Consumption running up a huge ecological debt

Posted: 1 November 2004

Humans are consuming 20 per cent more natural resources than the earth can produce, resulting in population declines of terrestrial, freshwater and marine species by an average of 40 per cent between 1970 and 2000, warns the conservation agency, WWF, in its annual sustainability report.

"We are spending nature's capital faster than it can regenerate," said Dr Claude Martin, Director General of WWF International. "We are running up an ecological debt which we won't be able to pay off unless governments restore the balance between our consumption of natural resources and the earth's ability to renew them."

The Living Planet Report explores the impact of humankind on the planet and examines the state of nature and resource use in 149 of the world's major countries. The Report is based on two indicators - the Living Planet Index and the Ecological Footprint. The Living Planet Index tracks trends in populations of more than a thousand wild species around the world. The Index shows that the health of the planet is declining at a rapid rate due to our increasing consumption of natural resources. It reveals that from 1970 to 2000 populations of terrestrial and marine species dropped by 30 per cent, while freshwater populations plummeted by a spectacular 50 per cent.

Global demand vs.supply. Image: Living Planet Report 2004
Global demand vs.supply. Image: Living Planet Report 2004
FIGURE 1 shows the ratio between the world's demand and the world's biocapacity in each year, and how this ratio has changed over time. Expressed in terms of "number of Earths," the biocapacity (resource supply) of the Earth is always 1 (represented by the horizontal blue line). This graph shows how humanity has moved from using, in net terms, about half the planet's biocapacity in 1961 to 1.2 times the biocapacity of the Earth in 2001. The global "ecological deficit" of 0.2 Earths is equal to the globe's ecological overshoot.

WWF believes this is a direct consequence of increasing human demand for food, fibre, energy and water. Sharpened and enhanced data confirm the trend pointed out in previous Living Planet Reports.

The Ecological Footprint is a measure of environmental sustainability. The 2004 report reveals that our ecological footprint - that is the impact of humanity on the earth - has increased two and half fold since 1961.

The report shows that average footprint is 2.2 hectares per person despite there being only 1.8 hectares of land to provide natural resources for each person on the planet. This is worked out by dividing the earth's 11.3 billion hectares of productive land and sea space between its 6.1 billion people.

Footprint and biocapacity per person. Image: Living Planet Report 2004
Footprint and biocapacity per person. Image: Living Planet Report 2004
FIGURE 2 tracks, in absolute terms, the world's average per person Ecological Footprint and per person biocapacity (resource supply) over a 40-year period. An additional dotted line (scale on right side of graph) shows the growth of the human population from 1961-2001.

Particularly alarming is our energy footprint - dominated by the use of fossils fuels such as coal, gas and oil. This is the fastest growing component of the ecological footprint, increasing by nearly 700 per cent between 1961 and 2001. WWF points out that the over-exploitation of these fuels is putting the whole of humanity under threat from climate change.

WWF is calling on governments, industry and the public to urgently switch to renewable energies and promote energy efficient technologies, buildings and transport systems.

Western problem

The report shows that people in the West are consuming resources at an extremely unsustainable level.

The "footprint" of an average North American is not only double that of a European but seven times that of the average Asian or African.

The report warns that pressure on the earth's resources will only increase as these regions develop and consume more. "Sustainable living and a high quality of life are not incompatible," said Jonathan Loh, one of the authors of the report. "However we need to stop wasting natural resources and to redress the imbalance in consumption between the developing and industrialized worlds." While campaigning for sustainable development, the agency is also urging governments to act on their commitments to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. These commitments were reiterated at the meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur this year. The meeting also set national and regional targets for creating networks of protected areas, including new parks, which will help safeguard biodiversity. Related links: Download the report More information on the ecological footprint