The United Nations Environment Programme recently released its fifth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-5), a report on world progress towards the environmental aspects of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). For those who lack the time to absorb all 525 pages of the report, UNEP provided a shorter trending report, Measuring Progress, which uses approachable charts and succinct text to show the state of global environmental goals (GEGs). The report was featured at a Rio+20 side event last week, and UNEP created a briefing
for policymakers.

GEO-5 frames the sustainable development conundrum in system dynamics terms, analyzing the impacts of economic activities and societies on the Earth System. This is a new model from GEO-4, published five years ago, and it suggests that scientists and policymakers must work hand-in-hand to implement and adapt effective strategies in individual nations and regions. One might think that interdisciplinary cooperation is hard enough without the difficulty of outdated infrastructure: national and international environmental laws of the 20th century are not well-equipped to support the kind of adaptive management systems needed now, and current scientific data is woefully inadequate to the task of informing planet management on this scale. The challenge for the delegates convened in RioCentro is to comprehend the report’s warnings of irreversible approaching tipping-points and recommendations for action, and come up with not just visionary strategies but concrete goals and committed action to preserve the Earth System. It is a tall order.

Among other sobering findings, the useful report card provided in Measuring Progress shows that for about half of the GEGs, progress is very slow or non-existent (climate change, indoor air pollution, biodiversity in general, ecosystem services, marine pollution), or deteriorating rapidly (fisheries, desertification and drought, wetlands, coral reefs, extreme events, and in many areas of the world, groundwater depletion). There are also areas where progress cannot even be assessed due to lack of data (freshwater resources, sustainable development within countries’ policies and programs, and in some countries, sound management of chemicals and waste). This is no news to those who have followed daily environmental reports over the past few years.

But the news isn’t entirely grim. There are a few areas in which we are making significant progress (atmospheric ozone, outlawing leaded gasoline, increased access to safe drinking water) and areas where we show some progress (outdoor air pollution, protected areas, environmental policies, management of heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants and radioactive waste, access to sanitation, and more efficient water use). The progress in these areas indicates that the world community is indeed capable of better work, but simply underachieving in many areas.

Overall, the report card is nothing that one might want to take home to one’s parents (or perhaps, in this case, one’s children or future generations), at least without promising to work much harder.  It behooves all of us, not just the Rio+20 delegates, to work harder to achieve a sustainable future. Reading GEO-5 is a good start.