Posted on behalf of Katherine Rowland.
Orbiting high above the Earth inside the International Space Station, an astronaut issued a grim report card on the state of the planet yesterday, describing current levels of resource consumption as 50% higher than the world can sustainably maintain.
In a recorded message, Andre Kuipers of the European Space Agency offered a unique view of the planet he circles 16 times a day. “From up here I can see humanity’s footprint, including forest fires, air pollution and erosion,” he said, launching the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report for 2012.
The biennial audit, produced in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and the Oakland, California-based Global Footprint Network, projects that by 2030 humanity will require the equivalent of two planets to sustain current levels of population growth and resource depletion. “We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal,” writes Jim Leape, director general of WWF International, in the report. “We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can provide, and unless we change course that number will grow very fast.”
The report monitored ecosystem health by tracking 9,000 populations of more than 2,600 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. The findings indicate that global biodiversity has decreased by nearly 30% since 1970, and by as much as 60% in the tropics.
According to the report, the precipitous losses in tropical regions point to a “potentially catastrophic” gap between the ecological footprint of rich and poor nations. By the study’s measures, if everyone on the planet lived like an average person in the United States, four Earths would be required to replenish the annual demand on natural resources. The United States ranks as the country with the fifth-largest per-capita resource footprint, trailing Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Denmark.
And the disparity between rich and poor nations has been increasing, according to the report’s footprint index, which evaluates resource consumption in relation to biocapacity, or the ability to renew resources and absorb CO2 emissions.
This trend is driven by high-income countries that subsidize their economic growth on the backs of developing nations, says Gemma Cranston, an engineer and lead scientist at the Global Footprint Network in Geneva. She argues that the consumption demands of rich nations encourage poor countries to plunder their resource wealth for export.
The report — the eighth of its kind — comes five weeks before the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Cranston says that policy-makers there will have an opportunity to forge a new trajectory for economic growth. “High-income countries can help low-income countries set up systems that allow for gains in social well-being that don’t come at the expense of ecological harm.”
But Colin Butfield, head of campaigns at WWF UK, is doubtful that the summit will result in the level of international commitment necessary to halt “the alarming momentum of environmental damage”. Despite the international conventions signed since the original Rio summit in 1992, biodiversity losses and CO2 emissions have accelerated. “Twenty years on and the overall direction of travel has gotten worse,” he says. “And that direction is pretty terrifying.”