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Global Challenges


This is the 2007 draft synopsis of global challenges. You will get the newest version of the synopsis here.

Global challenges


This survey gives an overview of the most urgent global challenges for human needs and life. All these challenges are of existential importance for human life, since they deal with overcoming or reducing to the extent possible the large-scale damages and/or risks that affect many people. The addressed challenges mainly originate in man-made influences. However, the individual consequences for the affected people are less due to their individual behaviour, but more due to larger-scale human activities.

The global challenges have been weighted and prioritized as far as available data and risk assessments allow. They are considered with regard to the questions: Are they paid enough attention? Are efforts taken that are needed to overcome them? Indicators used for weighting the challenges are damages and risks to life and health, to economic and social development, and to natural foundations of human life. Data and risk assessments, as well as goals, targets and recommended measures are taken from reports by scientific institutions, UN (United Nations) organizations, national administrations, foundations and other trusted sources. Due to data issues the order of challenges described below should not be seen as a strict type of hierarchy.

The survey does not aspire to give a complete description of all global challenges or the state of the world. Instead only the most urgent challenges shall be identified. By no means does this claim that further challenges are irrelevant or negligible. Furthermore, this survey on most urgent challenges does not rate different countries or groups of countries as high or low, but rather takes a global perspective.

Within this synopsis the various connections between, and overlapping of, the global challenges can only be indicated. They are described more precisely in the separate pages on the specific global challenges.

Most of the challenges seem to be too big of a burden for people to be motivated to get involved with them. But there already is progress to be noticed and humanity has previously solved other severe problems.


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Synopsis of Challenges

Challenges with large current impacts:

World Nutrition and Poverty Eradication

Even though there is enough food for everyone, 856 million people suffer chronic hunger (stagnating). Roughly 7 million per year die, among them 5.1 million children under 5 (decreasing). Poverty is a main cause, affecting the 980 million people living below one dollar per day. The members of the United Nations have agreed upon the targets of halving the proportions of undernourished and of extreme poor people from 1990 to 2015. Measures: school meal programmes, food for work projects, microcredits, etc. (and so on) 3.9 billion $ (dollar [United States]) are needed in 2008.
(Sources: FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations] 2007, p. [page] 193; UNICEF [United Nations Children's Fund] 2007 and 2007a; UNICEF et al. [and others] 2007, 29; The Hunger Project; WFP [World Food Programme] 2006, 3, and 2004, 4; WHO [World Health Organization] 2005, 106; Caulfield et al. 2004, 195; UN 2007, 6; UN 2000, § 19.1; WFP 2006a, 5.)

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Challenges with increasing impacts or large risks:

Keeping Climate liveable

Man-made climate change will probably include a global warming of 1.1-6.4°C (degree Celsius) by 2100 and weather extremes, harming agriculture, biodiversity, freshwater, coastal zones, health, etc. Climate change affects the entire world population. 154 000 deaths are attributed to climate change. Costs of disasters related to climate change reached 83 billion $ in 2005. Linear climate change is a risk with quite a high extent of potential damage and quite a high probability; non-linear changes have a higher damage but an unknown probability. Over 30 industrialized countries have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2012 by 5%. But global emissions have increased by 24.4%. Mitigation and adaptation efforts should be intensified.
(IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] 2007, 7f. [and following]; WHO 2002, 72; Munich Re 2006; WBGU [German Advisory Council on Global Change] 1998, 62; www.UNFCCC.int; IPCC 2007, 4.)


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Stop Epidemics

33.2 million people suffer from HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)/AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) (increasing). 8.8 million people are newly infected by tuberculosis per year (stagnating), 350-500 million by malaria. Together, these diseases kill 5 million people per year. There are also new global risks of resistant viruses and diseases, characterized by a very large damage potential as well as uncertain probabilities of occurrence. The UN targets to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other major infectious diseases by 2015. Information and antiretroviral therapy against HIV/AIDS need 22.1 billion $ in 2008. Further measures: anti-malaria bed nets, insecticide use and new treatments.
(UNAIDS [Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS] 2007, 1; WHO 2007, 18, and 2004, 120; WBGU 1998, 62; UN 2000, § 19.4; UNAIDS 2005.)

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Stabilizing Finance/Economy

Financial crises have increased, with fiscal costs of more than 1 trillion $. While the probability of major shocks is decreasing, their potential damage is greater, and the ability for anticipation is nil. Countries of the global South are in debt to industrialized countries by a total of more than 2.7 trillion $. Their debt service paid is five times the received development assistance and nearly double the direct investments. A far-sighted regulation of financial markets (regarding equity, etc.) could reduce risks. The UN has been striving for a debt relief, which has cumulated to $ 59 billion in 2006.
(WB [World Bank] 2003 and 2006; CRMPG [Counterparty Risk Management Policy Group] 2005; WB 2007, 187; UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] 2007, 293; EK [Enquete-Kommission "Globalisierung der Weltwirtschaft – Herausforderungen und Antworten"] 2002, 115f.; UN 2000, § 15.2; UN 2007b, 15.)

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Safe Birth Conditions

43% of deliveries in countries of the South take place without assistance by skilled attendants (decreasing). Every year there are at least 3 million infant deaths and maternal deaths. The UN members have set the targets of reducing the mortality rate of children under the age of 5 by two thirds and the maternal mortality rate by three quarters from 1990 to 2015. Furthermore universal access to reproductive health and family planning shall be achieved. $ 52.4 billion are needed.
(UN 2007, 16; WHO 2004, 120; UN 2000, § 19.3; UN 2006a, 6; WHO 2005, xvii [roman 17].)

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Maintaining Biodiversity

12 of 14 indicators for biodiversity, which is important for ecosystem stability, show a negative trend. The Living Planet Index points out a decline of species abundance of about 40% since 1970. The global risks of ecosystem destabilization and anthropogenic affects on mass developments of species have a high potential for damage, with high resp. (respectively) unknown probabilities of occurrence. The UN members target to reduce the rate of loss of biodiversity significantly by 2010. Measures: establishing more, as well as improving, protected areas, using more environmentally sound methods in agriculture, storing seeds and genes, and protecting species threatened by extinction.
(CBD [Convention on Biological Diversity] 2006, 4, 25; WWF [World Wide Fund For Nature] 2006, 4f.; WBGU 1998, 62; UN 2002, § 42, and 2006a, 6.)


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Peace and Security

Within the 20th century, there was an average of 1.91 million deaths by armed conflicts per year – 60% of them civilians. Since armament started to include weapons of mass destruction we are confronted with the danger of man-made devastation of mankind. Production and storage of NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) weapons as well as nuclear weapon early-warning systems pose risks similar to nuclear energy facilities and large chemical facilities, but with varying probability of occurrence. The UN has demanded the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, some treaties ban chemical and biological weapons, as well as the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There are proposals which consider the relevant implementation problems.
(WHO 2002a, 21, 5; WBGU 1998, 73f.; UN 2004.)

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Availability of Water

More than 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, lacking enough water for food production, health, and development (increasing). 5-25% of global freshwater use probably exceeds long-term accessible supply. Water quality, on global average, is declining, too. This issue raises the risk of conflicts. The UN members have agreed to stop the unsustainable exploitation of water resources by developing water management strategies. The Global Water Partnership supports their implementation.
(IWMI [International Water Management Institute] 2007, 10; FAO 2007, 135; MA [Millennium Ecosystem Assessment] 2005, 106f., 43.; UN 2000, § 23 [4]; GWPforum.org.)


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Access to safe Water

About 1.1 billion people don't have access to hygienic water, more than 2.6 billion are missing basic water sanitation (both decreasing). Annually this leads to several billion cases of disease as well as to 1.73 million deaths, most of them children. The UN members agreed to halve, from 1990 to 2015, the proportion of people lacking access to safe drinking water, as well as the proportion of those having no access to basic sanitation. Measures range from disinfection at the point of consumption up to rainwater collection and household connections to water. 10 billion $ per year are needed.
(MA 2005, 13; WHO 2002, 226; UN 2000, § 19 [1]; UN 2002, § 24, 7; UNDP 2006, 42.)

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Protect Soils

Soils deliver more than nine tenths of all food. More than 1.2 billion people and about one third of all land usable for agriculture in more than 110 countries are affected by soil degradation. Moreover large areas are threatened with being turned into steppe or deserts. Major causes are overgrazing, intensive or inappropriate methods of agriculture, and deforestation. Suitable plantings can improve the quality of soils. The UN has agreed on the goal to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought. UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification) has initiated various action programmes.
(MA 2005a; UNCCD 1994; unccd.int.)


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Clean indoor Air

1.62 million people – primarily women and children – die each year due to respiratory diseases resulting from indoor air pollution. Causes are cooking places with open fire, respectively the lack of access to modern energy. 3 billion people live in such households. There is no international target. Interventions are better ventilation, more efficiently vented stoves, and cleaner fuels. Appropriate stoves for all affected households would cost about 30 billion $. 112 governmental and non-governmental actors have joined in the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air.
(WHO 2002, 69, 226; WHO 2002, 70; ITDG [Intermediate Technology Development Group] 2003.)

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Keeping Forests usable

Deforestation has heightened the risk of malaria in Africa and South America by increasing the habitat suitable for mosquitoes that transmit malaria. 18-25% of greenhouse gas emissions each year are due to deforestation. The net loss of forests has decreased in the last years to 7.3 million hectares annually. Deforestation contributes to biodiversity loss. The UN strives to reverse the loss of forest cover worldwide by sustainable forest management. Trading of illegally felled timber has to be supervised and restricted. Poverty reduction, soil protection, and access to modern energy can open up alternatives to depletion.
(MA 2005, 114; UN 2007, 23; UN 2007, 23; UNFF [United Nations Forum on Forests] 2006, 3.)

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Traffic Safety

1.19 million people annually die in road traffic. The global economic costs of road crashes have been estimated at $ 518 billion annually. There is no international target. Measures: safe road design, traffic management, seat belts, helmets, day-time running lights, speed limits, and restrictions on drinking and driving.
(WHO 2004, 124; WHO 2003, 96.)

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Safe Technologies

Safe technologies are, for example, renewable energies, recycling-based economy, bionics, etc. High risk technologies include: (1) nuclear power, large chemical facilities, and dams (potential for very extensive damage with a very low probability of occurrence), (2) certain genetic engineering applications (potential for very extensive damage but unknown probability), and last but not least, (3) any climate damaging technology. The UN addressed technological risks. Measures: support of research, development and market launch of safe technologies, research on risks, regulation and reduction of technological risks, including the option of prohibition.
(WBGU 1998, 62; UN 1992, chap. [chapter] 34 and 22; CBD 2000; WBGU 1998, 218, 220.)

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Work Safety

During their working lives globally 20-30% of the male and 5-20% of the female working-age population has been exposed to lung carcinogens like asbestos, arsenic, cadmium, diesel exhaust, etc. About 1 million people per year die of occupational injuries, diseases, or exposure to toxic materials. There is no international target. Occupational cancers are entirely preventable through hygiene measures, substitution of safer materials, enclosure of processes, and ventilation.
(WHO 2002, 75; WHO 2004a, 2146; WHO 2002, 75.)

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Low Pollution and Toxicity

Over 200 million people have blood lead levels of at least 5 µg/dl (microgramme per tenth of a litre). Lead causes annually 234 000 deaths. Human activities have already doubled the entry of nitrogen, affecting freshwater, coastal waters, and soils. It's similar with phosphates, sulphur emissions, acid deposition, ammonia, etc. The risks due to persistent organic pollutants and hormonally active substances are uncertain, but have a high persistence. The Stockholm Convention restricts or forbids production and use of 12 persistent organic pollutants. The UN members aim to minimize adverse effects of chemicals by 2020 and supports chemicals management in the South.
(WHO 2002, 71, 226; MA 2005, 15; MA 2005, 122; WBGU 1998, 119f.; WBGU 1998, 66; www.POPS.int; UN 2002, § 23.)

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Clean urban Air

Urban air pollution causes respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, leading to 799 000 deaths per year. Particularly cities in Asia and the Western Pacific Region are concerned. The atmosphere's ability to cleanse itself of pollutants has declined by about a tenth since preindustrial times. There is no international target. Advisable measures are filtering or avoidance of exhaust fumes from vehicles, power plants, and industry, the switch to renewable energy, traffic reduction, as well as expansion of public transport and bicycle traffic.
(WHO 2002, 69, 226; MA 2005, 42.)

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Protect Fish Stocks

Fish constitute 15.5% of the animal protein consumed worldwide. More than 1 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of animal protein. At least one quarter of important commercial fish stocks are over-harvested or significantly depleted. In most countries of the South fish consumption per capita has declined. The UN members have agreed on the goal of maintaining or respectively restoring stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. Measures necessary: reduction, regulation and checks of marine fisheries, regulatory systems for aquaculture, marine protected areas.
(MA 2005, 39, 15; MA 2005, 13; UN 2002, § 31a; MA 2005, 21.)

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Protection from Disasters

In 2002 a total of 485 000 people died in natural disasters. Floods affect over 140 million people per year, more than all other disasters combined. In the nineties, floods caused damages of 243 billion $. Since the fifties annual economic losses from natural catastrophes have increased tenfold. The UN has started the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, which has developed a Framework for Action 2005-2015 and is concerned e.g. with early warning systems and the risks of climate change.
(WHO 2004, 122; MA 2005, 54, 9; www.UNISDR.org.)


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Sustainable Resource Use

Resource supply depends on continued or increased success in exploration for and extraction of currently uneconomic as well as unknown deposits beyond next decades. The material flow, energy use and pollution caused by resource extraction will probably increase. In the early 2010s production of oil will not meet demand. Assumed point of maximum oil extraction ranges from 2005 to not before 2030. UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) recommends a long-term reduction of resource consumption by a factor of 10. Approaches are substitution, savings, and resource efficiency: dematerialization, miniaturization, durability, reusing of products respectively components, and recycling of material.
(RWI [Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung]/ISI [Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung]/BGR [Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe] 2006; IEA [International Energy Agency] 2007, 5; ASPO [Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas] 2007, EWG [Energy Watch Group] 2007, BGR 2005, IEA 2004; UNEP 1999, 2.)


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Maintaining the Ozone Layer

Damage to the ozone layer by fluorinated hydrocarbons has already been considerably reduced by measures undertaken even before the damaging effect could be clearly proved by science. This is a success story for the application of the precautionary principle. Nevertheless, there are still risks of heightened ultraviolet radiation and the associated increase of skin cancer. The recovery of the ozone layer is not expected until the mid-21st century. Stopping production and use of ozone depleting substances (CFCs and FCs) has been achieved to more than 90%. There are problems with regard to some substitutes, CFCs produced and traded illegally, and the management of stockpiles.
(UN 2005; UN 2007, 25.)

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Challenges on capacity building:

Cooperation, Citizenship and Democracy

In order to overcome the global challenges several capacities for action can be used or built up, which can contribute to practical progress: (1) cooperation in partnerships by persons and/or institutions, enterprises or organizations; (2) civic commitments of people or the "corporate citizenship" of enterprises or institutions; (3) options for democratic participation in public affairs including transparency and good governance. The Agenda 21 and the Millennium Declaration of the United Nations rely on the principle of cooperation. Partnerships are on the rise, and the number of parliamentary democracies is increasing as are the institutional, social and technical possibilities for participation.
(UN 1992, 2.1, 23; UN 2000, § 20.)

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Human Rights and Gender Equality

Getting involved with improving conditions of life is made easier by rules and guarantees that are stipulated in universal, civic, economic, social, and cultural human rights. This kind of empowerment can strengthen activities, too. Gender equality, rooted in human rights, has a special role. On the one hand there is an existential discrimination of women regarding many global challenges. On the other hand women's daily activities contribute to relieve many global problems. The UN members target to end disparities between boys and girls in all levels of education. 18% of the boys and 22% of the girls in less developed countries aren't enrolled in primary school. The share of women in parliaments has increased from 13% to 17% globally.
(UN 2000, § 19.2, 20.1, 24, 25; UN 2007, 13.)

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Information and Education, Research and Innovation

Capacity building includes access to information and education, too. This enables people in analysing problems and influencing politics and markets on the base of solid information as well as choosing options concerning lifestyles. Furthermore, it assists in creating and accelerating new solutions in research and development and thereby shaping our paths to the future. Agenda 21 and the Millennium Declaration emphasize strengthening education and science along with the role of private business and information technology. The target for 2015 is that all children shall be able to complete primary schooling – to date 88% of the children in the South are enrolled in primary school (increasing). Additionally, information and communication technologies shall be available to all. Today, in the North 53% have Internet access, in the South it is only 9% (increasing).
(UN 1992, 30, 35, 36; UN 2007, 10; UN 2000, 19.2, 20.5; UN 2007, 32.)

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The base year of all target data is 1990, unless other stated.

Trends specified by +, 0 or refer to the current direction of development, but not to whether the development is on track to meet a given target.

For numeric names the short scale is used:
1 billion = one thousand million = 109 = 1 000 000 000
1 trillion = one thousand billion = 1012 = 1 000 000 000 000

Almost all available data on global conditions is of low precision. Most data on the largest problems of mankind only partially rely on actual measurements of specific cases, but often on estimates based on modelling and extrapolation. So the data base is far from meeting the motto of the WHO Report 2005: Make every mother and every child count.


Draft (2007)