WORLD: New century brings new environmental challenge

The bright promise of a new century is clouded by unprecedented threats to the stability of the natural world, according to a special millennial edition of the State of the World report, released by the Worldwatch Institute.


“In a globally interconnected economy, rapid deforestation, falling water tables, and accelerating climate change could undermine economies around the world in the decades ahead,” say Lester Brown and Christopher Flavin, lead authors of the new report.

During the past century, the world population grew by more than 4 billion–three times the number of people when the century began. At the same time, the use of energy and raw materials has grown more than ten times.

“These trends cannot continue for many more years,” said the authors. “As the 21st century approaches, the big question is whether we can muster the ingenuity to change–and do so rapidly enough to stave off environmentally-based economic decline. The one thing we can say for sure is that the 21st century will be as different from the 20th as that one was from the 19th.”

Since our emergence as a species, human societies have continually run up against local environmental limits that have caused them to collapse, as local forests and cropland were over-stressed. But the advances in technology that have allowed us to surmount these local limits have transferred the problem of environmental limits to the global level, where human activities now threaten planetary systems.
Among the problems we now face, the report says:

  • World energy needs are projected to double in the next several decades, but no credible geologist foresees a doubling of world oil production, which is projected to peak within the next few decades.
  • While protein demands are projected to also double in the century ahead, no respected marine biologist expects the oceanic fish catch, which has plateaued over the last decade, to double. The world’s oceans are being pushed beyond the breaking point, due to a lethal combination of pollution and over-exploitation. Eleven of the 15 most important oceanic fisheries and 70 percent of the major fish species are now fully or over-exploited, according to experts. And more than half the world’s coral reefs are now sick or dying.
  • Growing stress can also be seen in the world’s woodlands, where the clearing of tropical forests has contributed recently to unprecedented fires across large areas of Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and Central America. In Indonesia alone, 1,100 airline flights were cancelled, and billions of dollars of income were lost.
  • Environmental deterioration is taking a growing toll on a wide range of living organisms. Of the 242,000 plant species surveyed by the World Conservation Union in 1997, some 33,000, or 14 percent, are threatened with extinction–mainly as a result of massive land clearing for housing, roads, and industries. This mass extinction is projected to disrupt nature’s ability to provide essential ecosystem services, ranging from pollination to flood control.
  • The atmosphere is also under assault. The billions of tons of carbon that have been released since the Industrial Revolution have pushed atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to their highest level in 160,000 years–a level that continues to rise each year. As scientists predicted, temperatures are rising along with the concentration of carbon dioxide. The latest jump in 1998 left the global temperature at its highest level since record-keeping began in the mid-19th century. Higher temperatures are projected to threaten food supplies in the next century, while more severe storms cause economic damage, and rising seas inundate coastal cities.
  • The early costs of climate change may already be evident: weather-related economic damages of $89 billion in 1998 exceeded losses for the decade of the 1980s. In Central America, 11,000 people were killed by Hurricane Mitch, and Honduras suffered losses equivalent to one-third of its annual GDP.
  • Human societies may also face growing stress in the new century. In Africa, for example, where populations have doubled in the last three decades, economic growth is already failing to keep up with human needs. Several African countries, including Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, where 20-25 percent of the adult population is now HIV-positive, are expected to lose one-fifth or more of their people within the next few decades. This could undermine their societies in the same way the plague did those of Europe in the Middle Ages.

“Our analysis shows that we are entering a new century with an economy that cannot take us where we want to go,” said Worldwatch President Lester Brown. “Satisfying the projected needs of 8 billion or more people with the economy we now have is simply not possible. The western industrial model–the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that so dramatically raised living standards in this century–is in trouble.”

On a positive note

Not all is doom and gloom, say the authors, as the broad outlines of a sustainable economic system that can meet the human needs of the next century are beginning to emerge.

The foundation of such a system is a new design principle–one that shifts from the one-time depletion of natural resources to an economy that is based on renewable energy and that continually reuses and recycles materials. “A sustainable economy will be a solar-powered, bicycle/rail-based, reuse/recycle economy, one that uses energy, water, land, and materials much more efficiently and wisely than we do today”.

The authors praise the new German Government for “embarking on the world’s most ambitious environmental tax reform–reducing taxes on wages by 2.4 percent, while raising energy taxes by an identical amount. This is a landmark step that will push Europe’s largest economy in an environmentally sustainable direction”.

Europe is also praised for taking the lead in some of the industries that are the foundations of a solar economy. Europe has added 5,000 megawatts of wind power in the last 5 years, for example, half of it in Germany, where the northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein gets 15 percent of its electricity from the wind. Wind power, now one of Europe’s fastest growing manufacturing industries, employs thousands of workers.

Other new energy technologies are also on the up. The production of solar photovoltaic cells has doubled in the last five years, propelled in part by the Japanese government’s efforts to promote solar rooftops as a standard option for new suburban homes. Fuel cells, which turn hydrogen into electricity with water the only byproduct, are attracting major investment capital, as companies pursue them as a replacement for everything from the coal-fired power plant to the internal combustion engine.

The effort to replace today’s unsustainable economy with one that is suited to the demands of the 21st century will create some of the new century’s largest investment opportunities. Bill Ford, the incoming Chairman of the Ford Motor Company, has plans to increase his company’s profits by replacing the internal combustion engine that was at the centre of his great-grandfather’s success. “Smart companies will get ahead of the wave,” says Ford. “Those that don’t will be wiped out.”

“No challenge is greater, or more satisfying, than building an environmentally sustainable global economy, one where economic and social progress can continue, not only in the 21st century, but for many centuries beyond,” the authors conclude.

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