October 30, 2006

Ecological demand exceeds capacity by 25%, with Canada's footprint ranked fourth worldwide

The world's natural ecosystems are being degraded at a rate unprecedented in human history, with Canada ranked as having the fourth largest ecological "footprint," after the United Arab Emirates, the U.S and Finland. The 2006 Living Planet Report, released October 24 in Beijing, China by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), confirms that the earth's natural resources are being consumed faster than they can be renewed.

The latest data (2003 figures) show that humanity's ecological footprint, i.e. its impact on the planet, has more than tripled since 1961 and currently exceeds the world's capacity to regenerate by about 25%, up from 21% in the previous biennial report which was based on 2001 data. Projections based on a business-as-usual scenario suggest that humanity will be using two planets' worth of natural resources by 2050 - if those resources have not run out by then.

"We are in serious ecological overshoot, consuming resources faster than the Earth can replace them," said James Leape, director general of WWF International, adding, "The consequences of this are predictable and dire.

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

"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," Leape noted.

Energy is the starting point for reducing humanity's ecological footprint, as energy production and consumption patterns are the leading contributors to the footprint. The report's statistics indicate that climate-changing emissions account for nearly half (48%) of the global footprint. The challenge of lightening that footprint, it says, goes to the heart of current economic development models.

The Living Planet Report is built around two indicators: the Living Planet Index, which reflects the health of the planet's ecosystems, based on biodiversity measurements; and the Ecological Footprint, which measures humanity's demand on these ecosystems.

The Living Planet Index is based on trends in more than 3,600 populations of 1,300 vertebrate species around the world. Its analysis of data for 695 terrestrial, 344 freshwater and 274 marine species confirms the trend of biodiversity loss seen in previous Living Planet reports. Between 1970 and 2003, the index fell by about 30%, with terrestrial species declining by 31%, freshwater species by 28% and marine species by 27%.

The second index, the Ecological Footprint, measures humanity's demand on the biosphere. 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.

Among countries with populations over one million, the United Arab Emirates leads in having the largest footprint, in global hectares (gha) per person (a gha is defined as a hectare with a world-average ability to produce resources and absorb wastes). The UAE, with a population of only three million, had a footprint of 11.9 gha/person.

The U.S. (pop 294 million as of 2003) is ranked second, at 9.6 gha/person, followed by Finland (pop 5.2 million) at 7.6 gha/person, Canada (pop 31.5 million) at 7.6 gha/person, Kuwait (pop 2.5 million) at 7.3 gha/person, Australia (pop 19.7 million) at 6.6 gha/person, Estonia (pop 1.3 million) at 6.5 gha/person, Sweden (pop 8.9 million) at 6.1 gha/person, New Zealand (pop 3.9 million) at 5.9 gha/person and Norway (pop 4.5 million) at 5.8 gha/person.

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, comes mid-way in world rankings, at number 69 (with a footprint of 1.6 gha/person), but its growing economy and rapid development mean it has a key role in keeping the world on the path to sustainability.

To put these figures in perspective, the global ecological footprint in 2003 was 2.2 gha/person, while the world's total supply of productive area (or biocapacity) was 1.8 gha/person. Humanity's footprint first began outstripping global biocapacity in the 1980s and has been increasing every year since to the point where demand exceeded supply by about 25% in 2003, notes the report. The CO2 footprint, from the use of fossil fuels, has been the fastest-growing component, increasing more than ninefold between 1961 and 2003.

Analyzing the ecological footprint by region and income groups, the report found that in the 11 years after the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, the average per-person footprint in low-and middle-income countries changed little, while that in high-income countries rose by 18% between 1992 and 2003. This growing disparity has potentially severe economic, political and social implications, says the report.

While increasing ecosystem productivity will contribute toward eliminating the overshoot between the global footprint and the earth's carrying capacity, reducing the footprint will be essential. The sooner the overshoot ends, the lower the risk of serious ecosystem disruption and its associated costs. While the cost of doing so will undoubtedly be high, the return on the investment will be substantial. Moreover, adds the report, the more relevant question "may not be what it would cost to eliminate overshoot, but what it would cost not to."

The report presents three scenarios under which the global footprint would either continue rising or would diminish slowly or more rapidly. The first, business-as-usual, scenario projects an increase in the global footprint from 2.2 gha/person in 2003 to 2.6 by mid-century, based on forecasts of moderate growth in population and demand for biocapacity.

The second scenario envisions a concerted effort to end the overshoot by 2100 and establish a modest biocapacity buffer to slow biodiversity loss. This would require: a 50% reduction in global CO2 emissions by the end of the century and a 50% reduction in the harvest of wild fish, in order to bring the total wild catch down to a sustainable level. It assumes the increase in demand for cropland to be half the rate of population growth and that the consumption of forest products would rise by 50% to compensate for decreased use of fossil-based fuels, chemicals and other materials.

These factors would reduce the global footprint by an estimated 15% between 2003 and 2100. The major challenge, says the report, would be to increase energy supply and reduce CO2 emissions without shifting the burden on to other parts of the biosphere. It points out that all energy forms, even renewables, have an ecological footprint; for example, fossil fuel substitutes such as hydropower, wind energy and biomass all reduce emissions, but increase demand on land.

The rapid-reduction scenario depicts a much more aggressive approach, including reductions in CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050 and 70% by 2100. Absolute consumption of cropland and grazing land would grow by only 15%, while biocapacity would rise by 30% as a result of improved technology and management leading to increased cropland, fisheries and forest yields. The result would be a global footprint 40% smaller in 2100 than in 2003. This would require the greatest initial economic investment but by minimizing the ecological debt fastest, it would carry the lowest ecological risk, notes the report.

The Living Planet addresses the question of how the overshoot is to be eliminated. Assuming that the global community agrees on the need to close the gap between the ecological footprint and the earth's biocapacity, decisions will have to be made about how much to shrink the footprint and how this reduction is to be shared among individuals and populations. Developing frameworks for achieving this will require an unprecedented level of global co-operation, but even this is fairly straightforward compared to the challenge of implementing the process.

Finally, the report points out that resource accounting and reporting are essential in the transition to a sustainable society. Without resource accounting, ecological deficits and overshoot go unnoticed and will continue with the result that by the time their impacts become apparent, it may be too late to make changes and avoid ecological bankruptcy. The collapse of Canada's east coast fisheries is cited as an example. The adoption of the Living Planet Index and the Ecological Footprint as indicators for the 2010 targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity serves to confirm the managerial effectiveness of accounting measures such as these.

The transition to a sustainable society will require innovative approaches to meeting human needs, and experts from a wide range of disciplines will have important roles to play. Systems thinking will be important as well as it can help find synergies and ensure that proposed initiatives bring about an overall footprint reduction rather than shifting demand from one ecosystem to another.

The 2006 Living Planet report may be viewed on the WWF Web site, www.panda.org.

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