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Living Planet Report: we know the facts, now it's time for action

Posted by Victor Anderson on 15/05/12 14:20 PM

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Victor Anderson © WWF
Every two years we bring out a new edition of our Living Planet Report. It’s effectively the result of putting two sets of data together for every country in the world – information about resources being consumed, and information about what’s happening to different types of animal species.

Since habitat loss is the main cause of species decline and extinction, the two go together. The more land that’s taken up by human activity, such as the spread of cities and growing food, then basically the less land is available for wild nature.

Of course it’s all more complicated than that. There are other factors involved, there are time-lags, there’s the possibility of dual uses for the same piece of land. It’s easy to get lost in the detail, but the overall picture is crystal clear. Our own species is taking up more and more of the planet, and using up more and more of the resources, while almost every other type of living thing is in decline.

We are now using up the resources of the planet at one-and-a-half times the rate the planet can sustain. Or in other words, we’re using up resources that rightly belong to our children and grandchildren and their descendents.

The UK’s consumption rate, if repeated around the world, would use up the planet at more than two-and-a-half times the rate that can be sustained.

Over the past 40 years the biological health of the planet, measured by the Living Planet Index, which tracks trends in animal species, has declined by 30%.

In most respects this year’s Living Planet Report is not so different from the edition two years ago. The information presented is a bit more thorough, with more included on water supply and climate change. But the big shift in recent years is in the consumption impact – the ‘ecological footprint’ – of some countries, countries which in the UK we got used to thinking of as ‘poor’.

Overall living standards are rising in places such as Brazil and China. We used to say that unsustainable use of the world’s resources was our fault in richer Europe, North America and Japan. But now, economic development is spreading – a success in many ways, but with a big cost in terms of ecological footprint and impact on the environment.

Many people would say that’s a price worth paying for the achievement of bringing millions of people out of poverty, and of course that is a powerful argument. But the problem is that this state of affairs can’t last. It’s unsustainable.

As we run down the planet’s resources, interfere with its life-support systems, pollute its oceans, and drastically alter its climate, the Earth’s capacity for supporting future economic activity steadily declines.

This is a long-term process, and those of us alive now can see it unwind before our eyes, clarified by publications like the Living Planet Report. Previous civilisations that went into decline didn’t have the wealth of science and data that we have. Now we actually know what is happening, and the information is accumulating in great detail.

It's also clear that we urgently need to find forms of economic development that can provide better lives for human beings without destroying the life of the planet.

You can…
Read our 2012 Living Planet Report
Find out about the upcoming Rio+20 Earth Summit

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Polar bear mother and her cub in the Arctic