsen

  • Charles Recknagel



Prague, 30 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Five years after the United Nations-sponsored Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, much of the world is falling well behind in its effort to stop environmental destruction.

A new report released by the non-profit Worldwatch Institute of Washington, D.C., says that despite the Summit's landmark international treaties meant to protect the Earth's diminishing bio-diversity and decrease atmospheric pollution, the situation in many parts of the world continues to worsen.

Presenting the report at a press conference at RFE/RL in Prague today, Worldwatch Senior Vice President for Research Christopher Flavin said "the real actions of many governments around the world are not measuring up to the commitments they made five years ago."

He said that too many developing countries continue to favor rapid economic growth despite the environmental costs which come with burning fossil fuels, destroying forests for timber or farmland, and losing endangered animal and plant species forever.

The annual Worldwatch "State of the World" study, now in its fourteenth year, shows a continued increase in the use of polluting fossil fuels, particularly in Asia and South America. As a result of global warming tied to man-generated emissions into the atmosphere, Flavin said "there is growing evidence that we are seeing disturbances of natural weather conditions" and changes in the Earth's climate including the timing of seasons.

One exception to the worsening pollution levels is Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Flavin said that in most of these countries, which in the 1980's were among the most polluted in the world, air pollution has "substantially reduced." The reduction is due to a gradual transition away from Communist central-planned economies, favoring heavy industry, toward lighter factories, as well as the start of programs to clean up industrial emissions.

Czech Deputy Minister for the Environment, Valdislav Bizek, also speaking at the press conference, said air pollution in his country has dropped some 50 percent since 1990. However, he said that it still remains well above Western norms, as in most other formerly Communist states.

But Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union continue to share in many of the other problems contributing to the world's generally worsening environment, including deforestation and desertification.

Flavin said widespread cutting of Siberian forestland in Russia both by mining and lumber businesses is adding to the world's loss of forest cover. That weakens the Earth's ability to self-clean its atmosphere.

He also called health problems in Central Asia related to the drying up of the Aral Sea and general environmental pollution "among the most dramatic in the world." Wind-born salt from the banks of the shrinking Aral Sea has been balamed for respiritory problems and as it spreads thousands of kilometers from its source.

The Worldwatch report notes that, in order to solve many of their environmental problems, developing economies often require large amounts of financial investment which they cannot afford alone. Flavin said one reason for lack of environmental progress since Rio is that thousands of millions of dollars "promised by Western governments to developing nations has not been forthcoming." Instead, he said, Western governments have been distracted by their own economic difficulties.

Still, Flavin said the five years since Rio have also given reasons for optimism. He noted that the Summit spawned waves of environmentally concerned citizens' groups, which have since become a driving force for change in many countries. He also said that political changes, which have brought greater democracy to many countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere, have gived non-governmental groups greater a greater ability to direct public policy and demand a better environmental future.

The U.N., after sponsoring the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, is due to return to the question of how to improve the world's environment in a special session of its General Assembly this summer. The body will consider, among other things, how to make the Summit's treaties on protecting the environment more binding on its signatories.
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