Report from space: Earth in trouble

According to a message beamed from space, the demands humanity places on the Earth exceed its capabilities.

While the message was from out of this world, it was not from aliens. The World Wildlife Fund’s latest “Living Planet Report” was launched by astronaut André Kuipers in a recorded message from the International Space Station, working with the European space agency.

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“We have only one planet. From here I can see humanity’s footprint,” Kuipers said in introducing the report. “From space, you see the forest fires, you see the air pollution, you see erosion.”

The report’s findings are sobering. “‘Business as usual’ projections estimate that we will need the equivalent of two planets by 2030 to meet our annual demands,” the report states.

“Natural capital – biodiversity, ecosystems and ecosystem services – must be preserved, and, where necessary, restored as the foundation of human economies and societies.”

The report uses the “Living Planet Index,” which tracks, according to a WWF press release, “9,000 populations of more than 2,600 species.” According to the index, these species show a nearly 30 percent decrease since 1970, with the decline reaching 60 percent in the tropics.

Another report, “Earth’s Ecological Footprint,” shows that as biodiversity plummets, there is a soaring demand for resources. Humanity’s path, based on these reports, is not sustainable in the long run.

The Fund’s director general, Jim Leape, said in a press release, “We are living as if we have an extra planet at our disposal. We are using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce and unless we change course, that number will grow fast – by 2030 even two planets will not be enough.”

Population growth and over-consumption are the main culprits, the WWF says.

Not surprisingly, the biggest contributors to the problems are wealthy, industrialized countries. “The difference between rich and poor countries is also underlined,” said the WWF statement. “High-income countries have an Ecological Footprint on average five times that of low-income countries.”

The worst offenders list includes Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, United States of America, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Netherlands and Ireland. Still, these countries, which have the highest environmental impacts per person, aren’t feeling the brunt of the problems they have taken the lead in creating, and “declines in biodiversity since 1970 have been most rapid in the lower income countries – demonstrating how the poorest and most vulnerable nations are subsidizing the lifestyles of wealthier countries.”

Leape said, however, that humanity’s future does not necessarily need to be bleak: “We can create a prosperous future that provides food, water and energy for the 9 or perhaps 10 billion people who will be sharing the planet in 2050. Solutions lie in such areas as reducing waste, smarter water management and using renewable sources of energy that are clean and abundant – such as wind and sunlight.”

The report set a number of “priority actions,” which include “improved consumption patterns, putting an economic value on natural capital, and creating legal and policy frameworks that manage equitable access to food, water and energy.”

The report was produced in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network.

Photo: Woman cutting grass in Nepal, via World Wildlife Fund.