©David Rooney

Apart from some optimistic claims that global warming will benefit, say, vineyards in the Thames Valley, most readings of the environment give little cause for cheer. Nor is climate change the only threat. Humanity’s ecological footprint is expanding at an unsustainable rate. Rampant urbanisation and farmland are threatening the biodiversity we all depend on. Air and water pollution are damaging health in all countries: the list goes on.
It does not have to be that way. The question is how to change it?The first answer is to harness humanity’s ability to innovate and adjust. And if human economic activities cause damage to the environment, then economic tools must be in the antidote. Rules, standards and education are needed, but to incite positive change, policymakers must also empower the markets.The latest OECD Environmental Outlook attempts in landmark fashion to map a politically realistic way forward. The 500-plus page report examines some of the dynamics that are forcing change, such as rampant urbanisation, globalisation and the way we produce and consume. A trove of data–some 200 colourful graphs and tables–throws light on everything from industrial nitrogen and sulphur emissions to household waste and energy use in transport.The aim is to understand these drivers and identify the most appropriate policy responses, whether for broad sectors like agriculture, industry, energy and transport, or thorny individual sectors, such as pulp and paper or the chemicals industry.A rudimentary traffic light system helps situate the challenges. There are green light issues with a detectable “decoupling” between the pace of growth and our “ecological footprint” in the last 30 years, in local water pollution for instance. If we let our guard down on these, they could become uncertain orange light issues, alongside forest management or transport emissions. The report highlights four urgent red light issues: climate change, biodiversity, freshwater stress and health. Tackle these and huge strides forward will be made.The articles in this edition of the OECD Observer focus on some of the issues raised in the OECD Environmental Outlook. We look at the challenges posed by urbanisation, building construction and farmland (see Databank), and the chemicals industry. And we highlight the report’s policy package for action. As climate change is foremost in people’s minds, we begin by asking five environment ministers from a cross-section of OECD countries to outline their own action plans.This edition builds on our two previous editions in which readers will find articles on the health costs of inaction, clean development mechanisms, eco-innovation, flooding, and more. The next edition will continue the series with a harder look at the economics of climate change. All articles will be available at©OECD Observer No 266, March 2008

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