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Climate Change & Environment

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Living Planet Report 2010
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If overconsumption continues in rich countries, humanity will need the capacity of two Earths to keep up with demands on natural resources. Ending 'ecological overshoot' in an equitable manner is essential in order to ensure future human well-being, says a report by WWF.

Humanity consuming the Earth: by 2030 we'll need two planets - Jeremy Hance,

Tropics in decline as natural resources exhausted at alarming rate - WWF

Link to full report (PDF): Living Planet Report 2010

15th October 2010

Humanity consuming the Earth: by 2030 we'll need two planets

13th October 2010 - Jeremy Hance,

Too many people consuming too much is depleting the world's natural resources faster than they are replenished, imperiling not only the world's species but risking the well-being of human societies, according to a new massive study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), entitled the Living Planet Report. The report finds that humanity is currently consuming the equivalent of 1.5 planet Earths every year for its activities. This overconsumption has caused biodiversity—in this case, representative populations of vertebrate animals—to fall by 30 percent worldwide since 1970. The situation is more dire in tropical regions where terrestrial species' populations have fallen by 60 percent and freshwater species by 70 percent.

Produced in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network the biannual report follows the health of nearly 8,000 animal populations across 2,500 representative species. For example, the white-rumped vulture's population has collapsed by 50 percent from 2000-2007, while leatherback marine turtles' population has dropped by 20 percent from 1989-2002. The report finds that there are five major causes for such species' population crashes: habitat loss, over-exploitation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change. All of these threats are linked to human consumption patterns.

"[Human consumption] demands are largely met by a few key sectors: agriculture, forestry, fisheries, mining, industry, water and energy. Together, these sectors form the indirect drivers of biodiversity loss," the report explains. "The scale of their impact on biodiversity depends on three factors: the total number of consumers, or population; the amount each person is consuming; and the efficiency with which natural resources [used]."

The tropics are the most threatened region. Industrial agriculture, livestock, mining, oil and gas, and infrastructure such as roads have led to large-scale and on-going deforestation in tropics, where the majority of the world's biodiversity lives.

"The decline of tropical forests is well-reflected in population trends of individual species like tigers, elephants and rhinos, which need these habitats to survive. In Riau province on the island of Sumatra, we have lost 65 percent of forest cover in 25 years and as a result, tiger populations have decreased by about 70 percent and elephants by 84 percent," says Dr. Sybille Klenzendorf, Managing Director of WWF's Species Conservation Program in a press release. "What we need to realize is that the consumption of vital commodities that are harvested in these areas, such as paper and oil palm […] are devastating important habitats and destabilizing our climate. It is time we look at more sustainable ways of living and sourcing commodities to save ourselves, our children, and the species we care about.”

As Klenzendorf point out the loss of natural ecosystems isn't just impacting tigers, rhinos, and elephants. Services from nature that humanity depends on, known as 'ecosystem services', are being degraded and lost due to the expanding human footprint. Such ecosystems services include freshwater availability, pollination, climate stability, food production, erosion and flood control, and future medicines. While humans are dependent on water for survival, the report's Water Footprint of Production finds that 71 nations are seeing stress on their non-renewable water sources, a trend that's expected to grow worse as the climate continues to warm.

As expected some regions consume more than others. For example, if everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average American, global society would need 4.5 Earths to achieve sustainability instead of 1.5.

"Rich nations must find ways to live much more lightly on the Earth—to sharply reduce their footprint, including in particular their reliance on fossil fuels. The rapidly-growing emerging economies must also find a new model for growth—one that allows them to continue to improve the wellbeing of their citizens in ways that the Earth can actually sustain," James P. Leape, Director General of WWF International, writes in the report.

One bright spot is that species populations in the temperate regions, as opposed to tropical, are on the rise as a whole. However, the report points out that this is largely due to when the first Living Planet analysis was undertaken in 1970.

"If the temperate index were to extend back centuries rather than decades it would very probably show a long-term decline at least as great as that shown by tropical ecosystems in recent times," the authors write. However, according to the report, conservation efforts, forest re-growth, and improvements in pollution have clearly aided temperate species in the near-term.

Overall, humanity's ecological footprint has doubled since 1966 and likely surpassed the Earth's capacity sometime in the 1970s. Much of the ballooning footprint is linked to greenhouse gas emission, which have grown by 35 percent since 1998. According to the report, humanity needs to drastically change the way it consumes natural resources or environmental problems—and the economies that they underpin—will only worsen.

"Under a 'business as usual' scenario, the outlook is serious: even with modest UN projections for population growth, consumption and climate change, by 2030 humanity will need the capacity of two Earths to absorb CO2 waste and keep up with natural resource consumption," the report reads.

By the time the global population is expected to stabilize at around 9 billion people in 2050, 2.8 Earths will be necessary if 'business as usual' continues.

To avoid this fate and achieve true sustainability, the report makes a number of recommendations, for example: measure human well-being as more than just GDP; protect 15 percent of the world's land and marine regions; enhance land productivity; employ a new economic system for valuing ecosystems and biodiversity; eliminate perverse subsidies; and build a green energy economy, rapidly phasing out the need for fossil fuels, among others.

"Sustainability should not be an option for consumers. Consumers should have only good choices. The science is clear: current ways of doing business undermine the competitiveness of companies and, ultimately, the life support systems of the planet. As such, they threaten companies' ability to continue producing products," says Dr. Jason Clay, WWF Senior Vice President, Market Transformation. 

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Tropics in decline as natural resources exhausted at alarming rate

13th October 2010 - WWF

New analysis shows populations of tropical species are plummeting and humanity’s demands on natural resources are sky-rocketing to 50 per cent more than the earth can sustain, reveals the 2010 edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report – the leading survey of the planet’s health.

The biennial report, produced in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, uses the global Living Planet Index as a measure of the health of almost 8,000 populations of more than 2,500 species. The global Index shows a decrease by 30 per cent since 1970, with the tropics hardest hit showing a 60 per cent decline in less than 40 years.

“There is an alarming rate of biodiversity loss in low-income, often tropical countries while the developed world is living in a false paradise, fuelled by excessive consumption and high carbon emissions,” said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International.

While the report shows some promising recovery by species’ populations in temperate areas, thanks in part to greater conservation efforts and improvements in pollution and waste control, tracked populations of freshwater tropical species have fallen by nearly 70 per cent – greater than any species’ decline measured on land or in our oceans.

“Species are the foundation of ecosystems,” said Jonathan Baillie, Conservation Programme Director with the Zoological Society of London. “Healthy ecosystems form the basis of all we have – lose them and we destroy our life support system.”

The Ecological Footprint, one of the indicators used in the report, shows that our demand on natural resources has doubled since 1966 and we’re using the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support our activities. If we continue living beyond the Earth’s limits, by 2030 we’ll need the equivalent of two planets’ productive capacity to meet our annual demands.

"The report shows that continuing of the current consumption trends would lead us to the point of no return,” added Leape. “4.5 Earths would be required to support a global population living like an average resident of the of the US."

Carbon is a major culprit in driving the planet to ecological overdraft. An alarming 11-fold increase in our carbon footprint over the last five decades means carbon now accounts for more than half the global Ecological Footprint.

The top 10 countries with the biggest Ecological Footprint per person are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Denmark, Belgium, United States, Estonia, Canada, Australia, Kuwait and Ireland.

The 31 OECD countries, which include the world’s richest economies, account for nearly 40 per cent of the global footprint. While there are twice as many people living in BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – as there are in OECD countries, the report shows the current rate of per-person footprint of the BRIC countries puts them on a trajectory to overtake the OECD bloc if they follow same development path.

"Countries that maintain high levels of resource dependence are putting their own economies at risk,” said Mathis Wackernagel, President of the Global Footprint Network. “Those countries that are able to provide the highest quality of life on the lowest amount of ecological demand will not only serve the global interest, they will be the leaders in a resource-constrained world."

New analysis in the report also shows that the steepest decline in biodiversity falls in low-income countries, with a nearly 60 per cent decline in less than 40 years.

The biggest footprint is found in high-income countries, on average five times that of low-income countries, which suggests unsustainable consumption in wealthier nations rests largely on depleting the natural resources of poorer, often still resource rich tropical countries.

The Living Planet Report also shows that a high footprint and high level of consumption, which often comes at the cost of others, is not reflected in a higher level of development. The UN Human Development Index, which looks at life expectancy, income and educational attainment, can be high in countries with moderate footprint.

The Report outlines solutions needed to ensure the Earth can sustain a global population projected to pass nine billion in 2050, and points to choices in diet and energy consumption as critical to reducing footprint, as well as improved efforts to value and invest in our natural capital.

“The challenge posed by the Living Planet Report is clear,” said Leape. “Somehow we need to find a way to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly prosperous population within the resources of this one planet. All of us have to find a way to make better choices in what we consume and how we produce and use energy."

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