Global Economic Growth Strains Earth’s Vital Signs

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, May 12, 2005 (ENS) – The world is producing – and consuming – more food, material goods and natural resources than ever before, according to the Worldwatch Institute’s "Vital Signs 2005" report on trends shaping the world’s future.

Increased production and consumption of everything from grain to oil to meat to automobiles reflects strong economic growth in 2004, the report says, but this growth comes with ecological and social costs that often go unnoticed.

Pollution continues to increase, ecosystems are degraded, and many of the world’s poor are being left further behind despite economic growth.

The physical indicators of growth "serve to remind us that we have by no means freed ourselves from the material world and its persistent threats," said Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin.


Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (Photo courtesy ENB)
Based in Washington, DC, the research group has produced "Vital Signs" annually since 1992; this year's report tracks 35 economic, social and ecological trends.

This year’s study hones in on the major impact of the Chinese economy on recent global economic growth.

Worldwatch says China has emerged as "a global force that is driving consumption and production of almost everything through the roof."

The report cites two key statistics to illustrate how China is affecting global consumption and production patterns – its increased thirst for oil and its hunger for steel.

China’s oil consumption increased by 11 percent in 2004 to 6.6 million barrels a day, helping fuel the fastest rate of increase in world oil consumption in 16 years.

Chinese demand pushed world steel production up by one third in the last five years and to a record level of more than one billion tons.


Highrise construction is changing the face of Chengdu, China. (Photo courtesy John Källén)
"In terms of scale, it is as if all of Europe, Russia, and North and South America were simultaneously to undertake a century’s worth of economic development in a few decades," the report says.

This development caused China’s economy to grow at the rate of nine percent in 2004, but there are predictable environment consequences – in particular, air pollution from increased industrial activity.

Air pollution is estimated to cause some 590,000 premature deaths annually in China and the country's economic growth has led to a jump in its emissions of greenhouse gases, the primary factor in human-induced climate change.

China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, have shot up more than 47 percent since 1990 and accounted for half the global increase in 2003.

China now ranks second, behind the United States, in global carbon emissions and emissions are projected to increase quickly along with rising Chinese demand for energy and automobiles.

How the economies of other key nations, in particular India, develop, grow and compete for natural resources will have a huge impact on the planet’s social and ecological future, Flavin said.

"The world is in the midst of a period of unprecedented and disruptive change, offering enormous opportunities and even greater risks," Flavin said.

Although the growth of developing nations with growing populations will play a critical role in the world’s future, the Worldwatch Institute report stresses that rich nations with low populations and "sky-high consumption patterns remain a major threat to the global environment."

power plant

Seminole Electric Coop's plans to increase the capacity of its coal-fired power plant in Putnam County, Florida by 60 percent by 2012 and add new emission controls. (Photo courtesy Seminole Electric Cooperative)
For example, the United States, which has some five percent of the world’s population, is still far and away the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for more than a quarter of the world’s total.

In addition, the United States consumes more than 20 million barrels of oil daily – a quarter of all global consumption.

Despite global economic growth, there are ample signs that "poverty, environmental decline, and infectious disease are increasing," said Lisa Mastny, project director of the Worldwatch study.

The gap between the world’s poorest and richest nations has more than doubled since 1960 and the scope of the world’s poverty is severe.

More than half of the world’s 6.3 billion people live on less than US$2 a day.

More than one billion people lack the safe water, proper nutrition, basic health care and social services needed to survive.

The report notes that although global food production – including grains, meat and fish - rose in 2004, the number of hungry people increased for the first time since the 1970s.

Despite surging economic growth, a record number of people were still either without work or looking for a job in 2003.

This is a persistent cause of instability across the developing world, Worldwatch said.

In the Middle East, for example, 58 percent of the population is under the age of 25 and a quarter of working age youth are unemployed.

And increased security concerns have prompted many nations to ramp up defense spending instead of using their wealth to address social, health and environmental problems.


A U.S. soldier in a Stryker vehicle on patrol in Sinjar, Iraq. April 27, 2005. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)
Military spending rose to $932 billion in 2003 – an increase of almost 20 percent since 2001.

The United States spends "almost as much as all other countries on Earth combined," the report states.

Spending on defense dwarfed the $68 billion spent in 2003 by the world’s donor nations in official development assistance, and the report notes that the rich countries are failing in their pledge to fund the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Announced in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals aim to halve global poverty and malnutrition, slash infant and maternal mortality, and boost access to health care and education, all by 2015.

The environmental goal is to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs; reverse loss of environmental resources, and reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water by 2015. An additional goal is to achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

Less than one fifth of all countries are currently on target to reach their goals, the Worldwatch report said.

"If just a portion of the money spent on defense globally were spent on development," said Mastny, "we would likely see a starkly different picture."

The "Vital Signs 2005" report can be found at:

See the Millenium Development Goals at: