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Humanity will pay

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Humanity will pay for abuse of the environment, warns WWF
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
10 July 2002
Future generations can expect to see a severe fall in living standards as humanity begins to pay for its huge environmental "overdraft" with planet Earth, a leading conservation group has claimed.

Human development will begin to plummet within 30 years because we are fast running out of space and resources to sustain the turbo-charged lifestyle of the developed world, says WWF International.

Unless governments take urgent action to encourage a more sustainable way of life, human welfare will go into drastic decline by 2030 with falls in average life expectancies, lower educational levels and a shrinking economy, the WWF's Living Planet Report 2002 says. Exploitation of the Earth's renewable resources has grown by 80 per cent in the past 40 years and is now 20 per cent higher than the natural capacity of the planet to replenish itself, the report, published yesterday, says.

Since the 1980s the use of natural resources has consistently outstripped supply and yet the rate at which resources are being depleted is increasing because more people are chasing a higher standard of living at the expense of environmental degradation.

Within 50 years we will be exploiting the renewable resources equivalent to two planet Earths which is clearly impossible to maintain.

Jonathan Loh, the author of the report, said the current rate at which the human population was growing and using natural resources was fundamentally unsustainable and, without further change, a point would come when development would go into reverse.

"We do not know exactly what the result will be of running this massive overdraft with the Earth. What is clear, though, is that it would be better to control our own destiny, rather than leave it up to chance," Mr Loh said.

According to the report, the Earth has about 11.4 billion hectares of productive space on land and sea, which means about 1.9 hectares for each of the 6 billion people on the planet. Yet the average consumption per head of population is equivalent to about 2.3 hectares per person.

This "ecological footprint" varies enormously when differences in lifestyle are taken into account. The typical African, for instance, consumes resources equivalent to 1.4 hectares of land, whereas for the average European it is 5 hectares, rising to 9.6 hectares for the typical American.

Claude Martin, the director general of WWF International, says in the report's foreword that improvements in the quality of life for many people in the world since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 have exacted an "unacceptable price" from the global ecosystem.

"The past decade has witnessed fires on an unprecedented scale in the tropical forests of Brazil and Indonesia, coral bleaching that has left vast areas of reef in the Caribbean, Indian and Pacific oceans as ghosts of their former selves, the collapse of commercially viable fish stocks in the Atlantic, the ecological devastation of the Black Sea, Aral Sea and Lake Chad, and the continual loss of precious wetland and freshwater ecosystems around the world," Mr Martin said. "By continuing to abuse the biosphere, and through the inequitable sharing of the Earth's resources, we undermine the chances of eradicating poverty, and put the whole of humanity under the threat of global climate change."

A spokesman for the WWF said that where once each generation could expect to be financially better off and have a higher standard of living than their parents and grandparents, scientists were now predicting a reversal of fortunes.

The report was published 50 days before the start of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which begins in Johannesburg on 26 August.

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