Logo of the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
To the main menuTo the main content

Outstanding Environmental Issues for Human Development

Report | 22-02-2005

In this report it is shown that under business-as-usual scenarios, key issues for development such access to clean drinking water, food and modern energy will not be solved in time to realize the MDGs. At the same time a further deterioration of environmental conditions can be expected. Environmental degradation will increasingly have a negative impact on the realization of development goals. Major problems that need to be dealt with are the conflict between land for agricultural production, its fresh water needs and nature; the need for safe drinking water and sanitation and increasing water stress; fulfilling increasing demand for energy and the problem of climate change and air pollution; and halting further deterioration of ecosystems that are important for local livelihoods.

Main findings

  1. Nature and environment provide essential goods and services for human development. Human well-being and quality of life depend crucially on the quantity and quality of food, water, energy and biodiversity available to man. Reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be highly dependent on environmental conditions. However, this crucial role of environment is only partly reflected in the MDG-framework. Often there will be direct conflicts between human development and environment. Further elaborating MDG 7, including quantified objectives would help ensuring environmental sustainability.
  2. Malnutrition, inadequate water supply and environmental pollution pose serious problems to human health. From an environmental perspective shortage of arable land and water stress are important drivers for food vulnerability. Unsafe drinking water and indoor air pollution are the most serious environmental culprits, in view of current loss of human health.
  3. Biodiversity, crucial for delivering ecosystem services, is deteriorating at an unprecedented rate. Africa and Asia face the highest loss rates currently. The most important pressure factor is agricultural expansion. In the future, climate change could be a very important pressure on biodiversity as well. Further increasing protected areas, reducing land conversion by intensification of agriculture and putting a halt to piecemeal encroachment along roads may be helpful actions.
  4. Meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger and preventing further biodiversity loss seems incompatible. Agriculture puts an upward pressure on the demand for arable land. This demand may even further increase if the international market for biofuels further develops. Moving to more intense practices may offset, at least in part, the need for expansion of agricultural land.
  5. However, higher yields are often associated with higher emissions to air, water and soil. Increasing inputs of nutrients in agriculture results in eutrophication of inland water bodies and coastal waters poses risks to health and fresh water and marine ecosystems (algae blooms, “dead zones”). Good agricultural practices can limit these impacts.
  6. Over fishing of the world’s marine stocks has an important impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. A large coastal population depends on fisheries for food and employment. Reducing destructive fishing practices asks for reducing fishing effort, transforming market and governance. Solutions have to be location specific to the different marine ecosystems.
  7. Water stress will increase substantially in large parts of the world with growing population and expanding economies. Climate change enhances this development even more in several already vulnerable regions (e.g. Africa and parts of Asia). Competition for water between users (including the natural environment) requires strong water management preferably at river basin level.
  8. Improving supply of safe water is on track in many developing regions, but some African and Asian countries lag behind. Promoting water supply and sanitation seems to be the most effective direct environmental measure to be taken to enhance human health.
  9. Energy is crucial for poverty alleviation and economic development. Currently 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity and 2.4 billion rely on traditional biomass for heating and cooking. Conventional development in energy is not realizing the necessary improvements in access to energy and is expected to lead to a serious increase of urban and regional air pollution in developing countries, as well as to a further increase of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
  10. Investment needs in the energy sector in developing countries over the coming 30 years are very substantial. An additional 10% of the cumulative investments in this period would be required to realize the energy-investments needed for reaching the MDG on poverty. By combining climate and air quality policies and measures, major cost reductions could be achieved to limit environmental impacts.
  11. Human induced climate change poses an increasing risk to the achievement of the MDG and sustainable development in the longer term. Developed countries will need to provide financial and technical support to developing countries to deal with this threat. Main streaming climate change concerns in developing planning and climate proving of development programs and development aid can reduce these risks.
  12. Limiting the risks of climate change for sustainable development requires global greenhouse gas emissions to be significantly reduced during this century. This requires developed countries to strengthen their reduction efforts, but also contributions from developing countries, in particular the more advanced developing economies in Asia and Latin America. Including climate considerations into current development planning in these regions is important in view of the longevity of energy infrastructure.
  13. Comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, going beyond direct monetary indicators and taking into account both development and environment concerns, can help to prioritize investment policies for development and environment. This report shows the importance of local, low-tech solutions.
  14. To guarantee the important role of environment for development, it is crucial that environmental concerns are integrated much better in the development agenda. This has to be carried out on local and national levels and be enhanced by international policy making. Without an integrated approach to social and economic development and environment, MDGs cannot be reached in a sustainable manner.
Author(s)MNP
Report no.2005999
Publication date22-02-2005
LanguageEnglish