Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Francesco Di Castri

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Francesco Di Castri

Article excerpt

The second installment of an interview with the co-ordinator of UNESCO'S environment programmes.

The world's forests have been called "the lungs of the planet". Is this an accurate metaphor?

-- The metaphor arises from the continuous exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen that takes place between living organisms and the environment. Living plants take up carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. When they are dead, the reverse occurs and they take up oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. If all the forests were wiped off the face of the Earth, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere would diminish and the amount of carbon dioxide would increase. However, the change in the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere that this would entail would be only temporary; furthermore, the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere is such that, as far as humans are concerned, the change would be imperceptible.

In fact, the prime role played by forests, in particular the tropical forests, in the atmospheric balance and the Earth's climate relates to the part they play in the water cycle. Deforestation has serious repercussions on the process of evaporation and the rainfall regime. When forests are destroyed, the water balance of the atmosphere is upset and this has a direct influence on the climate. Massive deforestation would also entail a serious reduction in biodiversity, a subject that I shall not go into more deeply here.

How can the poorest countries achieve a level of growth and welfare compatible with the protection of the environment?

-- That problem is more than just circumstantial, which is to say it cannot simply be solved, in a rather paternalistic way, by the rich countries providing money. The roots of the problem are structural. The developing countries need--and UNESCO plays a central role here-to acquire know-how: without education, awareness, management training, they will not be able to resolve their difficulties. Meanwhile, as a result of the prevailing monetary system and the market economy, the terms of trade are against them and give them no room for manoeuvre.

To escape from this impasse, it will be necessary to change the rules of the international marketplace. Otherwise developing countries will be forced to destroy forests, impoverish the soil, and only cultivate cocoa, coffee or other export crops, thereby aggravating the degradation of their environment. The relationship between the North and the South should be modified structurally. Instead of talking about aid for the Third World, we should be talking about justice and equity for it.

Energy consumption per head of population is often used us an index of development. Yet the production of energy under present conditions is a major cause of pollution. Isn't there a contradiction between economic growth and the protection of the environment?

--Yes, there is a conflict between development as it is presently understood and the environment. The objective of the Rio conference was to prove that environment and development are two sides of the same problem. As long as we refuse to admit that the two issues are complementary, we will continue to experience setbacks in both domains. Despite growing awareness among governments and peoples, in spite of the efforts made and programmes set up here and there, environmental policy over the past twenty years has been an almost total failure. As a result, we have also lost out where development is concerned.

There is undeniably a link between development and energy consumption, but it is less direct than it is often thought to be. …

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