WASHINGTON - People are consuming the earth's natural resources 20 percent faster than nature can renew them--a dangerous imbalance that is fueling the loss of species and may lead to critical resource shortages in the years ahead, according to a World Wildlife Fund study released on Thursday.
Driven largely by energy and materials consumption in the United States and other industrialized nations, the size of humanity's "ecological footprint," as measured by the amount of natural resources we consume, has increased 2.5 times over the past 40 years, while key environmental values have declined by similar amounts. The finding is one of several alarming trends documented in the 2004 edition of WWF's Living Planet Report, an index that tracks species abundance and human resource use around the globe.
The world has some 28 billion acres of productive land and ocean to meet the needs of 6.3 billion people--an average of 4.4 acres person. At current rates of consumption, however, the global ecological footprint requires an average of 5.4 acres' productivity per person - roughly 20 percent more than what can be sustained today's levels. "We are spending nature's capital much faster than it can be regenerated. Collectively, we are bequeathing to our children the most dangerous budget deficit of all, an ecological debt of growing proportions," said Richard Mott, WWF's Vice President for International Policy.
While this year's "ecological footprint" of 5.4 acres represents a global average, the report also documents how consumption rates vary region by region and country by country. Americans, for instance, have an ecological footprint of 23.5 because it takes that may acres of land and sea space to produce what the average American consumes in natural resources every year. The average African, by contrast, consumes less than 2.5 acres of resources per year. Energy consumption, particularly in the U.S. but also in western Europe, accounts for much of the imbalance. The energy component of the footprint, dominated by use of non-renewable fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas, increased nearly 700 percent in the 40-year period surveyed, from 1961 to 2001.
In addition to measuring consumption, the Living Planet Report also contains a unique index that tracks population trends for more than 1,100 terrestrial, freshwater and marine species. The latest Living Planet Index tracks a continuing decline in these species, whose numbers have fallen by about 40 percent between 1970 and 2000. Freshwater species suffered the most, declining by about 50 percent, while terrestrial and marine species fell by about 30 percent.
"The impact of our consumption, or ecological footprint, on the vanishing species tracked by the Living Planet Index is powerfully clear," said Mott. "Our challenge as a society is to find ways to live within the planet's carrying capacity, and to do so before it is too late." The report outlines a number of recommendations for doing so while still maintaining a high standard of living. They include switching to renewable and non-polluting alternative energies to reduce global warming, creating more comprehensive recycling and waste reduction programs, encouraging more public transportation and implementing building and product design innovations that can lead to much greater energy efficiencies than at present.
"Sustainable living is not incompatible with a high standard of living," added Mott, "if we begin making the right choices now."