Bloomberg Law
Free Newsletter Sign Up
Bloomberg Law
Free Newsletter Sign Up

UN Warns of Risks to Human Health, Global Ecosystems

March 13, 2019, 7:24 PM

The world is moving too slowly to protect the environment, putting the integrity of global ecosystems at risk, the United Nations said March 13.

“Key actions are urgently needed towards improving water and land management, resource efficiency, and adapting climate change mitigation processes,” Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said March 13 at the Fourth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting in Nairobi.

Land degradation, biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change are undermining the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, she said.

Msuya presented the sixth Global Environmental Outlook, often referred to as the U.N.'s flagship environmental assessment. The report was produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries.

“Science is clear that health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of the global environment,” Msuya said.

Deadly Pollution

Air pollution is the main environmental threat, causing 6 million to 7 million premature deaths and leading to an estimated $5 trillion in economic losses annually, said the report.

Worldwide, air pollution exposure harms urban residents in countries with rapid urbanization, and about 3 billion people in rural areas who burn high-emissions fuel sources like wood, coal, crop residue, dung, and kerosene for cooking, heating, and lighting.

Unless environmental protections are scaled up, cities and regions in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa could see millions of premature deaths by midcentury, the report said.

In addition, pollutants in freshwater systems will contribute to anti-microbial resistance and become a major cause of death by 2050, the report said.

Facing Extinction

“Presently, 42 percent of terrestrial invertebrates, 34 percent of freshwater invertebrates, and 25 percent of marine invertebrates are considered to be at risk of extinction,” said Susan Gardner, director of ecosystems at the U.N. Environment Program.

Between 1970 and 2014, global vertebrate species populations declined by 60 percent, while steep declines were recorded among pollinators that provide crucial services for food production.

“The value of lost ecosystem services between 1995 and 2014 has been estimated at about $20 trillion,” Global Environment Outlook co-authors Paul Ekins and said Joyeeta Gupta said in a joint statement at the conference.

Steps to Sustainbility

There is a window of opportunity, however, and technology companies and business could help reduce unintended negative consequences for human and ecosystem health, according to the report.

Investments in off-grid electrification solar companies could be solutions to reducing fossil fuel in power generation, the report said. It also identified investments in digital infrastructure that could address critical sustainability challenges for cities, such as transportation, consumption patterns, energy, nutrition, water, and waste management.

“These should be political will to phase out unsustainable products and industrial processes through new regulatory mechanisms and standards,” Gupta said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Wachira Kigotho at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Steven Gibb at; Anna Yukhananov at