Although the world economy produced nearly $41 trillion of goods and services in 1999, 45% of the income went to the 12% of the world’s people who live in western industrial countries, the Worldwatch Institute study claims. “This wealthy minority is largely responsible for the excessive consumption that drives environmental decline,” says the study’s co-author Molly O. Sheehan.

For example, per capita paper use in industrial nations is nine times higher than in developing countries, the study shows. The number of cars per person is about 100 times higher in North America, Western Europe, and Japan than in India or China, according to the study.

The study, Vital Signs 2000: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, points out that, in 1999, Third World debt rose to a new high of $2.5 trillion in 1999, with some of the world’s poorest nations devoting 30% of their national budgets to debt servicing.

Burning of fossil fuels in rich countries is also hindering progress in greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the report says. Although global carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning fell 0.2% in 1999, the study says far more serious reductions are necessary to achieve the 70% cut that many scientists believe is needed to avert climate change. The study says the growth in motor vehicle production, and erosion of fuel efficiency as a result of rising sales of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) prevent more substantial decline in emissions.

The study also emphasises the importance of disparities between the sexes. “Women make up more than two-thirds of the illiterate population and three-fifths of the poor,” said Sheehan, “and they account for only 13% of the representatives in national legislatures.” The study shows that population growth is most rapid in the world’s poorest regions, where women often lack access to family planning and education. The global population passed the 6 billion milestone in 1999, growing from only 2.5 billion in 1950.

But some of the emerging global threats threaten all nations. The resurgence in tuberculosis (TB) may kill an additional 70 million people by 2020. A catastrophic decline in amphibians is wiping out a possible source of new medicines. Water supplies are deteriorating as groundwater is over-abstracted by at least 160 billion cubic meters a year. Worldwatch says this poses a serious threat to future food production and basic living standards. At the same time, pollution of aquifers is damaging the freshwater supplies.

On the positive side, the report highlights several encouraging trends in renewable energy and efficiency technologies. For instance, 1999 saw wind power, the world’s

fastest-growing energy source, surge by 39%, production of solar cells expand by 30% and sales of energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) grow by 11%. The study argues that as these energy alternatives take root in developing countries, they will make a serious dent in carbon output and help stabilise the climate.

The study also cites the rise in the use of environmental taxes and the growth of organic farming as positive developments. These, the study argues, could be promoted by international treaties. Five new treaties were added to the 240 international environmental accords in the past year, and more than two-thirds of the total have been drafted since the 1972 UN conference on the environment in Stockholm. However, the study says, most of these treaties are neither strong enough, nor monitored and enforced sufficiently to reverse ecological decline.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie