14 December 2017
UNEP Frontiers Report Highlights Six Emerging Issues
Photo by John Byrne | Sydney Harbour Bridge during a red dust storm
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In the UN Environment Programme report titled, ‘Frontiers 2017,’ a global network of experts identify six issues with the potential to hugely impact society, economy and the environment.

The report discusses: marine protected areas; sand and dust storms; environmental displacement; off-grid solar solutions; the environmental dimensions of antimicrobial resistance; and nanomaterials.

December 2017: The UN Environment Programme (UNEP or UN Environment) has released its ‘Frontiers 2017’ report on novel environmental challenges facing the planet. The report focuses on six emerging issues: marine protected areas (MPAs) and sustainable development; sand and dust storms; environmental displacement; off-grid solar solutions; the environmental dimensions of antimicrobial resistance (AMR); and nanomaterials.

The report reflects that MPAs are “one of the best options for maintaining or restoring the health of ocean and coastal ecosystems.” Observing the multiple threats to the world’s oceans and their declining health, the report argues that effectively managed MPAs can be a driver for economic and social benefits and key to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The report describes sand dust storm deposits as the “advance guard of desertification,” resulting from turbulent winds that erode sand, silt and clay particles from arid landscapes, impoverish soils, and raise large quantities of particles high in the air that can then travel across continents and oceans. According to the report, chronic dust exposure contributes to premature deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, acute lower respiratory infections and lung cancer. The report explains that deforestation, unsustainable agriculture practices, excessive water extraction and modification of water bodies for irrigation and other uses contribute to sand and dust storms; consequently, to reduce the threat of such storms, strategies that promote sustainable land and water management and address climate mitigation and adaptation are critical.

On environmental displacement, the report reflects on mobility and migration, noting that population growth produces environmental changes that cascade through the Earth’ systems. According to the report, environmental change frequently becomes environmental degradation, such as air, soil and water pollution, biodiversity loss, deforestation, soil erosion and desertification and water scarcity. The report argues that related trends in population growth, environmental degradation and rising consumption are likely to result in increased displacement and migration in the future.

On off-grid solar, the report suggests that off-grid solar could be key to achieving SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and for progress on related goals, such as SDG 1 (end poverty). The report states that there has been a “drastic drop in price” for equipment and service for solar systems and that such systems are gaining popularity in both urban and rural areas. The report emphasizes that designing and implementing the right policies and regulations on renewable energy can contribute to ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services for all.

Increasing AMR is “one of the biggest global public health concerns” of the twenty-first century.

Increasing AMR is “one of the biggest global public health concerns” of the twenty-first century, the report argues. It describes how antibiotic drugs enter the environment, and where the discharged resistant bacteria and natural bacterial communities come into contact with each other. This situation contributes to bacterial evolution and emergence of more resistant strains. The report recommends tackling the release of antimicrobial drugs, contaminants and resistant bacteria into the environment and ensuring proper use and disposal of antibiotic pharmaceuticals.

In the report’s forward, UNEP Executive Director Erik Solheim shares an example from India where a facility treats wastewater from 90 drug manufacturers on a daily basis and then releases this discharge into a stream that feeds many rivers. A research team that analyzed the wastewater found that the concentration of one antibiotic was high enough to treat 44,000 people daily. Solheim cautions that this example is not isolated and warns that antibiotic concentrations are found in our rivers, sediments and soils, driving the evolution of resistant bacteria.

On nanomaterials, the report observes that nanomaterials have the potential for countless applications, but that society has limited knowledge of their long-term effects. The report recalls lessons from past exposures to hazardous materials and recommends applying a precautionary approach to nanomaterials. [UNEP Press Release]

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