We know that climate change will force millions from their homes, but will they even be recognised as refugees?
With traffic en route from Jomo Kenyatta airport to UN headquarters in Nairobi bumper-to-bumper in a choking pall of exhaust fumes, the UN report’s contents fit the moment.
They outline deaths caused by environmental degradation around the world.
For example, every year air pollution prematurely kills seven million people. More than four million of those die from the effects of inhaling smoke from cooking fires, dying simply for trying to feed themselves – women and children mainly among the victims.
In sub-Saharan Africa alone, nearly one in four deaths are caused by some form of environmental change.
Such are the desperate facts laid out in a series of hard science reports for journalists, delegates, and government ministers heading to the United Nations Environment Assembly being held this week in Nairobi.
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“We have compromised our life-support systems,” said Achim Steiner, chief of the UN Environment Programme. “We have to ensure that the environment sustains human health, rather than threatens it.”
The assembly is a kind of parliament of the environment. It is one of the first major meetings since the adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and follows the Paris Climate Agreement last December.
Resolutions passed this week would give impetus to the global effort to clean up our environment. But the challenge is formidable.
In Africa alone, fertile lands are degrading. Over-cultivation, inefficient irrigation, and overgrazing are taking their toll. Forest cover is shrinking as a growing population demands more and more firewood.
Global population growth, spiralling urbanisation, and soaring consumption are creating severe water shortages. Underinvestment and deteriorating infrastructure are placing enormous pressure on sanitation for millions in Africa’s megacities such as Kinshasa, Lagos and Cairo.
“It’s clear African ministers are setting a high priority for the coming meeting,” Egypt’s Minister of the Environment, Khaled Fahmy, said. “We are expecting the assembly to hear the voice of Africa. The challenges are immense, not only environmental but economic and social.”
Indeed, human activities encroaching on natural habitats mean that diseases passed from animals to human beings are on the rise. So-called zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, bird flu and the Zika virus are among the bill toppers that have medical science worried.
The UN will launch a big effort against the illegal wildlife trade and its impact on the environment. Microplastics in our oceans and the consequent risk to human health will also be discussed. And of course, climate change.
Consider this: 200 times more people die prematurely every year from environmental degradation and pollution than from war and conflict.
Delegates will argue the toss about potential solutions. For example: banning lead in gasoline on a global scale would help prevent one million premature deaths. For those sitting in Nairobi’s traffic jams, that will have particular resonance.