Help Wanted: 27 Planet Earths

This story was featured on the IPS wire and on the Al Jazeera network in 2011. It shows that national parks, conservation and protected areas do not and cannot halt the decline in biodiversity that is humanity’s life support system. It is hopeless without addressing the root causes: too many of us, taking too much and having too big of an impact. On our present course we’ll need 27 planet Earths by 2050 experts conclude. — Stephen 

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jul 29, 2011 (IPS)

Protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth’s life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.

Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050, a new study estimates.

The size and number of protected areas on land and sea has increased dramatically since the 1980s, now totaling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometres of land and two million square kilometres of oceans, a new study reported Thursday.

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But impressive as those numbers look, all indicators reveal species going extinct faster than ever before, despite all the additions of new parks, reserves and other conservation measures, according to the studypublished in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

“It is amazing to me that we haven’t dealt with this failure of protected areas to slow biodiversity losses,” said lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“We were surprised the evidence from the past 30 years was so clear,” Mora told IPS. Continue reading

Rising Wealth Spells Disaster for the Planet, Study Finds

Circuit Boards – Chris Jordan “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption

By Stephen Leahy

BERLIN, Jun 3, 2010 (IPS)

Rising global wealth spells disaster for the planet, with environmental impacts growing roughly 80 percent with a doubling of income, reports the first comprehensive study of consumption.

It adds to the mountain of evidence that the gospel of economic growth must be urgently transformed into the new gospel of resource-efficient green economies, a U.N. expert panel concluded Wednesday.

What are the biggest planetary criminals?

Fossil fuel use and agriculture, the study found. Ironically, these are also the two most heavily subsidised sectors, noted Ernst von Weizsaecker of Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and co-chair of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.

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“In the case of CO2, a doubling of wealth typically increases environmental pressure 60 to 80 percent, sometimes more in emerging economies,” von Weizsaecker said in an interview.

Rising affluence has also triggered a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products so that livestock now consumes much of the world’s crops and indirectly consumes 70 percent of the fresh water and produce much of the fertiliser pollution, von Weizsaecker said from Brussels.

The report “Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials“, was released Wednesday at the European Commission in Brussels.

“It is clear that a meat-based diet uses more land and fertiliser and emits far more CO2 than a vegetarian diet,” said von Weizsaecker.

The study also found that rich countries like Japan, the United States and many in the European Union are now “exporting” a large part or most of their true environmental impacts to developed countries by importing goods and food from those countries.

In a spiral of destructive co-dependency, China’s rising CO2 emissions and deforestation in Malaysia are in part a direct result of North American and European consumption of the goods made there.

“International trade clearly shows rich countries are outsourcing their impacts,” von Weizsaecker said.

“Given this fact, perhaps the current way of structuring agreements on emission reduction targets is becoming obsolete,” said Ashok Khosla, co-chair of the panel and president of the World Conservation Union (IUCN)

At the household level, it is the goods and services consumed, not the fossil fuel used for cars or homes, that accounts for most of the environmental impacts. This is despite energy and material efficiency gains over the past two decades. Efficiency has improved on a per dollar expenditure basis but people are consuming more, which drowns out any efficiency gains, said panel expert Sangwon Suh of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Policy makers cannot just look at direct emissions, they need to look at a full life cycle of their consumption and incorporate those impacts into their decision making,” Suh told IPS.

Representing the world’s foremost experts, the panel synthesised a comprehensive library of the most authoritative global studies to provide science-based assessments of products, materials and economic and lifestyle activities, producing the greatest harm to the planet.

It is the first global assessment of what kind of consumption activities have the biggest impacts,” Suh said.

Children poisoned by lead from battery waste in Dominican Republic

Fossil fuel use and agriculture topped the list in the149-page report, followed by the heavily subsidised industrial fishing industry and the production and consumption of materials like metals and plastics. While the latter do cause severe damage locally all over the world, shockingly these are not that significant compared to global impacts of fossil fuel and agriculture, the report noted.

The purpose of this U.N. Environment Programme-sponsored study was to identify the “hot spots” in terms of environmental impacts so that policy makers can use this information to reform policies, said Suh.

“Setting priorities would seem prudent and sensible in order to fast track a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director, which hosted the panel.

“Decoupling growth from environmental degradation is the number one challenge facing governments,” Steiner said in a statement.

However, this decoupling is not happening, the report shows. And it will not happen in the future without strong policy interventions, said von Weizsaecker.

Policy makers and economists will need to abandon their obsession with economic growth as the solution to all problems, writes Clive Hamilton in a new book “Requiem for a Species”. Growth has become a powerful symbol of success and modernity even though in reality it is neither, says Hamilton, a writer and academic at the Australian National University.

If someone is murdered, it adds about one million dollars to the GDP of rich countries when costs of police, courts, and prisons are factored in, according to his research.

“Murder is good for the economy. So is environmental destruction,” he writes.

It will take extraordinary leadership to reverse the consumption-driven society where children are bombarded with advertising – 17 billion dollars annually in the U.S. alone, Hamilton notes.

The same over-consumption brainwashing is well underway in the developing world. Shopping has become a form of recreation amongst China’s growing middle class and wealthy elite, who bought more than 12 percent of the world’s luxury goods in 2005, second only to the U.S., he says.

“Faced with the scale of the challenge, far more transformational measures need to be taken. Currently, we are fiddling – or fiddling around the edges – while Rome burns,” said Khosla.

First published as Money Begets Environmental Evils, Study Finds

Related articles by Stephen Leahy:

Top Ten Worst Pollution Problems That Kill Millions – Including Ones You’ve Never Heard Of

Greener Cell Phones Thanks to European Laws

Is Your Old TV Poisoning a Child in China? Where Your e-waste Goes

Facebookers Last Hope for Environment?

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‘The only real hope is for a global citizens’ movement unlike anything ever seen on the face of the Earth’ — Erik Assadourian, Vital Signs

By Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Sep 14 2007 (IPS)

Global trends indicate a looming environmental catastrophe, and engaging high school students around the world may be the only hope say experts.

Governments, the corporate sector and media continue to champion industrial and economic growth at the cost of escalating impacts on the environment, concludes the latest report from the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, “Vital Signs 2007-2008″.

For a number of years, the “Vital Signs” report has tracked 44 trends that are shaping the future, and they document a record level of industrial growth, says Erik Assadourian, Vital Signs project director.

“‘Vital Signs’ also documents the escalating impacts of such growth on the environment,” Assadourian told IPS in an interview from Barcelona.

The scale of the environmental crisis, in which catastrophic climate change is just one of many, is undermining the ecosystems that support life on Earth.

“Climate change and other environmental problems are symptoms of the root problem, which is the obsession with consumerism,” he said.

Vital Signs reports that in 2005, more wood was removed from forests than in any previous year. Fossil fuel usage dumped 7.6 billion tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Meat production hit a record 276 million tonnes (43 kilogrammes per person) in 2006. Rising meat consumption is driving rising soybean demand to feed cattle, which in turn is a driver of deforestation as tropical forests are turned into soy fields.

And on it goes: global seafood consumption breaks records, steel and aluminium production too. None of this is sustainable – another three or four or five planets would be needed to maintain these levels of production and consumption. Continue reading