Saving the Earth: the Challenges We Face

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Of more immediate concern is the heavy air pollution caused in many places by combustion of wood and fossil fuels. A new U.N. Environment Program report warns of the effects of a haze across all southern Asia. Dubbed the "Asian brown cloud" and estimated to be 2 miles thick, it may be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year from respiratory diseases.

The better way to meet the world's energy needs is to develop cheaper, cleaner sources. Pre-Johannesburg proposals call for eliminating taxation and pricing systems that encourage oil use and replacing them with policies that provide incentives for alternative energy. In India there has been a boom in wind power because the government has made it easier for entrepreneurs to get their hands on the necessary technology and has then required the national power grid to purchase the juice that wind systems produce.

Other technologies can work their own little miracles. Micro-hydroelectric plants are already operating in numerous nations, including Kenya, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The systems divert water from streams and rivers and use it to run turbines without complex dams or catchment areas. Each plant can produce as much as 200 kilowatts--enough to electrify 200 to 500 homes and businesses--and lasts 20 years. One plant in Kenya was built by 200 villagers, all of whom own shares in the cooperative that sells the power.

The Global Village Energy Partnership, which involves the World Bank, the UNDP and various donors, wants to provide energy to 300 million people, as well as schools, hospitals and clinics in 50,000 communities worldwide over 10 years. The key will be to match the right energy source to the right users. For example, solar panels that convert sunlight into electricity might be cost-effective in remote areas, while extending the power grid might be better in Third World cities.

--BIODIVERSITY: More than 11,000 species of animals and plants are known to be threatened with extinction, about a third of all coral reefs are expected to vanish in the next 30 years and about 36 million acres of forest are being razed annually. In his new book, The Future of Life, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson writes of his worry that unless we change our ways half of all species could disappear by the end of this century.

The damage being done is more than aesthetic. Many vanishing species provide humans with both food and medicine. What's more, once you start tearing out swaths of ecosystem, you upset the existing balance in ways that harm even areas you didn't intend to touch. Environmentalists have said this for decades, and now that many of them have tempered ecological absolutism with developmental realism, more people are listening.

The Equator Initiative, a public-private group, is publicizing examples of sustainable development in the equatorial belt. Among the projects already cited are one to help restore marine fisheries in Fiji and another that promotes beekeeping as a source of supplementary income in rural Kenya. The Global Conservation Trust hopes to raise $260 million to help conserve genetic material from plants for use by local agricultural programs. "When you approach sustainable development from an environmental view, the problems are global," says the U.N.'s Malloch Brown. "But from a development view, the front line is local, local, local."

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