Report Card on Environment

ON the eve of Earth Day 1990, we asked four experts to assess the state of the world's environment. Their brief comments and grades follow. Compiled by staff writier William A. Babcock. Russell Train, Chairman, World Wildlife Fund/Conservation Foundation 1. Wildlife: Wildlife around the world is under pressure from human settlement, desertification of tropical forests, and in the case of elephants, rhinos, and marine turtles, commercial exploitation. the most pervasive problem facing wildlife is the loss of habitat. Grade: C 2. Air Quality: Air quality varies greatly. East Europe is failing, while Japan is doing a good job. By and large the air quality is pretty decent in developing countries. Grade: C

3. Water Quality: The water quality in most of the third world is pretty damned bad, largely because of a lack of sewer treatment. The US is better off in this area than most industrialized countries. Grade: D

4. Energy: The world is heavily dependent on fuel woods, and soil destruction is inherent in this dependency. There is little use of renewable energy resources - solar and biomass, for example. Grade: C minus

5. Forests: In the tropical forests of the world, the destruction is accelerating. In the US, we're doing a pretty good job. Grade: D

6. Soil Quality: Soil erosion is a serious problem worldwide. Whatever Lester Brown says about this is OK with me! The US still loses a lot of topsoil every year. Grade: D plus

7. Greenhouse Effect: I'm a perpetual optimist, so I have trouble giving things an F. It's a serious issue, especially globally. It has to be dealt with globally. We're doing a lot of research. Without the research I'd give it an F. Grade: D

8. Ozone Depletion: This is a very serious problem. I'd give all the industrial nations about the same grade. There's a lot of room for improvement. Grade: C plus

9. Acid Rain: It's reasonably serious in any industrialized country. But there's a very mixed bag as to how it's being dealt with. East Europe and the Soviet Union would get about an F. The US is doing only slightly better than the rest of the world. Grade: C

10. Toxins: Eighty percent of the earth's surface isn't doing much of anything in this area. East Europe gets an F, the Soviet Union a D plus. The third world exerts very little effort in this area, but the problem is not that serous there. Grade: D plus 11. Land Use/Open Spaces: The situation is not hopeless, but it's not far from it. However, West Europe would get about a C plus. We in the US are a bit above the world's average. Grade: D

12. Solid Waste Management: Most countries don't manage their garbage at all. In the US the situation is better. Grade: D

13. Population: The trends we saw 20 years ago have been borne out. The problem is a lot worse today. It is extremely serious. It's critical, critical worldwide. Grade: F

William Reilly, Commissioner, US Environmental Protection Agency

1. Wildlife: We have established many new programs and parks, we've banned elephant ivory and brought back the tiger. But we've seen a steady decline in rhinos in East Africa, primates in Brazil, etc. These areas are down and down sharply. Grade: D 2. Air Quality: Mexico City, Lagos (Nigeria), Bangkok (Thailand), Caracas (Venezuela), Santiago (Chile), Beijing, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe have become disaster areas in some cases. Ambient lead is high; there is little or no progress there. Grade: D 3. Water Quality: Internationally we've seen water quality go down in areas of rapid settlement. The Vistula River can't even be used to cool industry it's so corrosive. There are fish in the Great Lakes, but now there are toxics in fish tissues. Grade: D 4. Energy: The Japanese and West Europeans have done better in energy efficiency than the US. The US has failed to keep pace with the progress we made in the 1970s, and we've allowed our dependency on foreign sources to increase to 50 percent. Grade: C 5. Forests: We've seen an acceleration of forest loss in Central and South America for the most part. In the Amazon, in Africa, Madagascar: In 12 to 15 years there will be very few large integral forests around. Grade: D 6. Soil Quality: Soils and forest cover have washed away: in Nepal, Bangladesh, Central america. There is a steady desertification in much of Africa. Grade: D

7. Greenhouse Effect: This is a new problem. It looms as a potentially significant problem. We are uncertain based on the science. Prudence would indicate the need to be cautious. Grade: C

8. Ozone Depletion: The rest of world has done significantly less well than the US. A full phaseout (of ozone depleting pollutants) in developing countries will be hard. The US is helping other countries out of their dependencies. Grade: B 9. Acid Rain: Acid rain in East Europe is inflicting problems on other countries - on Britain and Sweden. In the US there has been a steady accumulation of sulphates in the ecosystem, in lakes. Grade: D

10. toxins In the world, there's not a big world awareness of the problem. The US is much more aware of the problem. Grade: D

11. land use/open spaces: There is continuing degradation due to low density development. The US and world problems are very similar. Grade: D

12. solid waste management: Much of the rest of the world is more efficient than the US - especially West Europe and Japan. The problem is getting more severe in the US. Grade: B

13. population: The idea of responsible parenthood hasn't advanced. However, the birthrate in the Philippines, Mexico, and Taiwan has gone down. Compared with much of the rest of the world, the US is doing a good job. Grade: D Lester Brown, President, Worldwatch Institute 1. wildlife: The number of endangered species probably is greater than at any time since civilization began. Species are disappearing much faster than new ones are evolving. Grade: F

2. air quality: Air quality can be judged in what we breathe and also as it affects other forms of life. There are some cities in industrialized countries where air quality has improved. But in most cities, air quality is a much greater threat than ever before. Grade: D 3. water quality: Chemical contamination of water supplies is the most serious in the industrialized world. There is dysentery and hepatitis in the third world. This is an area where things have gotten a lot worse in the last 20 years. Grade: D 4. energy: Here and there there are success stories. On energy efficiency, Japan is a leader in setting the standard for the rest of the world. The Soviet Union uses three times as much. The US could do so much better than we are doing with energy efficiency. Grade: D 5. forests: Since 1970 we've lost about half a million acres of our forests: about the size of the US east of the Mississippi. Brazil is using up more forest area than any other country. It's burning off the Amazon forest for cattle farming, not a sustainable land use. Grade: F 6. soil quality: The world's farmers are losing 24 billion tons of topsoil a year in excess of new soil formation. Thus, each year the world's farmers are trying to feed 88 million more people, but with 24 billion tons less topsoil than the year before. Grade: D 7. greenhouse effect: The most important thing in the short run to stabilize climate is to exploit the available technologies for increasing energy efficiency, such as the more efficient bulbs, autos, greater use of public transportation, etc. Grade: F 8. ozone depletion: This is the most recently discovered threat to our future on this list. We didn't know in 1970 that CFC's used in plastic foams and refrigerators were damaging the ozone. Very substantial progress has been made in a very short period of time. Grade: A 9. acid rain: In 1970 we knew that acid rain could increase the acidity of some lakes to the point where they could become lifeless. We now know that acid rain plus air pollution can destroy forests. We now see evidence of that on every continent. Grade: C 10. toxics: The world is not well equipped to deal with toxic waste. In most countries toxics are being disposed of indiscriminately and in ways that are health threatening. The amount of toxic waste is increasing year by year. Grade: D 11. land use/open spaces: We are losing some of the best cropland in the world to urban sprawl, highways, shopping malls, etc. The US has done a poor job of planning; urban sprawl is as bad in this country as almost anywhere in the world. Grade: C 12. solid waste management: Historians will probably see the late 20th century throwaway society as an aberation. This uses extraordinary amounts of energy. The US also gets a C largely because of the progress in the past few years in moving into major recycling programs. Grade: C 13. population: Worldwide, 1.6 billion people have been added since 1970. That's nearly an increase of one-half over the last 20 years. It's now projected that 960 million will be added in the 90's. Grade: F James Gustave Speth, President, World Resources Institute 1. wildlife: This is the great tragedy of the modern age. We're globally losing four species every hour. We're being robbed by our environmental and genetic endowment. Most of the devastation is occurring in the tropics and is associated with deforestation. Grade: F 2. air quality: The problem has increased. There are tremendous problems. But that this pollution (must be) associated with great industrialization and great wealth is a myth. Two-thirds of the US pollution that gave rise to the 1970 Clean Air still is out there. Grade: C minus 3. water quality: This remains a serious problem, especially in developing and East European nations. Some third world rivers are just sewage streams. In the US you have runoff from agriculture and urban areas and construction sites. Grade: D 4. energy: A lot of countries have energy efficiency twice that of ours. The US abandoned any semblance of energy policy in 1980. The federal government ceased to give energy leadership in 1981 under the Reagan administration. Grade: D 5. forests: This is a tragic problem globally. It's an astronomical problem. We are steadily deforesting the world. Most of the net loss is in the tropics. Grade: F

6. soil quality: Soil loss in the world is phenomenal. It is projected that this loss will reduce productivity of rain-fed croplands 30 percent from 1985 to the end of the century. We're doing better in the US, but not by a lot. Grade: F

7. greenhouse effect: The world gets a big F for effort and a B for talk. Almost nobody has done anything in this area. In terms of global warming, there are a few countries taking serious action; the Netherlands and Sweden. Grade: F

8. ozone depletion: This is an overall B because of the Vienna Convention to protect the ozone layer, the apparent consensus to go beyond the Montreal Protocal to eliminate CFC's in this decade, and to limit other gasses. Grade: B

9. acid rain: Half the trees in Europe are dead or dying because of the effects of air pollution. A lot of this is due to acid rain. In the US we've done nothing with acid rain. Grade: D

10. toxics: This is a huge topic to try to synthesize. Places in developing countries are still using pesticides that the US has outlawed. We have lower levels of lead in human tissues than is the case in many developing countries. Grade: D 11. land use/open spaces: The world is doing about as well as the US - an average job. In the US there have been some valiant local efforts by some states. These efforts have not been aided in general by the federal government. Grade: C

12. solid waste management: The world is not doing as bad a job as the US. The US has put all our attention at the end of the process, and not at eliminating the problem. Grade: C

13. population: The growth is in the third world. But the problem must be dealt with in cooperation with industrialized countries. The solution isn't just passing out condoms. People are having a lot of kids because they don't have a lot of opportunities. Grade: F

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