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Climate crunch risk for the world, says WWF

AFP

Climate change

Rio Negro Forest Reserve, Brazil

Aerial view of forest flooded by black water of Rio Negro, Forest Reserve, Amazonas, Brazil.

Credit: WWF-Canon/Michel Roggo

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PARIS: Reckless borrowing against Earth's exhausted bounty is driving the planet toward an ecological "credit crunch", the World Wildlife Fund warned on Wednesday.

Growing demands on natural capital - such as forests, water, soil, air and biodiversity - already outstrip the world's capacity to renew these resources by a third, according to the WWF's Living Planet Report.

"If our demands on the planet continue to increase at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we would need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles," said James Leape, the green group's director general, in releasing the study.

The cost of bailing out financial institutions during the economic meltdown, while huge, pales in comparison to the lost value caused every year by ecological damage to the environment, experts say.

A European Union study calculates that the world is losing between two and five trillion dollars in natural capital every year due to the degradation of the ecosystems.

"The world is currently struggling with the consequences of over-valuing financial assets," Leape said. "But a more fundamental crisis looms, an ecological credit crunch caused by under-valuing the environmental assets that are the basis of all life and prosperity."

The report shows that more than three-quarters of the planet's population live in nations that are ecological debtors - countries where consumption outstrips biological capacity.

Grave consequences

Produced with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network (GFN), the bi-annual study measures the ecological footprint of human demand on natural resources, and assesses Earth's ability to remain a "living planet".

The 2008 edition shows a drop of nearly 30 percent since 1970 in 1,686 different species.

Declines are closer to 50 percent in tropics, which contain the highest concentration of biodiversity in the world and serve as a brake on global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Deforestation, land conversion, pollution, over-fishing and climate change are the main drivers of environmental degradation.

"We are acting ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been behaving economically - seeking immediate gratification without due regard to consequences," said the Zoological Society's Jonathan Loh.

"The consequences of global economic crisis are even graver than the current economic meltdown."

Carbon emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation are the biggest drain on the natural economy, underlining the threat of climate change, the report concluded.

The Earth needs on average 2.1 "global" hectares per person to produce our resources and capture emissions, but humanity's per-person footprint is already 2.7 hectares, it calculates.

"Continued ecological deficit spending will have severe economic consequences," argued GFN head Mathis Wackernagel.

"Resource limitations and ecosystem collapses would trigger stagflation with the value of investments plummeting, while food and energy costs skyrocket," he cautioned.

Global consumption

The United States and China each use up about a fifth of total global biocapacity, but US per capita consumption is much higher.

If everyone in the world lived the way Americans do, it would take almost four-and-a-half planet Earths to sustain global consumption habits.

A new index in the report reveals the hidden economic cost of water consumption. A cotton T-shirt, for example, requires 2,900 litres of H20 to be produced, including agricultural input and manufacturing.

On average, each person on Earth consumes 1.24 million litres of water a year - the equivalent of half an Olympic pool. Nationally, the annual rate varies from 2.48 million litres per person in the United States, to 619,000 litres per capita in Yemen.

Climate change is almost certain to exacerbate moderate to severe water shortages that have already hit more than 50 nations, the report said.