Ecological credit crunch: we cannot bank on nature

Posted: 29 October 2008

The world is heading for an ecological credit crunch as human demands on the world's natural resources reach nearly a third more than earth can sustain.

That is the stark warning contained in the latest edition of WWF's Living Planet Report, the leading statement of the planet's health. It shows that species and wildlife continue to decline, and around 50 countries are slipping into a state of permanent or seasonal water stress.

Ecological Footprint by country
Ecological Footprint by country
Ecological Footprint by country. Growth of the footprint over time for those countries with the largest total footprints in 2005. Click for full-size image.
The report, produced with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network (GFN), shows that whilst American and United Arab Emirates citizens have the biggest impact on the planet (ecological footprint), Malawi and Afghanistan citizens have the smallest. The UK comes in 15th, having the same ecological footprint as 33 African countries put together, with the average UK resident's impact on the planet being more than three and a half times that of the average African.

More than three-quarters of the world's people are now living in nations that are ecological debtors, where national consumption has outstripped their country's capacity to produce natural resources and capture carbon emissions.

Lignite power station, Germany
Lignite power station, Germany
Niederaussem brown coal (lignite) power plant, near Cologne in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany. According to a WWF study, this power plant is number ten of the worst climate polluters in Europe. Photo © Andrew KERR / WWF-Canon
"Most of us are propping up our current lifestyles, and our economic growth, by drawing - and increasingly overdrawing - on the ecological capital of other parts of the world," James Leape, Director General of WWF International, said. "If our demands on the planet continue to increase at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we would need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles."

The report, which is published every two years, shows that carbon emissions from fossil fuel use and land disturbance are the greatest component of humanity's footprint, underlining the key threat of climate change.

"Continued ecological deficit spending will have severe economic consequences," said GFN Executive Director Dr Mathis Wackernagel. "Resource limitations and ecosystem collapses would trigger massive stagflation with the value of investments plummeting, while food and energy costs skyrocket."

Chinese citizens have an average ecological footprint which is around 2.1 global ha per person whilst US citizens each require an average of 9.4 global ha and UK citizens 5.3 ha to support their lifestyles. In the Congo people have an average footprint of just 0.5 global ha per person - but face a future of declining natural resources from deforestation and increased demands from a rising population and export pressures.

Top ten national biocapacities
Top ten national biocapacities
Top ten national biocapacities. Ten countries alone contain over 55 per cent of the planet's biocapacity. Click for full-size image.
The new water footprint measures show up the significance of water traded in the form of commodities with, for example, a cotton T-shirt requiring 2,900 litres of water in its production. On average, each person consumes 1.24 million litres (about half an Olympic swimming pool) of water a year, but this varies from 2.48 million litres per person a year (USA) to 619,000 litres per capita annually (Yemen).

The report finds that around 50 countries are currently facing moderate or severe water stress and the number of people suffering from year-round or seasonal water shortages is expected to increase as a result of climate change.

The Living Planet Index, compiled by ZSL, which was released earlier in the year, shows a nearly 30 per cent decline since 1970 in nearly 5000 measured populations of 1,686 species. These dramatic losses in our natural wealth are being driven by deforestation and land conversion in the tropics and the impact of dams, diversions and climate change on freshwater species. Pollution, over-fishing and destructive fishing in marine and coastal environments are also taking a considerable toll.

"We are acting ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been behaving economically - seeking immediate gratification without due regard for the consequences," said ZSL co-editor Jonathan Loh. "The consequences of a global ecological crisis are even graver than the current economic meltdown."

Forest cleared for palm oil, Sumatra
Forest cleared for palm oil, Sumatra
After the rainforest is burned, oil palm companies will clear land and plant Oil palm trees. Bukit Tigapuluh Nature Reserve, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo © Mark EDWARDS / WWF-Canon
The report suggests some key "sustainability wedges" which if combined could stabilise and reverse the worsening slide into ecological debt and enduring damage to global support systems. For the single most important challenge - climate change - the report shows that a range of efficiency, renewable and low emissions "wedges" could meet projected energy demands to 2050 with reductions in carbon emissions of 60 to 80 per cent.

David Norman, director of campaigns at WWF said: "We humans have been very good at creating problems - but we can be equally good at solving them. A sustainable world is not an unachievable goal. As the world looks to restore its economies we must build in long term environmental as well as economic sustainability."