Environmental degradation is responsible for one in four premature deaths, the United Nations' (UN) latest Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report reveals. That equates to approximately 9 million deaths in 2015 alone.
The report, unveiled at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi on Wednesday, has been six years in the making and has involved the work of 250 scientists from 70 countries to gauge how environmental factors affect more than 100 diseases.
It found that 1.4 million people die annually simply due to lack of access to clean water. This is because dirty water often carries pathogens that can cause easily preventable diseases – diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, and typhoid, for example. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are as many as 844 million people worldwide who lack even a basic drinking-water service. By 2025, they say, it is expected that half the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas.
More deaths, the GEO found, are caused by toxic chemicals used in industry and agriculture, which contaminate water supplies, and land degradation, which is the result of large-scale farming practices and general deforestation. Meanwhile, air pollution is responsible for between 6 and 7 million deaths per annum. This is just shy of the figure calculated by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, published Tuesday. According to their study, published in the European Heart Journal, air pollution causes close to 9 million deaths per year – double the number previously estimated and more deaths than smoking.
What's more, the report's authors warn, the number of premature deaths caused by environmental damage could rise if (or, rather, when) antibiotic-resistant superbugs become more widespread. Antibiotic resistance is listed as one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development by the WHO and if current trends continue, it is expected to become one of the largest causes of premature death by 2050.
The clear (and downright alarming) takeaway from the report is this: We are rapidly exhausting the planet's natural resources and by doing so, changing the climate, degrading the land, polluting our air and water supplies, and losing biodiversity.
"The Global Resources Outlook shows that we are plowing through this planet’s finite resources as if there is no tomorrow, causing climate change and biodiversity loss along the way," said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment.
"Frankly, there will be no tomorrow for many people unless we stop."
But don't crumple into a pit of despair just yet. The report also gives a message of hope.
"This flagship report shows how governments can put the world on the path to a truly sustainable future," the report authors conclude. "It emphasizes that urgent and inclusive action is needed by decision makers at all levels to achieve a healthy planet with healthy people."
They add that their report provides "the information needed to guide societies to a truly sustainable world by 2050."
We just have to act fast.