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A UN report says fossil fuel production and consumption are the world's leading cause of environmental degradation. ((iStock))

A report by a United Nations panel suggests the world's population should shift away from a meat-based diet and cut fossil fuel consumption in order to make more sustainable use of the world's natural resources.

The International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management says billions of people have to take action in order to reverse some of the damaging trends harming the environment and depleting resources.

"Decoupling growth from environmental degradation is the No. 1 challenge facing governments in a world of rising numbers of people, rising incomes, rising consumption demands and the persistent challenge of poverty alleviation," said Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and executive director of the UN Environment Program.

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Achim Steiner, director of the UN Environment Program said the world's population must be prepared to make substantial changes in order to preserve the planet's natural resources. ((Firdia Lisnawati/Associated Press))

The report points to habitat change, overuse of fertilizers, over-fishing in the oceans and over-cutting of forests as key stress factors on the environment.

Unsafe drinking water, carbon fuels, climate change and air pollution are among the factors most influencing human health.

In industrialized nations, the report says, housing, travel, food and the use of household appliances account for 70 per cent of environmental impacts.

The report concludes that choices made at the household level have a significant effect on the world's sustainability.

"Two broad areas are currently having a disproportionately high impact on people and the planet's life-support systems," said Steiner. "These are energy in the form of fossil fuels and agriculture, especially the raising of livestock for meat and dairy products."

Report calls for less meat, dairy

The report calls for a significant shift in diets away from animal-based proteins toward more vegetable-based foods.

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The report states that meat and dairy production consume unsustainable amounts of natural resources. ((iStock))

Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the world's fresh water use and 38 per cent of land use. Half the crops grown on the planet are fed to animals.

The panel also noted that there needs to be a dramatic improvement in how energy is used in the home — particularly for heating, cooling and electronic gadgets — and for travel.

'Currently, we are fiddling, or fiddling around the edges, as Rome burns'— Ashok Khosla, World Conservation Union

"Incremental efficiency gains in, for example, motor cars or home heating systems have provided some improvements, but faced with the scale of the challenge, far more transformational measures need to be taken," said Ashok Khosla, co-chair of the panel and president of the World Conservation Union.

"Currently, we are fiddling, or fiddling around the edges, as Rome burns."

The report was prepared by 27 high-level experts who were tasked with looking at how economic growth is linked to environmental degradation. 

"This report drives home the message that there is no time like the present to switch to a resource-efficient economy," said Janez Potocnik, the European Commission's commissioner for the environment.