38 key global environmental indicators worsen – report
38 key global environmental indicators worsen – report
September 14, 2007
Consumption of energy and many other critical resources is consistently breaking records, disrupting the climate and undermining life on the planet, according to the latest Worldwatch Institute report, Vital Signs 2007-2008.
The 44 trends tracked in Vital Signs illustrate the urgent need to check consumption of energy and other resources that are contributing to the climate crisis, starting with the largest polluter, the United States, which accounted for over 21 percent of global carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning in 2005. Europe, already feeling the effects of climate change, should pressure the U.S. to join international climate negotiations, according to Erik Assadourian, Vital Signs Project Director.
“The world is running out of time to head off catastrophic climate change, and it is essential that Europe and the rest of the international community bring pressure to bear on U.S. policy makers to address the climate crisis,” said Assadourian, who spoke at the Barcelona launch of Vital Signs. “The United States must be held accountable for its emissions, double the per capita level in Europe, and should follow the EU lead by committing to reducing its total greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.”
This summer, the European Union has become a showcase for how the world will be transformed by climate change, including tragic fires in Greece and the Canary Islands, dramatic floods in England, and heat waves across the Continent. Assadourian urged European leaders to push the U.S. to engage more constructively with the international community on climate change, starting at the United Nations late this month and in the Bali Climate negotiations at the end of the year.
With a global population of 6.6 billion and growing, the ecosystem services upon which life depends are being stretched to the limit due to record levels of consumption:
- In 2006, the world used 3.9 billion tons of oil. Fossil fuel usage in 2005 produced 7.6 billion tons of carbon emissions, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 380 parts per million.
- More wood was removed from forests in 2005 than ever before.
- Steel production grew 10 percent to a record 1.24 billion tons in 2006, while primary aluminum output increased to a record 33 million tons. Aluminum production accounted for roughly 3 percent of global electricity use.
- Meat production hit a record 276 million tons (43 kg per person) in 2006.
- Meat consumption is one of several factors driving soybean demand. Rapid South American expansion of soybean plantations could displace 22 million hectares of tropical forest and savanna in the next 20 years.
- The rise in global seafood consumption comes even as many fish species become scarcer: in 2004, 156 million tons of seafood was eaten, an average of three times as much seafood per person than in 1950.
The expanding world population’s appetite for everything from everyday items such as eggs to major consumer goods such as automobiles is helping to drive climate change, which is endangering organisms on the land and in the sea:
- The warming climate is undermining biodiversity by accelerating habitat loss, altering the timing of animal migrations and plant flowerings, and shifting some species towards the poles and to higher altitudes.
- The oceans have absorbed about half of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans in the last 200 years. Climate change is altering fish migration routes, pushing up sea levels, intensifying coastal erosion, raising ocean acidity, and interfering with currents that move vital nutrients upward from the deep sea.
- Despite a relatively calm hurricane season in the U.S. in 2006, the world experienced more weather-related disasters than in any of the previous three years. Nearly 100 million people were affected.
While U.S. carbon emissions continue to grow, the fastest growth is occurring in Asia, particularly China and India. But without a U.S. commitment to emissions constraints, persuading China and India to commit to reductions is unlikely. “The only hope for reducing the world’s carbon emissions is for the U.S. to begin reducing its emissions and cooperating with other nations immediately. The EU may be the only entity that can make that happen,” said Assadourian.
“With the U.S. Congress preparing to take up far-ranging climate legislation this fall, and with President Bush planning to hold an international climate change summit in Washington, now is the time to act. If the U.S. and other nations walk away without concrete plans to implement a binding agreement, the EU should not hesitate to use its diplomatic clout to press the issue,” suggested Assadourian.
Already, the window to prevent catastrophic climate change appears to be closing. Some governments are starting to redirect their attention away from climate change mitigation and towards staking their claims in a warming world. “Canada is spending $3 billion to build eight new patrol boats to reinforce its claim over the Arctic waterways. Denmark and Russia are starting to vie for control over the Lomonosov Ridge, where new sources of oil and natural gas could be accessed if the Arctic Circle becomes ice free—fossil fuels that will further exacerbate climate change. These actions assume that a warming world is here,” said Assadourian.
Selected facts from Vital Signs 2006-2007
Food and Agriculture
- For the second year in a row, the world produced over 2 billion tons of grain (more than at any other time in history). (p. 22)
- Since 1997, wild fish harvests have fallen 13 percent. Yet total fish production continues to grow—to 132.5 million tons in 2003—bolstered by a surging aquaculture industry. (p. 26)
- World exports of pesticides reached a record $15.9 billion in 2004. Pesticide use has risen dramatically worldwide, from 0.49 kilograms per hectare in 1961 to 2 kilograms per hectare in 2004. (p. 28)
Energy and Climate
- Oil use grew 1.3 percent in 2005, to 3.8 billion tons (83.3 million barrels a day). (p. 32)
- In 2005, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reached 379.6 parts per million by volume, an increase of 0.6 percent over the record high in 2004. (p. 42)
- The average global temperature in 2005 was 14.6 degrees Celsius, making it the warmest year ever recorded on Earth’s surface. The five warmest years since recordkeeping began in 1880 have all occurred since 1998. (p. 43)
- Economic damages from weather-related disasters hit an unprecedented $204 billion in 2005, nearly doubling the previous record of $112 set in 1998. (p. 44)
- Global wind power capacity jumped 24 percent in 2005, to nearly 60,000 megawatts. The growth in wind power capacity was nearly four times the growth in nuclear power capacity. (p. 36)
- In 2005, worldwide production of photovoltaic cells jumped 45 percent to nearly 1,730 megawatts, six times the level in 2000. (p. 38)
- Production of fuel ethanol, the world’s leading biofuel, increased 19 percent to 36.5 billion liters in 2005. (p. 40)
- In purchasing-power-parity terms, the global economy reached another new peak, with the gross world product hitting $59.6 trillion in 2005. (p. 52)
- Global advertising spending increased 2.4 percent to a record $570 billion in 2005. Nearly half of this spending was in the United States, with $56.6 billion alone going to the production and distribution of 41.5 billion pieces of mail advertisements. (p. 54)
- In 2005, steel production reached a new record of 1,129 million tons while aluminum production reached a record 31.2 million tons. (p. 56, 58)
- Roundwood production hit a new record of 3,402 million cubic meters in 2004. (p. 60)
- In 2004, nearly 1,800 transnational corporations or their affiliates filed corporate responsibility reports, up from virtually none in the early 1990s. While this reflects growing transparency and commitment to social and environmental principles, 97.5 percent of the nearly 70,000 TNCs worldwide still do not file such reports. (p. 122)
Transportation and Communications Trends
- The world reached a new record in vehicle production, with 64.1 million cars and light trucks being manufactured in 2005. (p. 64)
- Air travel hit new records as well: in 2004, 1.9 billion passengers traveled 3.4 trillion kilometers. Yet only 5 percent of the world’s population has ever flown. (p. 68)
- Total membership in car-sharing organizations (CSOs) hit 330,000 in 2005, 2.5 times the number in 2001. Total vehicles used by CSOs reached 10,570. According to studies, sharing a car reduces the need for 4–10 privately owned cars in Europe and 6–23 cars in North America. (p. 118)
Conflict and Peace
- The number of wars and armed conflicts worldwide declined to 39 in 2005, the lowest figure since the peak in the early 1990s. Yet at the same time, global military expenditures hit $1.02 trillion, the highest spending since the early 1990s. (p. 82, 84)
Health and Society
- World population added 74 million more people in 2005, reaching a record 6.45 billion. (p. 74)
- Five million more people were infected by HIV in 2005, while 3 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses. (p. 76)
- Infant mortality rates fell 7 percent over the last five years, from 61.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1995–2000 to 57 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2000–2005. (p. 78)
- Over half of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered, and more than 500 are nearly extinct. (p. 112)
- One billion individuals, or one in every three urbanites, live in “slums,” areas where people cannot secure one or more of life’s basic necessities: clean water, sanitation, sufficient living space, durable housing, or secure tenure. (p. 114)
- As of 2002, 1.1 billion people lack access to an improved water supply, and some 2.6 billion are thought to lack access to improved sanitation facilities. (p. 116)
- Obesity now afflicts more than 300 million people, increasing their chances of contracting cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and other ailments. (p. 120)
- Humanity overdrew the natural capital it depends on by 23 percent in 2002. (p. 92)
- Between 2000 and 2005, global forested area shrunk by more than 36 million hectares (just under 1 percent of the total forested area). (p. 102)
- As of late 2005, an estimated 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs had been “effectively destroyed,” while 50 percent are threatened in the short or long term. (p. 94)
- Twenty percent of the world’s mangrove forests have been destroyed over the past 25 years. (p. 100)
- Twelve percent of all bird species were categorized as “threatened” in 2005. (p. 96)
- Three percent of all plant species are currently threatened with extinction. (p. 98)