U.N. plea on Environment Day: Kick CO2 habit

APTOPIX India Environment Day
Global warming was not the only issue highlighted on World Environment Day. Pollution, too, was on the radar — like this dump near a bird sanctuary in Gauhati, India, where a boy on Thursday searches for reusable items as storks stand atop the trash. The World Conservation Union classifies these greater adjutant storks as a species in great danger of extinction. Anupam Nath / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The United Nations on Thursday marked "World Environment Day" by urging individuals and governments to kick the habit of producing carbon dioxide, saying everyone must act to fight climate change.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said global warming was becoming the era's defining issue and would hurt rich and poor.

"Our world is in the grip of a dangerous carbon habit," Ban said in a statement on World Environment Day, which was marked by events around the globe and hosted by the New Zealand city of Wellington.

"Addiction is a terrible thing. It consumes and controls us, makes us deny important truths and blinds us to the consequences of our actions," he said in the speech to reinforce this year's theme of "CO2: Kick the Habit."

World Environment Day, conceived in 1972, is the United Nations' principal day to mark global green issues and aims to give a human face to environmental problems and solutions.

New Zealand, which boasts snow-capped mountains, pristine fjords and isolated beaches used as the backdrop for the "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy, has pledged to become carbon-neutral.

"We take pride in our clean, green identity as a nation and we are determined to take action to protect it. We appreciate that protecting the climate means behavior change by each and every one of us," said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Island leader has sinking feeling
The leader of a country slowly being submerged by the Pacific Ocean told a related conference in Wellington that climate change is an issue of human survival, not economic development.

Kiribati President Note Tong said global efforts to curb climate change may already be too late for low-lying Pacific islands.

"We may already be at the point of no return, where the emissions in the atmosphere will carry on contributing to climate change, so in time our small low-lying islands will be submerged," Tong said. "According to the worst case scenarios, Kiribati will be submerged within (this) century."

The highest point of land on Kiribati is now just two yards above sea level, said Tong. He said climate change "is not an issue of economic development; it's an issue of human survival."

Some of Kiribati's 94,000 people living in shoreline village communities have already been relocated from century-old sites. "We're doing it now ... it's that urgent," Tong said.

United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner said it was difficult for island nations to watch as the effects of climate change take hold.

"It's a humbling prospect when a nation has to begin talking about its own demise, not because of some inevitable natural disaster ... but because of what we are doing on this planet," Steiner said.

He said the world must find the "collective purpose" to combat climate change. "Unless everyone ... on this planet takes their responsibility seriously we will simply not make a difference," he said.

New Zealand was chosen to host World Environment Day because it was one of the first nations to commit to carbon neutrality and has provided climate change leadership, Steiner said.

A major new wind farm being developed on its outskirts of the capital Wellington means the city will soon be 100 percent carbon neutral in its electricity supply, Prime Minister Helen Clark said.

Sampling of events
New Zealand staged art and street festivals to spread the message on how people can reduce carbon usage. In Australia, Adelaide Zoo staged a wild breakfast for corporate leaders to focus on how carbon emissions threaten animal habitats.

In Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, people plan to clean up Gulshan Baridhara Lake that has become badly polluted, and in Kathmandu the Bagmati River Festival will focus on cleaning up the river there.

Many Asian cities, such as Bangalore and Mumbai, plan tree-planting campaigns, while the Indian town of Pune will open a "Temple of Environment" to help spread green awareness.

But in Europe and the United States, World Environment Day passed with barely a blip.

Global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are rising quickly and scientists predict rising seas, melting glaciers and more intense storms, droughts and floods as the planet warms.

A summit of G8 nations in Japan next month is due to formalize a goal agreed a year ago that global carbon emissions should be reduced by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

But some nations want a reduction of 80 percent of carbon emissions by 2050 to try to stabilize CO2 concentrations in the air to limit global warming.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said climate change was already a reality: "We have been experiencing the worst drought in living memory and our inland rivers are running dry.

"We are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent on 2000 levels by 2050. We will implement emissions trading as the primary mechanism for achieving this target," he said in a statement.

The U.N. Environment Program said greening the world's economy would cost as little as a few tenths of global GDP annually over 30 years and would be a driving force for innovation, new businesses and employment.

Top industrial nations have stopped short of making firm commitments for a midterm goal for 2020 — which many countries argue is crucial to saving the planet from environmental crisis.

Climate scientists have urged rich countries to reduce emissions by between 25 percent and 40 percent by 2020 to avoid the worst effects of warming.

Even a 3.6-degree-Fahrenheit temperature rise could subject up to 2 billion people to water shortages by 2050 and threaten extinction for 20 percent to 30 percent of the world's species, according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. network of 2,000 scientists.

IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said Thursday in Wellington that the panel's fourth climate change assessment report had noted "we have only seven years" to take action if rising temperatures are to be limited to no more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

"After 2015 and there on, we have to bring about a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide and ... we don't have more than seven years. The earlier we can start the better," he said.