Nations with unsustainable development named and shamed

The first measure of human pressure on global ecosystems has revealed the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore as the world’s three worst offenders.

If every human alive today consumed natural resources and emitted carbon dioxide at the same rate as these three countries, or in fact as many other developed nations, at least another two earths would be needed, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) announced on 20 October at the launch of its Living Planet Report 2000.

The report, produced in collaboration with the United Nations Environmental Program, shows that between 1970 and 1999 the natural wealth of the earth’s freshwater systems declined by 50%, by 35% in marine ecosystems and 12% in the world’s forests. The overall decline in the world’s food producing eco-systems was one-third, the report said, with the most severe deterioration occurring in the tropical and southern temperate regions of the world. Over the same period the ecological pressure of humanity on the Earth has increased by about 50% and exceeds the biosphere’s regeneration rate.

The report also says that the area required to produce the natural resources consumed and absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by mankind has doubled since 1961, and by 1996 was 30% larger than the area actually available. For the first time, a measure of human pressure on global ecosystems known as the ‘Ecological Footprint’ is used. This measure estimates a population’s consumption of food, materials and energy in terms of the area of biologically productive land or sea required to produce those natural resources or, in the case of energy, to absorb the corresponding carbon dioxide emissions. The calculation of the ‘Footprint’ omits some pressures for which data are incomplete such as water consumption and the release of toxic pollutants, meaning that the results really underestimate humanity’s full impact, says WWF.

Using this measure, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and the United States were found to be the top three least environmentally sustainable countries respectively, according to data from 1996. “The UAE may have the highest ecological footprint rate, but the United States, with its huge population has a vastly greater impact on the world,” a WWF spokesman told edie. However, consumption levels far exceeded production in many other countries and major economies, especially in Europe and the Arabian Gulf. The UK was ranked 20th in the list. The most sustainable societies are generally the world’s poorest, with Eritrea, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, respectively rank ‘top’ in the study of 151 nations.

Continent-wise, the average North American needs twice the area required by the average Western European to produce the natural resources consumed and absorb the carbon dioxide emitted, and some five times greater than required by the average Asian, African and Latin American. Africa is the most environmentally sustainable continent. Globally, the ‘Ecological Footprint’ increased by 50% between 1970 and 1997, a rise of about 1.5% per year.

“It is the consumers of the rich nations of the temperate northern regions of the world who are primarily responsible for the ongoing loss of natural wealth in the tropics,” said Jonathan Loh, the report’s editor, referring to the data which shows that the Ecological Footprint of an average consumer in the industrialised world is four times that of an average consumer in the lower income countries.

“WWF urges European Union leaders drawing up their Sustainability Strategy for the Gotenberg Summit in 2001, and world leaders meeting in the Rio +10 Conference in 2002, to use the Ecological Footprint to agree specific actions to limit the burden we place on nature,” said Professor Ruud Lubbers, President of WWF International.

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