Ticking Time Bomb

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Future EcosystemEvery other year, the World Wildlife Fund publishes the Living Planet Report, which charts trends in the world’s ecosystem biodiversity and the human ecological footprint. The most recent report update released Oct 24th, 2006 warns of a worldwide ecosystem collapse within 50 years.

The WWF report urges that we must reduce global consumption by at least half of current trends in order to avoid a serious global catastrophe. The world’s natural resource depletion is currently escalating “at a rate unprecedented in human history”. Growth in demand for raw materials, food and energy is having a devastating impact on the earth’s ability to sustain natural biodiversity and clean air.

The WWF began its Living Planet Reports in 1998 to show the state of the natural world and the impact of human activity upon it. Since then we have continuously refined and developed our measures of the state of the Earth.

And it is not good news. The Living Planet Report 2006 confirms that we are using the planet’s resources faster than they can be renewed - the latest data available (for 2003) indicate that humanity’s Ecological Footprint, our impact upon the planet, has more than tripled since 1961. Our footprint now exceeds the world’s ability to regenerate by about 25 per cent. The consequences of our accelerating pressure on Earth’s natural systems are both predictable and dire. The other index in this report, the Living Planet Index, shows a rapid and continuing loss of biodiversity - populations of vertebrate species have declined by about one third since 1970. This confirms previous trends.

The message of these two indices is clear and urgent: we have been exceeding the Earth’s ability to support our lifestyles for the past 20 years, and we need to stop. We must balance our consumption with the natural world’s capacity to regenerate and absorb our wastes. If we do not, we risk irreversible damage.

We know where to start. The biggest contributor to our footprint is the way in which we generate and use energy. The Living Planet Report indicates that our reliance on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs continues to grow and that climate-changing emissions now make up 48 per cent - almost half - of our global footprint.

We also know from this report that the challenge of reducing our footprint goes to the very heart of our current models for economic development. Comparing the Ecological Footprint with a recognized measure of human development, the United Nations Human Development Index, the report clearly shows that what we currently accept as “high development’’ is a long way away from the world’s stated aim of sustainable development. As countries improve the wellbeing of their people, they are bypassing the goal of sustainability and going into what we call “overshoot” - using far more resources than the planet can sustain. It is inevitable that this path will limit the abilities of poor countries to develop and of rich countries to maintain prosperity.

It is time to make some vital choices. Change that improves living standards while reducing our impact on the natural world will not be easy. But we must recognize that choices we make now will shape our opportunities far into the future. 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.

The good news is that this can be done. We already have technologies that can lighten our footprint, including many that can significantly reduce climate-threatening carbon dioxide emissions. And some are getting started. WWF is working with leading companies that are taking action to reduce the footprint - cutting carbon emissions, and promoting sustainability in other sectors, from fisheries to forests. We are also working with governments who are striving to stem biodiversity loss by protecting vital habitats on an unprecedented scale.

But we must all do more. The message of the Living Planet Report 2006 is that we are living beyond our means, and that the choices each of us makes today will shape the possibilities for the generations which follow us.

James P. Leape, Director General of WWF International

Living Planet Index
The index tracks the populations of 1,313 vertebrate species - fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals from all around the world. Separate indices are produced for terrestrial, marine, and freshwater species, and the three trends are then averaged to create an aggregated index. Although vertebrates represent only a fraction of known species, it is assumed that trends in their populations are typical of biodiversity overall.

By tracking wild species, the Living Planet Index is also monitoring the health of ecosystems. Between 1970 and 2003, the index fell by about 30%. This global trend suggests that we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history.

Human Ecological Footprint
Biodiversity suffers when the planet’s biocapacity cannot keep pace with human consumption and waste generation. The Ecological Footprint tracks this in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water needed to provide ecological resources and services - food, fibre, and timber, land on which to build, and land to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning fossil fuels. The Earth’s biocapacity is the amount of biologically productive area - cropland, pasture, forest, and fisheries - that is available to meet humanity’s needs.

Since the late 1980s, we have been in overshoot - the Ecological Footprint has exceeded the Earth’s biocapacity - as of 2003 by about 25%. Effectively, the Earth’s regenerative capacity can no longer keep up with demand - people are turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources.

Humanity is no longer living off nature’s interest, but drawing down its capital. This growing pressure on ecosystems is causing habitat destruction or degradation and permanent loss of productivity, threatening both biodiversity and human well-being.

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