Martin Ince reports on the latest global group, the E8 - eight countries whose huge or fast-growing economies pose the biggest challenge to the planet's environment
You know the G7, that photo opportunity for rich-world politicians facing elections - or, as it would prefer, that high-level forum for the leaders of the developed world in which topics of global import are raised? Well, meet the E8, the people who really matter in the world of environmental damage, population growth, climate change, and potential economic catastrophe.
The concept of the E8, devised by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC, is developed in State of the World 1997, the institute's 14th yearbook on the world's environmental and development problems. Instead of G7 countries such as the United Kingdom and France, the E8 includes two types of member. Some are the big developed countries that consume most of the earth's resources today. But others are developing world economies whose growth is leading to equally vast challenges to the earth's systems.
Three E8 members are already rich, Germany, Japan, and the United States. Another, Russia, is impossible to classify, and the other four, China, India, Brazil and Indonesia, are poorer countries developing more or less rapidly.
The eight have been chosen under criteria developed by Worldwatch director Lester Brown and his colleague Christopher Flavin. Some countries are small in numbers, like Germany with only 1 per cent of the world's population, but are mammoths economically. The Germans manage 8 per cent of gross world product, and 4 per cent of its carbon emissions. But although the developed countries use massive resources, their growth is generally not very rapid.
More of a concern is the massive economic growth of China and India (21 and 17 per cent of the world population) plus Brazil and Indonesia (3 and 4 per cent). China is now producing more carbon emissions than any country except the United States, and its emissions have grown by 28 per cent in five years. For Indonesia the rise is 39 per cent.
These countries are also mostly large and so contain valuable earth assets - Russia has 21 per cent of its forests, while China has 12 per cent of its flowering plant species.
In Brown's opinion, the rapid economic growth of China holds especially acute dangers. As the Chinese get richer, they are placing massive pressure on resources such as wood (China has only 4 per cent of the world's forests), water, where high-population areas are depleting aquifers apace, and food. As the Chinese diet alters, eggs, meat, beer and other resource-consuming foods turn from luxuries to expectations. A report published last week by a Dutch bank said that China would overtake the US as the world's biggest beer market by 2000. Chinese red meat consumption is twice that of the US and their use of coal, steel and fertiliser is climbing past that of the US.
Brown says that the E8, which has been the subject of television debate in the US, is useful as a thought aid and might be the basis of an effective forum for action-based discussion. The G7 includes too many of the movers and shakers of the 20th rather than the 21st century, while the United Nations, although worth supporting, moves at a snail's pace. As the slow progress of the many good resolutions made at the Rio "Earth Summit" five years ago shows, large global agreements are hard to turn into national action. Records for carbon emissions were broken in 1995 and 1996, making it implausible that a downturn can begin soon.
But Brown points out some successes. One is the reduction in emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals responsible for the attack on the ozone layer. Just two years elapsed between the big ozone hole scare and the Montreal Protocol on cutting down CFCs, of which production fell 77 per cent between 1988 and 1996.
On the more pressing issue of global climate change, Brown says that the plus point is that a major world industry, insurance, is now badly rattled by events. In China last year, a succession of typhoons "like jets on the runway" forced two million people out of their homes. As storm damage increases and more buildings become expensive or impossible to insure, pressure will grow to reduce carbon emissions in the hope of cutting both temperature rises and storm damage.
Brown's other major focus is on the effects of rising population and affluence on the world's ability to feed itself. Because of the numbers involved, China is the centre of his concern: and as he says, China is a place where food shortages have led to the fall of dynasties. China's leaders today know that rising grain imports will mean dependence on the main exporter - the US - which in the 1970s did not hesitate to use grain as a political weapon against the Soviet Union.
Brown is convinced that it will take a genuine shock to the world food system to make politicians face up to population growth and climate change in a way that will make a difference. At the moment, he says, low grain stocks mean that a poor crop yield leads to big price rises. The rich might not enjoy this, although he says that moving down the food chain a little away from meat and other expensive products would do us good. But for the 1.3 billion people who live on $1 a day, the result would be famine. And there would be effects on share prices, pension funds and the fortunes of multinationals, obliging even those who did not feel the pinch directly to pay attention.
He is also sceptical about the scope for enhancing food output via higher land productivity and even via new technology. And he thinks that there is little hope of biotechnology solving the problem by producing superspecies of grains and other crops.
However, Brown has a low-technology route to improving our environmental chances. He proposes a war on tax breaks and subsidies that support environmental harm, starting perhaps with the billions of dollars a year in cheap fuel and other deals for deep sea fishing, without which the overfishing we see today would be a lot less worthwhile. If the strong vested interests supporting such subsidies could be confronted, the full cost of the damage we are doing could be made more apparent, allowing for tax cuts and releasing money for new and more benign technology. How could Gordon Brown resist?
State of the World 1997 is published by Earthscan at Pounds 12.95.