Earth's Vital Signs Faltering Under Burden of Human Pressure

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 13, 2006 (ENS) - The world’s growing dependence on fossil fuels is fueling ecological destruction across the planet and threatening humanity’s future, according to a new study of trends released Wednesday by the Worldwatch Institute called "Vital Signs 2006-2007." The report paints a grim picture of the planet’s vital signs and warns that dramatic changes in the global economy are needed to fend off ecological, economic and social catastrophes.

“It is becoming ever more apparent that human society has a rapidly shrinking window of time to alter its path,” said Eric Assadourian, lead author of the study.

The Earth’s ecosystems and much of humanity are suffering from “business as usual,” Assadourian said, despite global economic indicators that convey a sense of rising prosperity and production.


Cars in a British parking lot await their owners. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
Those indicators show, for example, that gross world product rose in 2005 to a record $59.6 trillion as the world produced more food, steel, aluminum, cars and cell phones than ever before.

But these numbers and trends are set “against a backdrop of ecological decline in a world powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels,” according to the report, titled “Vital Signs 2006-2007.”

Some 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from oil, coal or natural gas and rising energy prices have done little to slow demand.

Oil use grew 1.3 percent in 2005 to more than 83 million barrels a day. In 2004, natural gas use jumped 3.3 percent in 2005 and coal use increased by 6.3 percent.

The burning of these fuels – in particular coal and oil – is the major source of manmade carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas linked to global warming.

The report notes that fossil fuel burning over the past 150 years has caused a massive influx of atmospheric carbon dioxide – a leading contributor to global warming.

power plant

In Hungary, the state-owned Oroszlany coal-fired power plant pumps greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. (Photo courtesy Vertesei Eromu Rt)
Average atmospheric carbon dioxide increased 0.6 percent over the high in 2004 - the largest annual increase ever recorded - and the overall level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the highest in 600,000 years.

In addition, the world’s average temperature set a new record in 2005 and the impact of warmer temperatures is seen in the rapid melting of glaciers throughout the world and in a steady decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

There is growing concern among scientists that ecological changes – such as ice melt and deforestation - are impeding the ability of natural systems to absorb carbon dioxide, added Worldwatch President Chris Flavin.

“Global warming may in effect be fueling global warming,” Flavin said. “We could be on the verge of a tipping point at which climate change shifts from a gradual process that can be forecast by computer models to one that is sudden, violent and chaotic.”

Global economic numbers also fail to illustrate the living conditions for many on the planet and hide the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor.

“Many still live without the barest essentials,” Assadourian told reporters via conference call. “At what point where booming economic trends are no longer a sign of prosperity?”


Women in the parched African country of Mauritania face a lean season. (Photo by Marcus Prior courtesy WFP)
The scope of the world’s poverty is severe – almost half of humanity lives on less than $2 a day

The report notes that more than 1 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.5 billion people do not have access to decent sanitation facilities.

Unsustainable consumption patterns are straining the planet’s natural resources, the report said, and current trends offer little hope for improving the lives of the vast majority of the world’s population, which is estimated to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050.

If everyone in the world consumed at the average level of high-income countries, the planet could sustainably support less than 30 percent of the current population of 6.5 billion, according to the report.


Family dines at the Radisson Bugibba Holiday Complex in Malta. (Photo courtesy Island Hotels Group)
The current demand on natural resources is taking a major toll on the environment, said the report, which highlighted the findings of the four-year analysis by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

The assessment, commissioned by the United Nations and compiled by more than 1,300 scientists from 95 countries, found that 60 percent of the ecological systems that sustain life on Earth are being degraded or used unsustainably.

The Worldwatch report points out that some 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs are gone forever and 12 percent of bird species are threatened.

The world chopped down 36 million hectares of forested areas between 2000 and 2005, Assadourian said, an area “bigger than the entire country of Italy.”

The report is not all gloom and doom – it cites a few positive trends.

Grain production reached record highs in 2005, infant mortality and armed conflicts are down and car-sharing has more than doubled since 2001.

The report highlights dramatic growth rates in renewable energy technologies, in particular a 24 percent increase in global wind power capacity in 2005 and a 45 percent increase in the production of solar photovoltaic cells used for solar power.

Worldwatch found significant increase in global production of biofuels, led by a 19 percent increase in ethanol in 2005.

Flavin called these developments “impressive” and noted that they could generate momentum for far-reaching changes in energy markets within the next five years.

The declining availability of oil could also increase the use of alternative energy sources, Flavin said, but the “transition will have to move even faster to prevent the kind of ecological and economic crises” that continued dependence on fossil fuels may precipitate.

“There isn’t any question that future energy historians will look back on the current period as having been one of dramatic transition,” Flavin told reporters. “What we don’t know yet is what the nature of that transition will be.”