Earth set to bite back

The Kyoto Climate Change Treaty - the most complex treaty ever negotiated - is now in force, but the targets need to be raised and achieved if we are to make a real difference to our environment, says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves

The Kyoto protocol came into effect on February 16 this year. It is the first legally binding environmental treaty, making a serious attempt to deal with climate change, the most terrible problem we face, yet public awareness of the launch of Kyoto was zilch, which is another story.

Meantime, it has two flaws - the US (the world's biggest economy) has boycotted it and China (the soon-to-be biggest economy) is exempt, because of its present status as a developing country. Not good then, so I wonder how seriously the treaty will be taken and how many countries will deliver on their plans to meet their obligations?

The US government may well continue with its state of denial on climate change in the face of all the scientific evidence, but not even the world's most powerful economy (and the world's biggest polluter) can stop the earth's forces from exacting their own terrible revenge and imposing their own limitations on unsustainable human activity. These forces are being driven by over-exploitation of water, oil and other natural resources, over-population of a finite planet and over-warming of the atmosphere by greenhouse gases.

This killer cocktail will, within the next 20 years or so, lead to a fundamental change in the world economy and in the way we live our lives. Global oil production will have peaked by 2015, with half the world's two trillion barrels consumed by then, so never mind who controls Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

Demand from the industrialising and fast-growing third world economies of China and India will have outstripped supply by almost double within 30 years, but even more serious than the shortage of oil, is the shortage of water. Half a billion people already live in regions prone to chronic drought. Within 20 years that number is projected to increase by fivefold to around 3.5B people, or half the world's population. Water war is now a real prospect, and the world must take note. So what about diet? Fish provides about 20% of all animal protein consumed in developing countries and yet 50% of all fish stocks are fully exploited and a further 20% over-exploited. Meanwhile, on land, degradation and pollution are doing their worst and around half a billion people live in countries that no longer have healthy crop land to grow their own food. Each year, 5M people - including 2M children - die from water-borne diseases.

By destroying habitats on an increasing scale, we are causing an unprecedented loss of the very biodiversity - animals, birds, fish plants, forests - on which humankind, ultimately depends. This sorry state of affairs is driven by a widening industrialisation across the world and ever more rapacious technologies for industrial extraction, with accompanying conflict over access to valuable resources.

All this is underpinned by a growing population that measures success in terms of material wealth and consumerism. It took about 150,000 years for the world to achieve a population of around 1B, but only the last 75 years to increase by another 4B - 1B of those in just the last 12 years. Globalisation has spread demand for ever-higher living standards (often based on conspicuous consumption rather than actual need), resulting in unsustainable pressure on the planet's resources to deliver them. Demand is creating a frenzy of self-destructive madness.

Arguably, the most effective measure of non-sustainability is the ecological footprint. It relates the average productive land available per person across the world to the average land area required per person to sustain present living standards - that is to produce the food and wood people consume, to give room for infrastructure and to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels.

Runnnig out of space

At the moment, the productive space available per person is about 2hectares, but the area required per person to sustain us at present - the world average footprint - is around 2.85hectares. This 30% overshoot leads, inevitably, to depletion of the earth's natural resources and capital stock.

As WWF noted in its Living Planet Report, at this rate, in 50 years' time we will be exploiting natural resources equal to at least two planet earths - yet we only have one! But do not just take my word for it - check out the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assesment (MA) where more than 1,300 of the world's top scientists have agreed we are in serious ecological overdraft and that water supply is now a critical issue as global warming bites. If this were not bad enough, we have worsening climate change that is threatening to make parts of the world uninhabitable and the UK something like north Africa.

This prospect is exacerbated by new evidence. First, the rate of increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere - the main cause of global warming - is gradually rising. Second is the risk of runaway feedback effects from the die-back of forests, the collapse of continental ice-sheets, the release of methane hydrates trapped in the oceans, or the loss of ocean sinks. This catalogue of evidence is scary, but not inevitable.

The Kyoto protocol is now in force and we must ensure all governments adhere to their obligations under the treaty. If they will not, then perhaps it will be concerned citizens' movements that take the initiative to save the human population from itself. We can also build on Kyoto by getting countries to agree to further treaties aimed at preserving the biosphere within the limits of the capacity of the planet. At the moment, the dominant realpolitik gives ever-greater freedoms to global companies to pursue a no-limits approach to exploitation of the earth's resources.

All this shows the capitalist model is not sustainable. We need a new global agenda that recognises limitations and forces us to act within those limits. If the world's leaders do not recognise this then the earth will surely exact its own revenge in securing those limitations - and at what price?


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