Government officials, scientists, activists, and others who participated in the Rio+20 conference last month, strived to reorient international policies so that they are less damaging to Earth’s climate, environment, and populations. In an effort to guide discussions in advance of the conference and initiatives afterward, the global conservation group WWF has released the latest edition of its Living Planet Report, documenting the startling challenges of unsustainable resource consumption and decreasing biodiversity that the world now faces.
The 2012 Living Planet Report presents a bleak picture of humanity’s ever-rising demand for natural resources, and the resulting impacts on biological diversity and ecosystem health. Yet this assessment shouldn’t be a reason for complacency. If we act now, it is still possible to reverse some of the perilous trends we face. Action will ensure increased resiliency in all communities, as well as in nature.
The report assesses the state of the planet using three main indicators: the Living Planet Index, the Ecological Footprint, and the Water Footprint of Production. These indicators provide a multi-faceted view of conditions on Earth and provide important data that decision makers can use to evaluate the efficacy of policies and to adaptively manage sustainable development.
The first indicator, the Living Planet Index, draws from species population data to reveal the state of global biological diversity. The data indicate that Earth’s biodiversity has declined by 30 percent annually since 1970. By quantifying such losses to biodiversity worldwide, the index provides policymakers with the underlying data to support their efforts to protect vulnerable species and ecosystems.
The second indicator is the Ecological Footprint, which examines humanity’s use of natural resources by tracking consumption patterns compared to Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources (its “biocapacity”). Biocapacity is measured as the land and forest area required to produce the resources, develop associated infrastructure, and sequester the carbon dioxide not absorbed by the ocean. According to the index, humanity breached Earth’s biocapacity through land development as early as 1970; subsequently, the world’s population has exceeded the sustainable boundaries for fishing, forests, grazing, and cropland. We have yet to surpass the projected carbon boundary, but we approach it every day that carbon dioxide concentrations increase.
Our rapid rate of resource consumption places planetary systems under enormous pressure. According to the report, in 2008, humanity’s ecological footprint exceeded Earth’s biocapacity by more than 50 percent. This imbalance will only increase as populations achieve higher standards of living and increase their consumption, placing higher demands on resources. To resduce this pressure, it is critical that societies embrace a new measure of “progress,” replacing the growth-oriented metric of GDP with a more encompassing index that emphasizes societal well-being and sustainable consumption.
The report’s third indicator, the Water Footprint of Production, studies the vulnerability of populations to water shortages. It provides a second assessment of human demand on natural resources and concludes that “2.7 billion people around the world already live in catchments that experience severe water shortages for at least one month a year.”
After presenting trends in the three indicators, the Living Planet Report discusses the options for achieving sustainability in the face of increased stressors and climate change. Among the solutions, it proposes ways to change food consumption patterns and halt deforestation through conservation and reforestation efforts. The report also emphasizes the importance of governance in providing effective solutions, given the scale of these challenges. To succeed, societies will need to support strong leaders—leaders who recognize the urgency of protecting the interests of future generations, no matter the short-term political costs.
(Written by Antonia Sohns)