Europe is losing the fight for sustainability

Citizens of the European Union are using resources at over twice the rate the world can renew them according to a report released by the WWF.

The report Europe 2005: The Ecological Footprint analyses the gap between Europe’s relatively small population and the large share of global resources it uses.

While the continent’s population makes up just the 7% of the world’s total, we use 17% of its capacity to generate energy and resources.

The global picture is not much rosier, as human demands on the Earth’s resources began to outstrip the planet’s ability to meet them some time around 1986 and the situation has got gradually worse ever since as populations and economies grow.

Tony Long, director of policy for WWF Europe, said: “Over 30 years ago the report Limits to Growth created an international controversy suggesting that the human economy would soon exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity, leading to a decrease in industrial output and a decline in well-being in the mid 21st century.

“In 2005 overshoot is no longer a hypothesis but a reality.

“Humanity’s annual demand for resources is now exceeding Earth’s capacity by more than 20% and it keeps growing.

“We maintain this overdraft by liquidating the planet’s natural resources.”
The report describes the ecological footprint of nations and individuals as their demand on nature.

It measures the total land area needed to produce food, fibre and energy, absorb waste and provide space for infrastructure.

As might be expected, there is a trend for more affluent nations to make a larger footprint and consume more per head while developing nations live a more Spartan, and therefore sustainable, existence.

Globally the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Kuwait top the chart, largely due to their huge energy demands, while Thailand, the Dominican Republic and Namibia make the smallest recorded footprints.

The Scandinavians, often viewed as environmental pioneers by their southern neighbours, do not come out well in the report, with Swedes having the largest ecological footprint in Europe closely followed by the Finnish, Danish and Norwegians.

The Eastern European member states all perform well, with the exception of Estonia and the Czech Republic, with Hungarians and Slovakians making the smallest footprints on the continent.

As a nation Germany has the largest European footprint, followed by France and the UK.

While none of the three countries are among the worst offenders per capita, their large populations hike up their impact.

The report concludes by looking at ways of reducing our footprint and living more sustainably.

Its four-step plan to a human footprint that matches the planet suggests increasing the earth’s capacity to provide resources by protecting soils from erosion and researching more efficient agriculture, improving the efficiency of our manufacturing so less materials are needed to provide goods and services, reducing the amount of goods and services consumed per person and reducing the global population by persuading families to have less children.

These findings echo those of Britain’s Environment Agency which released its State of the Environment report just days earlier (see related story) which also highlighted a steadily increasing use of resources.

The EA document argued for more efficient use of resources and increased recycling to cut waste and reduce energy demands.

A week before the launch of the WWF’s findings the European Environment Agency (EEA) released a report calling for EU members to work more closely with one another when drawing up environmental policy.

The report, Environmental integration in Europe, said progress had been made since the need for joined up thinking had been recognised in 1973.

It praised Norway, the Netherlands and the UK for work they had done but said all over Europe there was still a need for political commitment, vision and leadership along with regular monitoring of progress.

The EEA report also highlighted the need for more coordination between different levels of government and more needed to be done to bring environmental policy into the mainstream.

By Sam Bond

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