A precautionary tale about nature

Posted on 24 October 2006

Following the launch of WWF's biennial Living Planet Report, WWF International Director General James P. Leape writes on the state of the natural world and the impact of human activity upon it.

By James P. Leape*

Nineteen eighty-four is the year when the Earth reached the limits of its capacity to provide for us. Since then we have been using the Earth’s natural resources at a rate that increasingly exceeds what it is able to replenish. The consequences of man’s growing demands and rising consumption are both predictable and dire — much more real than any Orwellian novel.

Collectively, we are currently consuming 25 per cent more than the planet can sustain in the long term. In other words, we now need at least 1.25 planets to meet our present natural resource demands.

WWF’s Living Planet Report, released today in Beijing, examines the state of the natural world and the impact of human activity upon it, and it confirms we are living further and further beyond our means. Humanity’s ecological footprint has more than tripled since 1961.

The way energy is generated and consumed — particularly over-reliance on coal, gas and oil — accounts for almost half of our ecological footprint. Climate-changing emissions from these fuels pose a growing threat, already manifest in rising temperatures and melting glaciers.

The challenge that faces us all — whether we live in New York, Paris or Beijing — is how people everywhere can enjoy and continue to strive for a higher quality of life, given the limited resources of our one planet. In fact, we can meet the challenge, but the sooner we get started, the less costly it will be. First and foremost, we must change the way we use energy, and the ways we produce it.

As the world’s most voracious consumer of resources, it is not surprising that Americans have one of the world’s largest ecological footprints. If everyone around the world lived as those in the US, we would need five planets to support us, or as EU citizens, nearly three; extra planets that for the moment are not available.

The US and Europe have special responsibility to act urgently and boldly. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on industrialized countries to reduce their carbon emissions to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California legislature have set their sights on an 80 per cent reduction by 2050. This is the kind of true leadership that is required. Other political leaders in Europe and the US must join their cause.

Much will also depend on the choices made by China and other emerging economies. There, the great hope lies in leapfrogging the wasteful and obsolete models of the 20th century, and defining a new path that is better for their people and for the planet.

At the meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China earlier this month, President Hu Jintao spoke of a “harmonious society” that balances growth with social and environmental concerns. China has already taken important steps in this direction. It has committed itself to increasing energy efficiency by 20 per cent by 2010, and to producing 16 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. These targets are more ambitious than many industrialized countries and could serve as a model for other emerging economies.

There is much more that China can do. As people move out of the countryside, China is building cities on a massive scale, using half the world’s cement. It has the opportunity to build the cities of the future — with energy-efficient buildings and cutting edge mass transit — cities that are much nicer places to live and much gentler on the planet. Already mayors in many of the China’s largest cities are developing plans for “bus rapid transit” and other innovative technologies that can show the way.

The choices we make now will shape our opportunities far into the future. The cities, power plants and homes we build today will either lock us into a damaging pattern of over-consumption, eventually undermining our society as we know it, or they could help us move, not towards utopia, but towards a sustainable future — one that allows us to live in balance with nature.

* James P. Leape is Director General of WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland.
WWF International Director General discusses the global ecological footprint at the launch of the 2006 Living Planet Report. Beijing, China.
© WWF / Ezequiel Scagnetti
Heavy smoke from a polluting industry along the Amur River. Heihe, China.
© WWF / Hartmut Jungius