The ecological credit crunch

This is the title of the latest e-mail I received from the WWF. To them, the economic turmoil pales in comparison with the environmental one and its possible outcome if not tackled fast.

Indeed, we are currently using one third more than our Planet can sustain. If this was to continue, by the mid-2030s we would be using the equivalent of two Earths.

Their latest Living Planet Report – besides using Earthrise for their cover – provides interesting insight on this topic.
To the press release :

The world is heading for an ecological credit crunch as human demands on the world’s natural capital reach nearly a third more than earth can sustain.

That is the stark warning contained in the latest edition of WWF’s Living Planet Report, the leading statement of the planet’s health. In addition global natural wealth and diversity continues to decline, and more and more countries are slipping into a state of permanent or seasonal water stress.

“The world is currently struggling with the consequences of over-valuing its financial assets,” said WWF International Director-General James Leape, “but a more fundamental crisis looms ahead — an ecological credit crunch caused by under-valuing the environmental assets that are the basis of all life and prosperity.”

The report, produced with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Global Footprint Network (GFN), shows more than three quarters of the world’s people now living in nations that are ecological debtors, where national consumption has outstripped their country’s biological capacity.

“Most of us are propping up our current lifestyles, and our economic growth, by drawing – and increasingly overdrawing – on the ecological capital of other parts of the world,” Mr Leape said.

“If our demands on the planet continue to increase at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we would need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.”

(…) “We are acting ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been behaving economically – seeking immediate gratification without due regard for the consequences,” said ZSL co-editor Jonathan Loh. “The consequences of a global ecological crisis are even graver than the current economic meltdown.”

Carbon emissions from fossil fuel use and land disturbance are the greatest component of humanity’s footprint, underlining the key threat of climate change. The ecological footprint analysis, produced by GFN, shows that while global biocapacity – the area available to produce our resources and capture our emissions – is 2.1 average or “global” hectares per person, the per person footprint is 2.7 global ha.

“Continued ecological deficit spending will have severe economic consequences,” said GFN Executive Director Dr Mathis Wackernagel. “Resource limitations and ecosystem collapses would trigger massive stagflation with the value of investments plummeting, while food and energy costs skyrocket.”

The USA and China have the largest national footprints, each in total about 21 per cent of global biocapacity, but US citizens each require an average of 9.4 global ha (or nearly 4.5 Planet Earths if the global population had US consumption patterns) while Chinese citizens use on average 2.1 global ha per person (one Planet Earth).

Biocapacity is unevenly distributed, with eight nations – the United States, Brazil, Russia, China, India, Canada, Argentina and Australia – containing more than half the world total.

Population and consumption patterns make three of these countries ecological debtors, with footprints greater than their national biocapacity – the United States (footprint 1.8 times national biocapacity), China (2.3 times) and India ( 2.2 times).

(…) The report suggests some key “sustainability wedges” which if combined could stabilize and reverse the worsening slide into ecological debt and enduring damage to global support systems. For the single most important challenge – climate change – the report shows that a range of efficiency, renewable and low emissions “wedges” could meet projected energy demands to 2050 with reductions in carbon emissions of 60 to 80 per cent.

“If humanity has the will, it has the ways to live within the means of the planet, but we must recognize that the ecological credit crunch will require even bolder action than that now being mustered for the financial crisis” Mr Leape said.

2 thoughts on “The ecological credit crunch”

  1. Pingback: Credit Report On Credit Speak » The ecological credit crunch

  2. I was saying on The Oil Drum recently that ecological footprint doesn’t tell the whole story, because they look at the area, and the depth matters, too. For example, Japan appears to be a debtor, but it has 67% forest cover and a great depth of biocapacity which they could draw on without destroying it if they were unable to import things.

    Australia appears to be a creditor, using less than its EF area – but much of Australia’s ecology is very fragile. Savannah turns to salty desert, rivers drain the smallest part of the precipitation of any continent (less than 10% as against Africa’s 40% or so, and Europe, Asia and the Americas’ more than 50%).

    Much of Australia’s land is very fragile, very marginal in its fertility. It can only be so productive in feeding millions with large inputs of fossil fuels – through fertilisers, machinery, pumped irrigation and so on. Broadly-speaking, we can say that,

    Land productivity = labour x fertility depth x applied energy

    A country like Japan has great depth of fertility, so that if their applied energy had to decline, they could apply more labour to get the same production. But Australia’s fertility is shallow, in some places only a few centimetres of topsoil, so that if applied energy declined no amount of labour could keep the production high. And in exporting food we are exporting that fertility, that biocapacity.

    Ecological footprint analysis is very interesting and useful, and good for looking at things on a global scale, and also for getting a qualitative idea of our particular lifestyles’ relative impact on the Earth. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

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