Duncan Thomas

2010 Living Planet Report – signs of recovery or terminal decline?

In Climate Change, Conservation, General Wildlife on October 26, 2010 at 11:07 am
Institute of Geosciences of the Universidade F...

The Living Planet Report gives our planet a comprehensive health check

Every two years, The Living Planet Report, produced by WWF in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, provides a comprehensive survey of the state of the Earth.

Focusing on 2,500 species in 8,000 locations, the report includes some worrying news regarding both conservation and consumption.

A vastly increased human population demands more and more of the planet’s natural resources – overall, we consume more than twice the amount that we did in 1966.  We demand so much, in fact, that if the rest of the world lived as we do in the UK, 2.75 planets would be needed to sustain our lifestyle. We can , at least, take heart that we’re not the worst – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Denmark, Belgium, and the United States top the list, requiring between 4.5 and 5 Earths if their lifestyle was followed globally.

Of course, consuming more than your fair share means less for others. Whilst the richest 20% of the world’s population consumes 86% of goods and services, whilst the poorest 20% is responsible for only 1.3% of total consumption. Whilst we can point the finger at the rapidly developing industrial economies of China, India and Brazil, these figures lead to only one conclusion – the market demand for goods produced in these countries comes from “the West”.

David Nussbaum, WWF UK Chief Executive, summarised these findings as follows:

“The loss of biodiversity and habitats undermines the natural systems upon which we depend for the food we eat, the air we breathe and the stable climate we need.

“In the UK, all of us – government, businesses and individuals – need fundamentally to re-think our relationship with the planet.

The depletion of natural resources caused by human consumption also poses risks to our economic security: for instance, scarcity of resources and degraded natural systems will increase the price of food, raw materials and other commodities. So the time to take action is now.”

These fears were confirmed by an emergency meeting of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Commission in Rome last month, which highlighted a 30% increase in global wheat and maize prices in the last few weeks and a 20-year high in meat prices. Although the situation is not as severe as 2008, when food-price inflation caused riots in 25 countries, it seems clear that the crises of two years ago and 2010 are really one and the same.

A major factor in rising food prices is an increase in oil prices, as it becomes more expensive to transport produce around the world. As oil runs out, the price will continue to rise. Food, like any market is subject to the relationship between supply and demand, and when the former struggles to meet the latter, prices rocket. Hence, this year’s flooding in Pakistan and India, which wiped out much if the harvest, will soon have repercussions in the food market, whilst large-scale land-grabs for production of “environmentally friendly” biofuels leave less and less space for agriculture in developing countries. Flash floods in the sub-continent, forest fires across Russia, droughts in Africa – all are caused by an underlying instability in the global environment, and all lead to rises in food prices which the world’s poorest can ill afford.

All of this impacts upon the wider ecosystem. In the last 40 years, biodiversity has fallen by 60% in low-income countries, whilst freshwater biodiversity has decreased by 70% over the same time period. This is bad news for us, as without a healthy ecosystem, fresh water becomes more scarce and land less fertile. We are caught in a vicious circle, which needs to be broken.

There is some good news though. In temperate parts of the world, biodiversity has actually increased by 30%, reflecting successful and sustained conservation efforts. Whilst we have lost much already, our planet is still remarkably productive – but it cannot support us forever at the current rate.

What we need is a global, long-term view. An ActionAid report recently revealed that hunger could be costing the developing world $450 billion per year. That’s more than 10 times the amount of money needed to meet Millennium Development Goal One by 2015 and halve global hunger. Too often we treat the symptoms and not the cause. Despite the economic crisis, a long-term, global strategy is far, far cheaper than continuing as we are – that statement is true for talking hunger, climate change, conservation and just about everything else you can think of.

It seems to me that the age of tribalism is over. We are now a global population, participating in a global market with global problems. We need global solutions. In “the West”, we must live more responsibly. The developing world must head the warnings, and become pioneers of new energy technologies and a new model of development, rather than repeating past mistakes. After Japan’s industry was decimated in WWII, they decided to follow a policy of rebuilding using the latest technology available. After the initial expense, Japan soon became a leader in the age of capitalist industrialism. This age has now exhausted its usefulness.

We need to find a new model of economic development. The industrialising nations have an opportunity to lead this. We need to find an alternative to oil. This cannot be done by random land-grabs, which produce biofuels at the expense of agriculture and natural habitat. It can only be achieved by taking a long-term, global view. Conservation and alternative energy projects cannot be postponed with the excuse of economic crisis. If governments really want to make savings, they will address these problems now.

It’s a daunting prospect. But positive results can only arise from positive attitudes. Don’t worry about what you can’t do, focus on what you can do. Buy responsibly. It’s not difficult to get information – check the Green Peace webiste for ratings of companies involved in all kinds of production. Put pressure on governments to act by making the environment a vote winner. You can do this by joining the Big Climate Connection Campaign on 5-6 November and meet your local MP to encourage climate action.  Find out about the food you consume. Be aware of the wood you but to protect the world’s forests. This is the age of information. Find some!


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