We will soon need two earths to sustain us if we continue with our current catastrophic rates of resource use.
This is the grim take-home message of the Living Planet Report 2008, an expert update on the state of the planet’s health and our impact on it.
Produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, the biennial Report is highly regarded by environmental scientists worldwide.
The latest Report, launched yesterday, comes at a time when the attention of the world is transfixed by the global economic crisis.
Dr Morne du Plessis, CEO of WWF South Africa, speaking yesterday at the Cape Town launch of the Report, drew parallels between the looming financial recession and the fact that we are living beyond our means in terms of natural resource use.
"When we exceed the carrying capacity, we are essentially biting into our capital," said Du Plessis.
The 2008 Report states that projections show humans will be using two planets’ worth of natural resources by 2030.
"Often the first instinct on hearing a figure like this is to blame population growth," said Du Plessis. "It does play a role, but more important is to look at the ecological footprint of nations relative to each other."
When the map of the world is re-drawn according to ecological footprint, the developed nations appear "bloated" in terms of their resource use and environmental impact relative to many poorer countries.
If everyone in the world were able to live at the affluence level of the average United States citizen, we would need 4.5 planets right now to sustain our resource consumption.
Ongoing species losses, resource over-use
The 2008 publication also shows that trends identified in previous Living Planet Reports – rapid biodiversity loss and fewer available natural resources – are ongoing.
The Report focuses on two main indicators of planetary health: the Living Planet Index, which reflects the health of earth's ecosystems; and the Ecological Footprint, which shows the impact of human demand on those ecosystems.
Devastating loss of natural wealth
The Report's Living Planet Index (LPI) of global biodiversity, which uses population data measured from 2000 species of vertebrates, shows a decline of nearly 30% since 1970.
The global LPI is broken down into various sections. Terrestrial vertebrate species have declined by 33%, freshwater species by 35% and marine species by 14%.
Such dramatic losses are caused by habitat loss, especially due to agriculture; overexploitation of species, for example through fishing; pollution; climate change; and the spread of invasive species.
One of the most significant LPIs for South Africa, said Du Plessis, is the Grasslands LPI, which shows a global decline of 36%:
"Our grasslands are species-rich, and also important for sustaining agriculture and industry. But they are under threat, especially from development and mining."
Humanity's heavy tread
The Report estimates that the earth only has 2.1 global hectares available for each person's ecological footprint – the area each of us impacts by consuming resources and producing emissions.
But we have already gone over that limit: currently the average "footprint" per person is in fact 2.7 global hectares. We exceeded the earth's carrying capacity (nature's ability to regenerate) in the 1980s, and have been putting the planet under increasing stress ever since.
South Africans' average footprint is estimated at 2.1 global ha per person – but this hides the huge disparity between rich and poor. Wealthy South Africans, whose consumption is similar to that of first world nations, are more likely to have much larger footprints.
Water: the new "footprint"
Also speaking at the Cape Town launch, Dr Deon Nel, WWF Sanlam Living Waters Partnership Manager, said that we need to become urgently aware of our "water footprint": the total volume of water used to produce the goods and services we consume.
"2.2 billion people live in water-stressed catchments," said Nel, "and this is set to double in the 2020s. Developing nations will be the hardest hit."
South Africa, which currently suffers moderate to severe water stress, needs to take particular heed of this, said Nel.
"We have a false sense of security about water, because South Africa invested heavily in water infrastructure in the past.
"But the party is now over: 98% of the available water is already allocated, and we have limited options for building more dams. And we are under enormous pressure for economic development and social upliftment – which of course requires more water. Water is being called the 'oil of the 21st century'."
No good news?
The news is “not that good” overall admitted Du Plessis, but said there were a few "glimmers of hope".
A few species, such as the white rhino and the southern right whale, have rallied, thanks to massive conservation efforts.
"We need to apply the same effort on a broader ecological scale, where really we should feel we have no choice but to be involved, because the survival of our own species is at stake," said Du Plessis.
Speaking from Johannesburg yesterday, Dr Richard Worthing, Manager of the Climate Change Programme at WWF-SA, also agreed that it's not too late to turn the tide:
"If we act fast, there's still a chance of keeping the global temperature increase below 2°C. Not that just below a 2°C increase is a great place to be. But above that, things get really ugly, with more than half the world placed under water stress."
Worthington also pointed out another hopeful trend: the considerable increase in global investment in clean energy alternatives to fossil fuel use – to the amount of some US$150 billion, which is projected to increase to US$450 billion by 2012.
A positive note as regards the water footprint, says Nel, is that businesses are starting to understand the importance of accounting for their water use. "Water disclosure – in other words, answering the question 'How much water does a product consume?' – is on the horizon."
(- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth, Health24, October 2008)
WWF press release 29 October 2008: Two planets by 2030
WWF: Living Planet Report 2008
Read more: Health24's EnviroHealth Centre