Global economic gains could cost the earth, says Worldwatch Institute

July 17, 2006

Brussels, 14 Jul 2006

Record breaking global economic gains are coming at the cost of record breaking levels of environmental degradation, according to the latest Vital Signs report from US-based research organisation the Worldwatch Institute.

The report tracks and analyses 44 trends that shape the Earth's future, covering areas as diverse as food, energy and climate, global economy, environment, communications and transportation, population and society, and health and disease.

The global economy has never been bigger; in 2005 Gross World Product hit €47 trillion, steel production reached a record 1.129 million tons and 64.1 million cars and light trucks were manufactured. The global number of internet users reached the 1 billion mark, while mobile phone sales for the year are estimated at over 800 million units.

But behind these staggering figures lies a serious environmental crisis. Nearly 80 per cent of the world's energy continues to come from fossil fuels, and in 2005, the average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increased by 0.6 per cent, reaching a new high of 379.6 parts per million. Meanwhile the average global temperature in 2005, 14.6&dec;C, made it the warmest year on record. Around the world, major ecosystems are in decline: between 2000 and 2005, global forested area shrunk by more than 36 million hectares. These ecosystems provide vital services, including the provision of freshwater and food, and the regulation of climate and air quality.

In 2005 the cost of weather-related disasters hit a record €161 billion, more than half of which was caused by Hurricane Katrina. Coral reefs and mangroves can act as natural buffers, protecting coastlines from the worst impacts of such disasters, yet 20 per cent of reefs and mangroves have been destroyed.

'Business as usual is harming the Earth's ecosystems and the people who depend on them,' said Erik Assadourian, Vital Signs project director. 'If everyone consumed at the average level of high-income countries, the planet could sustainably support only 1.8 billion people, not today's population of 6.5 billion.'

Furthermore, a large proportion of the world's population is still not benefiting from the planet's economic successes; one in three of the world's urbanites live in slums, and over a billion people still do not have access to clean water. Five million more people were infected with HIV in 2005, and 3 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses. While air travel is growing, only 5 per cent of the world's population has ever flown.

However, the report is not all gloom and doom. Growing numbers of international companies are filing corporate responsibility reports, reflecting an increasing commitment to transparency and social and environmental principles. Membership of car-sharing organisations is growing rapidly. Infant mortality is decreasing

The renewable energy sector is enjoying exceptional growth rates; in 2005 global wind power capacity increased by 24 per cent and solar photovoltaic production jumped 45 per cent.

'These developments are impressive and are likely to provoke far-reaching changes in world energy markets within the next five years,' said Worldwatch Institute president Christopher Flavin. 'But the transition will have to move even faster to prevent the kind of ecological and economic crises that may be precipitated by continuing dependence on fossil fuels.'

Worldwatch website

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2006
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