Human footprint too big for nature

Posted: 24 October 2006

The world's natural ecosystems are being degraded at a rate unprecedented in human history, according to a new report by the global conservation organisation WWF.

The group's biennial Living Planet Report said the natural world was being degraded "at a rate unprecedented in human history". Current global consumption levels could result in a large-scale ecosystem collapse by the middle of the century, WWF warns.

Illegal logging
Illegal logging
Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Illegal logging for paper industry and forest clearing for palm oil plantation. Photo © WWF-Canon/Alain COMPOST
Terrestrial species had declined by 31% between 1970-2003, the findings show. The report warns that if demand continued at the current rate, two planets would be needed to meet global demand by 2050. The biodiversity loss was a result of resources being consumed faster than the planet could replace them, the authors said. They added that if the world's population shared the UK's lifestyle, three planets would be needed to support their needs.

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

Humanity’s over consumption has been increasing year on year since WWF and partners started to collate this report, with demand exceeding supply by about 25 per cent in 2003. This means that it took approximately a year and three months for the Earth to produce the ecological resources we used in that year.

Fish catch
Fish catch
Food security depends on conservation and sustainable use of fish resources. Bay of Málaga, Colombia. Photo © WWF-Canon/Diego M. GARCES
The report has shown that between 1970 and 2003 terrestrial species have declined by 31 per cent, freshwater species by 28 per cent, and marine species by 27 per cent.

The Living Planet Report 2006 pulls together various data to compile two indicators of the Earth’s well-being.

  • The first, the Living Planet Index, measures biodiversity, based on trends in more than 3,600 populations of 1,300 vertebrate species around the world. In all, data for 695 terrestrial, 344 freshwater and 274 marine species were analysed. Terrestrial species declined by 31 per cent, freshwater species by 28 per cent, and marine species by 27 per cent.

  • The second index, the Ecological Footprint, measures humanity’s demand on the biosphere. Humanity’s footprint has more than tripled between 1961 and 2003. This report shows that our footprint exceeded biocapacity by 25 per cent in 2003. In the previous report (based on data to 2001), this figure was 21 per cent. The carbon dioxide footprint, from the use of fossil fuels, was the fastest growing component of our global footprint, increasing more than ninefold from 1961 to 2003.
Ecological demand and supply in selected countries, 2003
"We are in serious ecological overshoot, consuming resources faster than the Earth can replace them," WWF International’s Director General James Leape said. “The consequences of this are predictable and dire."

"It is time to make some vital choices," he added. "Change that improves living standards while reducing our impact on the natural world will not be easy. 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 living.”