Living Planet Report: Humanity Now Needs 1.5 Earths

kristy Earth Systems Science

Living Planet Report: Humanity Now Needs 1.5 Earths

Humanity is now using renewable resources and producing carbon dioxide at a rate 50 percent faster than the Earth can sustain, reveals the 2010 edition of the Living Planet Report – the leading survey of the planet’s health.

The biennial report, produced by WWF in collaboration with Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London, was released today at the Wild Screen Film Festival in Bristol, U.K. Coming just days before UN representatives meet in Nagoya, Japan to set a new agenda for addressing species loss, the report details alarming biodiversity declines along with a rapid escalation of human demand that is far outstripping nature’s regenerative capacity.

“The dwindling health of the world’s species is no surprise considering how much of nature’s services humanity is taking for its own use,” said Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network. “Ultimately, enabling biodiversity to thrive will require bringing human demand for nature’s services to a level Earth can sustainably supply.”

As the UN-declared International Year for Biodiversity, 2010 was aimed at being the benchmark year by which the world’s governments would have achieved a pledge made in 2002 to slow the rate of species declines. It is now widely acknowledged that goal has not been met.

The new figures released today for humanity’s Ecological Footprint and biocapacity illustrate the scope of the challenges humanity faces not only for preserving biodiversity, but also for halting climate change and meeting human development aspirations, such as reducing worldwide hunger and poverty.

Global Footprint Network calculations show that in the past five decades, the human Footprint on Earth has more than doubled. In 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, humanity used the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support its activities. Put another way, it now takes a year and six months for the Earth to absorb the CO2 emissions and regenerate the renewable resources that people use in one year.

Carbon is the major factor driving the planet to ecological overdraft. An alarming 11-fold increase in our overall carbon Footprint over the last five decades means carbon now accounts for more than half the global Ecological Footprint. Land used for food production is another major factor in humanity’s escalating Footprint. It should be noted that cheap access to fossil fuels has enabled us to get more from each hectare than we might otherwise have been able to. Moving out of fossil fuels due to climate concerns or depleted sources will reduce the carbon portion of the Ecological Footprint, but may also significantly increase pressure on other ecosystems.

Yet, while the statistics are sobering, change is possible. Using a Global Footprint Network scenario calculator, the report presents potential outcomes based on different choices related to resource consumption, land use and productivity. It points to changes in diet and energy consumption as critical to reducing Footprint, as well as improved efforts to value and invest in our natural capital.

“Choices we make with regard to food consumption, energy mixes and infrastructure present immediate opportunities to begin to balance our budget with nature,” Wackernagel said. “These choices have trade-offs, but in the long-run they offer tremendous pay-offs by making the societies that adopt them more resilient in the face of resource constraints.”

Who Uses What? Comparing the Ecological Footprint of Nations

(Click here for an interactive graphic to explore how your country’s Footprint compares to that of other countries.)

Examining the Ecological Footprint at the per-person level shows that people living in different countries vary greatly in their demand on the Earth’s ecosystems. For example, if everyone in the world lived like the average resident of the United Arab Emirates, which has the world’s highest per capita Footprint, we would need the equivalent of 6 planets to regenerate our resources and absorb the CO2 emissions. If everyone lived like a resident of the United States, we would need the resources of 4.5 planets.

“Countries that maintain high levels of resource dependence are putting their own economies at risk,” Wackernagel said. “Those countries that are able to provide the highest quality of life on the lowest amount of ecological demand will not only serve the global interest, they will be best positioned to meet the future.

The top 10 countries with the biggest Ecological Footprint per person are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Denmark, Belgium, United States, Estonia, Canada, Australia, Kuwait and Ireland.

Countries on the other end of the spectrum such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh have per capita Footprints that, in many cases, are too small to provide for basic needs. These countries may well need to increase their access to resources if they are to bring large segments of the population out of poverty.

This edition of the Living Planet Report also looks at how the Ecological Footprint has changed over time in different political regions.

The report finds the 31 OECD countries, which include the world’s highest-income nations, account for 37 percent of humanity’s Ecological Footprint. But the report also shows the “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), which have a faster-growing Footprint, to be on a trajectory to overtake the OECD bloc if they follow the same development path.

Who has the greatest natural capital?

More than 60 percent of the world’s biocapacity is found within the borders of just ten countries: Brazil, China, the United States, Russia, India, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Argentina and France.

Biocapacity per person, calculated by dividing national biocapacity by the country’s population, is also not equivalent around the world. In 2007, the country with the highest biocapacity per person was Gabon, followed in decreasing order by Bolivia, Mongolia, Canada and Australia. With pressure on ecological resources escalating, access to biocapacity will be increasingly important to countries’ positions in the world and to their ability to provide a good quality of life for their citizens.

The Report outlines a number of issues that will be central to promoting a world that is liveable for all its inhabitants. These include changing the way we measure progress to go beyond economic growth, more adequately valuing biocapacity and ecosystem services, and looking at choices around energy, land-use and food production.

“As long as we have only one planet, the implications of our data are clear,” Wackernagel said. “Respecting ecological limits is not a luxury that can be waived in pursuit of economic progress. In the long run, it is the only way continued human progress can be assured.”

Download the 2010 Living Planet Report Download the Ecological Footprint Atlas, with complete 2010 Footprint and biocapacity results. View LPR video slideshows Learn about licensing our data.