Biodiversity, Environment, Global, Green Economy, Reframing Rio

Reframing Rio

“We Are Living As If We Had One and a Half Planets”

GENEVA, May 15 2012 (IPS) - The new WWF Living Planet Report warns of a significant decline in biodiversity, particularly in low-income countries, and a huge increase in the ecological footprint of high-income countries.

Sam Smith, Jim Leape and Stuart Orr at the presentation of the 2012 Living Planet Report in Geneva. Credit:Isolda Agazzi/IPS

Released ahead of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, it calls on the world to modify production and consumption patterns and turn to renewable energy sources.

“Overall, biodiversity has declined by 28 percent around the world since 1970. But in low-income countries the loss is particularly important – it reaches 60 percent. The depletion of the natural systems is hitting hardest in countries that can least afford it,” said Jim Leape, director general of WWF International, introducing the 2012 Living Planet Report on May 14 in Geneva.

The most important publication of the renowned environmental organisation, released every two years, looks at biodiversity around the world and at humanity’s ecological footprint – namely the pressure we put on land and water.

The increase of the latter has been enormous since 1961: “We are using 50 percent more resources than the earth can support. Today we are living as if we had one and a half planets. If we continue like this, by 2050 we will need three planets. Our pattern of consumption is unsustainable,” Leape said.

On average, high-income countries have an ecological footprint that is five times that of low-income ones. The ten countries with the biggest ecological footprint per person are Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, the United States, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland.

The report came out five weeks ahead of the United Nations Sustainable Development Conference, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, which will follow up on the commitments to sustainable development adopted two decades ago at the Earth Summit in the same city.

“It is an important moment to look at what is happening on the earth,” Leape added. “There are proposals to establish Sustainable Development Goals and to change signals to the market by adding social and ecological indicators to GDP.

“The marketplace continues to send the wrong signals because so many costs are not built into the price system. Prices should tell the truth. Governments must eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels and commit to clean energy access for all.”

Asked whether the green economy, the main theme of the conference, is the right solution, he told IPS that “the central challenge is figuring out how to move to a green economy. There is a lot of debate on the term; some like it, some don’t. But somehow we must get on a path that the earth can sustain, and define a new prosperity with the planet’s resources. We need a different model for future development.”

The report does indicate the WWF’s belief that another course is possible, and outlines possible solutions. The first is to preserve natural capital by protecting ecosystems, and land and water.

Significant progress has been made in the key area of deforestation, but there is always a threat of setbacks. While Brazil, for example, has been the leader in the trend against deforestation in the last few years, a new law passed there could severely weaken protection of forests.

Another proposal is to look at the “water footprint”, or the way water is managed on the production side. “We are providing incentives to talk about water in the economy,” explained Stuart Orr, freshwater manager at WWF. “We work very closely with businesses to help them understand their footprint. And some of the most progressive works on water are done in Africa.”

In Kenya, WWF has found out that 10 percent of foreign exchange was linked to the exploitation of one single river basin.

The environmental group has outlined incentives to better manage river basins, which have attracted the interest of different countries.

“We develop standards on the use of water for business, and we counsel governments on how to reach hydropower sustainability – for example, by building standards on hydropower development,” Orr said. “In China, we have worked with the government on a river basin allocation that applies to 270 rivers in the country.”

Sustainable production is another solution. And it starts with renewable energy. “We don’t need new technology to do it,” said Sam Smith, leader of the WWF climate and energy initiative. “Last year, investments in renewable power were greater than in fossil fuels. In Spain, 61 percent of electricity was provided by wind power (one windy day in April).”

This is also true in emerging countries. Mexico has set a goal for 50 percent of the country’s energy supply to come from renewable sources by 2020, and the government is promoting wind power and solar panels. And in Africa, South Africa and Kenya have taken significant renewable energy initiatives along similar lines.

Energy efficiency is another promising path. In Pakistan, thanks to an initiative launched by WWF in conjunction with Ikea, 40,000 farmers are now growing cotton in a way that reduces the severe environmental impact of conventional cotton production. According to the report, in 2010, 170,000 hectares of cotton production used 40 percent less chemical fertiliser, 47 percent less pesticide, and 37 percent less water.

On the consumption side, “each of us can play a role. Companies and consumers want better choices,” Leape said.

Labels can be a solution. In Chile, which supplies eight percent of the global pulp and paper market, WWF is working with the government and the forestry sector to strengthen and broaden the scope of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

The same goes for fish. Overall, a nearly five-fold increase in global marine fish catch, from 19 million tonnes in 1950 to 87 millions tonnes in 2005, has left many fisheries overexploited.

Chile provides 30 percent of the global salmon market and 13 percent of the global market for forage fish. WWF is promoting the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in the South American country, as an important mechanism to ensure the exploitation of fisheries in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and economically viable.

“The challenges underlined in the Living Planet Report are clear,” Leape said. “Rio+20 can and must be the moment for governments to set a new course towards sustainability. The meeting is a unique opportunity for coalitions of the committed – governments, cities and businesses – to join forces and play a crucial role in keeping with a living planet.”


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