Checking the earth’s vital signs

Global production, commerce and consumption are up. But, says, the Worldwatch Institute, such trends are set against “a backdrop of ecological decline in a world powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels”.

The earth is unwell. While the planet’s vital signs are mixed, its temperature is clearly rising and its overall prognosis is worrying scientists who closely monitor its condition. Many believe that, as result of the climate change the earth is undergoing, urgent and unprecedented action must be taken if future generations are to inherit a secure and healthy place in which to live.

Global economic indicators are pointing upward, according to the Worldwatch Institute, which studies the complex interactions among people, nature and economies. In fact, the gross world product (GWP) — the total global value of finished goods and services — reached a record $59.6 trillion in 2005, nearly double the 1985 figure. However, says Worldwatch, despite upward trends in production, commerce and consumption, these indicators “are set against a backdrop of ecological decline in a world powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels.” 

In 2005, as GWP hit a record high level, so too did the average annual atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO²) and the average global temperature. CO² concentration rose 0.6% over the 2004 peak — the largest yearly increase ever recorded – and the average temperature reached 14.6 degrees centigrade (58.2 fahrenheit) – making 2005 the warmest year ever recorded on the earth’s surface.

While official temperature records go back only to 1880, says Worldwatch, “climate scientists believe that these are the highest temperatures experienced since human civilisation began 10,000 years ago,” and that “we are now within 1 degree [centigrade] of the highest temperature Earth has experienced in the last 1 million years – before the emergence of Homo sapiens,” or modern humanity.

“Business as usual is harming the earth’s ecosystems and the people who depend on them,” asserts Erik Assadourian, project director of the Worldwatch report Vital Signs 2006-2007, released in July 2006. “If everyone consumed at the average level of high-income countries, the planet could sustainably support only 1.8 billion people, not today’s population of 6.5 billion. Yet the world’s population is expected not to shrink but to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050.”

                            Smog in London                               ©   Rob Welham

In preparing its report, Worldwatch looked at trends in seven categories: food and agriculture; energy and climate; economy; transportation and communications; health and social; conflict and peace; and environment. Among the most alarming facts cited are those that foreshadow the not-too-distant future: the estimated 27% decline in Arctic Ocean sea ice in summer over the past 50 years; the effective destruction of 20% of the world’s coral reefs as of late 2005, with 50% of the reefs considered threatened in the short or long term; the destruction of 20% of the planet’s mangrove forests over the past 25 years. (Both reefs and mangroves provide important coastline buffers against wave damage, erosion and flooding.) Additionally, 12% of all bird species have been categorised as threatened, along with 3% of all plant species.

Concentration of carbon-dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that is driving climate change, has reached its highest level in 600,000 years, according to atmospheric measurements, and the rate of increase is accelerating. “This suggests that a ‘positive feedback loop’ is coming into play, with ecological changes impeding the ability of natural systems to absorb carbon dioxide as well as causing some ecosystems to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” writes Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute, in his preface to Vital Signs. “Global warming may in effect be fuelling more global warming. 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.”

Vital Signs’s findings are built on the 2005 United Nations-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which attributed the degradation of the planet’s ecosystems to human activity. The decline of earth’s natural systems undermines the life-giving services those systems provide: fresh water and food, and regulation of air and climate quality. “Ecosystem decline is also increasing the risk of disruptive and potentially irreversible changes, such as regional climate shifts, the emergence of new diseases and the formation of low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ in coastal waters,” Worldwatch says.

Top climate scientists, including lead NASA climate-change researcher James Hansen, warned in early 2006 that a 1-degree temperature rise above the 2000 level would constitute “dangerous” change, given the likely effects on sea levels and biodiversity. A satellite survey, he has said, shows that the Greenland ice cap is melting faster than scientists had feared. With twice as much ice going into the sea as five years ago, there are potentially dramatic implications for the planet.

As Worldwatch’s Flavin writes: “If either the Greenland or the West Antarctic ice sheet were to melt, hundreds of millions of coastal residents would be displaced—a thousand times the scale of the New Orleans disaster [following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005]. In the Shanghai metropolitan area alone, 40 million could lose their homes. And large sections of Florida would simply disappear.”

The greenhouse-gas emissions that precipitate climate change stem in large part from the burning of fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – which provide nearly 80% of the world’s energy. Despite the rising cost of such energy, its use has grown over the past two years: coal rose by 6.3%, natural gas by 3.3% and oil by 1.3%.

One positive energy indicator, though, says Worldwatch, is that growth rates in renewable energy have overtaken those of fossil fuels, and “the already rapid growth of renewable energy industries has accelerated in the past year.” Global wind-power capacity leapt 24% in 2005, solar photovoltaic production by 45% and biofuels by 20%. “These developments are impressive,” writes Flavin, “and are likely to provoke far-reaching changes in world energy markets within the next five years. But the transition will have to move even faster to prevent the kind of ecological and economic crises that may be precipitated by continuing dependence on fossil fuels.”

High oil prices and a wildly gyrating market, according to the Vital Signs report, may lend a helping hand to melting icecaps and catastrophic weather in bringing about an energy transition. Prices are at their highest level, in real terms, in over two decades. Although production has not yet peaked, growth is slowing and no longer keeping up with the roughly 2% annual increase in demand.

Numerous other factors also surround the oil market. Worldwatch points out that geologists are not finding sufficient oil to replace the 83 million barrels extracted each day. Much of the remaining oil is in unstable regions of the world or is otherwise difficult to reach. Fuel-guzzling airlines and manufacturers of fuel-guzzling vehicles have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. (Hybrid electric cars are growing in popularity, even in the energy-hungry United States, where new government policies and booming private investment is propelling the growth of energy technology. In China, the government has responded to the changing energy era by raising taxes on large vehicles and requiring higher levels of fuel efficiency.)

While the energy markets have not yet been brought into balance, says Worldwatch, “one tipping point can lead to another, and signs are now growing that the world is on the verge of an energy revolution.” While Flavin hails some recent developments as impressive and likely to provoke important changes over the next five years, he argues that “the change is still not fast enough to bring on the broader changes in the global economy that could stave off imminent ecological and economic crises.”

“Government leaders and private citizens,” he writes, “will have to mobilise in an unprecedented way if we are to have any chance of passing a healthy and secure world on to the next generation.”

The Author: Maryann Bird is a London-based freelance journalist with a special interest in environmental and human-rights issues. A writer and editor, she was previously a staff member at Time magazine (Europe), The Independent, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

Homepage photo by Ryan Lackey