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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Reminder of Why a Sustainable Energy Future is Critical: Global Ecosystems Face Collapse

Current global consumption levels could result in a large-scale ecosystem collapse by the middle of the century, a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warns.

The environmental group's biannual Living Planet Report concludes that the natural world is being degraded "at a rate unprecedented in human history." Terrestrial species have declined by 31% between 1970-2003, the findings showed and the report warns that if demand continues to grow at current rates, two planets would be needed to meet global demand by 2050.

The report should serve as an excellent reminder of why a transition to a sustainable energy future is absolutely critical.

According to the report, the massive and rapid loss of biodiversity was a result of resources being consumed faster than the planet could replace them. The report's authors added that if the world's population shared the UK's lifestyle, three planets would be needed to support their needs (and it would presumably be worse if the world's population were to adopt the American lifestyle).

The nations that were shown to have the largest "ecological footprints" were the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Finland, according to the report.

Paul King, WWF director of campaigns, told the BBC that the world was running up a "serious ecological debt." "It is time to make some vital choices to enable people to enjoy a one planet lifestyle," he said, indicating that serious chances in resource consumption patterns need to occur in order for the world's population to 'live within our means.'

"The cities, power plants and homes we build today will either lock society into damaging over-consumption beyond our lifetimes, or begin to propel this and future generations towards sustainable one planet living," King said.

The report, compiled by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network, is based on data from two indicators:

  • The Living Planet Index assesses the health of the planet's ecosystems; and

  • The Ecological Footprint Index measures human demand on the natural world.

  • The Living Planet Index tracked the population of 1,313 vertebrate species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals from around the world, according to the BBC. It found that these species have declined by about 30% since 1970, suggesting that natural ecosystems are being degraded at an unprecedented rate.

    According to the BBC, the Ecological Footprint Index measured the amount of biologically productive land and water needed to meet the demand for food, timber and shelter, and to absorb the pollution and waste from human activity. The report concluded that the worldwide global footprint exceeded the earth's biocapacity by 25% in 2003, which means that the Earth can no longer keep up with the demands being placed upon it.

    The findings echo a study published earlier this month that said the world went into "ecological debt" on October 9, 2006. That study, published by UK-based think-tank New Economics Foundation (Nef), was based on the same Ecological Footprint data compiled by the Global Footprint Network, which also provided the figures for this latest report from the WWF.

    'Large-scale collapse'

    One of the report's editors, Jonathan Loh from the Zoological Society of London, told the BBC: "[It] is a stark indication of the rapid and ongoing loss of biodiversity worldwide. "Populations of species in terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecosystems have declined by more than 30% since 1970," he added. "In the tropics the declines are even more dramatic, as natural resources are being intensively exploited for human use."

    The report outlined five scenarios based on the data from the two indicators, ranging from 'business as usual' to 'transition to a sustainable society.'

    Under the 'business as usual' scenario, the authors projected that to resources needed to meet the demand in 2050 would be twice as much as what the Earth could provide. The authors warned: "At this level of ecological deficit, exhaustion of ecological assets and large-scale ecosystem collapse become increasingly likely."

    To deliver a shift towards a "sustainable society" scenario would require "significant action now" on issues such as energy generation, transport and housing.

    The latest Living Planet Report is the sixth in a series of publications which began in 1998.

    Energy Use a Main Culprit

    As the graph below indicates, carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are a major contributor to the Environmental Fooprint Index scores of many overconsuming nations. Radioactive wastes from nuclear energy also contribute to the scores of many nations.

    The inclusion of these factors in the index reflects the common sense notion that the widespread use of non-renewable energy resources that produce pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, and/or long-lived radioactive wastes is not compatible with a 'one world' lifestyle.

    If we want to live within our means on the only planet that we've got, we must strive to rapidly transition to a more sustainable energy future, one that relies on renewable resources and produces little or no pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions or radioactive wastes. A sustainable energy infrastructure must be a critical part of any strategy that aims to bring consumption patters back within levels that can be supported by the planet.

    Ecological Debtors and Creditors

    The following maps illustrate the fact that current consumption patters represent an entirely unjust case of international inequity. Many of the world's developed and rapidly developing nations are in 'ecological debt', consuming far more resources per capita than could be supported if everyone on this planet were to consume at that level. Thus, the less developed nations of the world are currently 'financing the ecological debts' of the more developed countries, a situation that is clearly unjust and unfair.

    But it is also clear that the planet cannot support a global population that consumes resources the way the average American or Western European does. We simply don't have two or three planets to spare!

    Thus, as with the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the responsibilty to bring our environmental footprint back to sustainable levels lies with the developed countries. We must transition to sustainable consumption patterns and drastically reduce our environmental footprint.

    This is it!

    We only have one planet Earth.

    This is it, our only home, and we're using it up.

    It's time to learn how to live within our means!

    [A hat tip to Jonathan Dunn and the BBC]

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