News: Humanity’s increasing impact

By Aaron Cook 2 December 2009
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Humans now require one and a half Planet Earths to support our demand.

New data shows that humanity’s ecological footprint grew almost two per cent between 2005 and 2006 and we now need nearly one and a half Planet Earths to support human activity.

In other words, it takes the planet nearly 18 months to regenerate the resources and absorb the pollutants that humans use and emit each year.

Susan Burns, CEO of the Global Footprint Network, the USA based not-for-profit organisation that conducted the research, said that the consequences of this ecological overshoot are already apparent in climate changes, collapsing fisheries and the loss of croplands and biodiversity.

“Last year we calculated that by 2030 we’ll need a capacity of two planets and we believe that’s physically impossible,” Susan said.

2006 was the first time that the measured bio-capacity of the planet has decreased; meaning that, as humans take more from the planet, its ability to regenerate is actually decreasing.

Humanity’s footprint was 62 per cent of Earth’s available bio-capacity in 1961. The figure hit 100 percent in 1980 and has risen to 144 percent today. Susan said the increase can be put down to both the rising population and rising consumption.

The increase in carbon dioxide emissions since 1961 is responsible for more than 80 per cent of the increased ecological foot-print in that time, which means large amounts of land are now required just to absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity (see graph below).

The research also shows that the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have the largest ecological footprint of any nations, followed closely by the United States, where nine global hectares are required to support each person’s consumption. A global hectare refers to one hectare of biologically productive space with world-average productivity. If everybody lived this way, five Planet Earths would be required to support the population.

No data was available for Australia in the 2009 report, but the 2008 report showed that Australians require 7.8 global hectares per person, which would equate to nearly three planet earths if everybody lived this way.

Paul Toni, head of development and sustainability for WWF-Australia, said that Australia’s ecological footprint is largely composed of carbon emissions, the impact of cattle grazing, forest use and agriculture. The WWF-Australia website lists land clearing for grazing as the number one threat to the survival of animal and plant species in Australia. It is responsible for 13 per cent of Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Paul also said that once Australia has a carbon-pollution reduction scheme in place, WWF-Australia will lobby for much stronger renewable energy targets and a dedicated scheme to tackle carbon-pollution from the agriculture sector, which is responsible for 25 per cent of Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Australia’s total ecological footprint is also likely to increase dramatically if the population reaches 35 million as predicted by 2050.

Sandra Kanck, President of Sustainable Population Australia, said that there are vested interests behind population policies which encourage a high migration rate. “The development industry is totally dependent on it,” she said. “We have a system that always requires growth.”

“Everything that happens with a new house is of value to our current economic system and as long as we have that particular economic system that’s going to make it more difficult to get to a stable population,” Sandra said.

“What Australia and…other developing countries are doing is living off the future. They are using resources and those resources will not be available for future generations.”

Graph courtesy Global Footprint Network 2009 National Footprint Accounts