WORLDWIDE awareness of environmental problems has led to important international agreements on such issues as climate, biodiversity, and ozone depletion, and to progress on others related to pollution and natural resources.
Yet, the trends in many areas - atmospheric change, environmental poisons, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss - still accelerate in the wrong direction. And, according to the sixth biennial 1994-95 report of the World Resources Institute, related social issues, like population growth, treatment of women, and the growing disparity between rich and poor, are also troubling.
WRI is a Washington-based private research group that works closely with United Nations groups. Among the 10 ``critical trends'' reported by WRI:
* Twenty ``megacities'' have unhealthy air and violate World Health Organization guidelines for at least one pollutant. Mexico City is the worst, with ``serious levels of sulfur dioxide, suspended particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and ozone, and heavy levels of lead and nitrogen oxides.''
* Tropical deforestation averaged 0.8 percent a year in the 1980s, which means an area three times the size of France was converted to other uses.
* Toxic emissions ``are enormous in all countries with significant industrialized sectors,'' with the US the largest polluter.
* Industrialized countries also account for the largest emission of ``greenhouse'' gases. The US and former Soviet Union together contribute 32.8 percent, and European Community nations contribute 12.4 percent.
* World fisheries have declined steadily since 1989. ``An equally disturbing trend is that many overfished species - such as cod, haddock, and west Atlantic bluefin tuna - are being replaced by less valuable species.''
* While world food production has generally kept pace with population increases, in some regions - particularly sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union - per capita food production is declining.
WRI also examines social and economic issues that affect the global environment.
Consumption patterns present ``a unique set of challenges related to sustainable resource use,'' the organization states.
In industrial countries, record levels of energy and raw-materials use reflect a consumer culture. In developing nations, ``urban areas are increasingly replicating the pollution and other environmental problems associated with northern cities [those in developed countries], while in rural areas, severely impoverished people are depleting reserves of renewable resources in a desperate bid to survive.''
Meanwhile, the report states, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Per capita gross national product is $18,988 for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (the world's 24 wealthiest), compared with $2,377 for developing countries.
WOMEN comprise most of the world's poor, and the number of women in poverty is growing more than half-again as fast as men.
Women also comprise two-thirds of the illiterate. Both economic status and education levels relate directly to population growth and its environmental impact, according to UN figures analyzed in the WRI report.
For example, data gathered from 93 countries show that ``for every year of schooling a woman receives, her fertility rate is reduced by 10 percent.''
The world's population is growing by about 90 million a year worldwide - 95 percent of that in developing countries. At this rate, the current total of 5.5 billion people would grow to about 10 billion by the middle of the next century.
``Today, the world is experiencing the most rapid increase in human population ever to occur,'' WRI warns.
``Could the world in 2050 provide a comfortable standard of living for 10 billion people without inflicting possibly irreversible environmental damage?''