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September 1998
Editorial: Guardians of the Planet

By Martin Rowe


At the time of writing, the summer of 1998 is likely to be the warmest year in the warmest decade in recorded history. It is becoming increasingly more likely that one of the reasons for this global increase in temperature is the 6.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide we dump each year into the atmosphere (1996 figures) that contributes to the "Greenhouse effect." It was ostensibly in the spirit of confronting a crisis that could see projected global temperature rises of between one and 3.5 degrees Celsius in the coming decade, that the Third Conference of the Parties to the Climate Convention was convened in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997. The old faultlines between North and South, however, appeared.

The United States, the world's largest consumer and polluter, refused to agree to the global emissions standards proposed by the Europeans unless developing nations such as China, India, and Indonesia agreed to them too. Given that the increase in carbon emissions of the United States between 1990 and 1996 (to reach the astonishing amount of 1.433 billion tons) was greater than the total combined emissions of Brazil and Indonesia, the developing world quite understandably balked at being held to a standard they felt would impede their development and industrial competitiveness. The result is a series of declarations that may prove as toothless as did those which emerged from the Earth Summit of 1992.

One of the enormous strengths of a recent series of Worldwatch papers [see "More Reading"] is that, amid the deeply depressing statistics about the depletion of the world's forests, oceans, and fauna large and small, there are not only the bases of sound policy recommendations, but also examples of how conserving the planet's resources not only is good for the planet but makes excellent economic sense. Germany has created 10,000 new jobs in its wind industry since 1990-in a global business that is now worth $2 billion. Similarly, the global solar power industry grew by 25 percent in 1997 alone. Individual programs are making a difference. In the United States, the "Green Lights" lighting efficiency program is estimated to have removed carbon emissions equivalent to that from 400,000 cars. Denmark gets six percent of all its energy from wind power. Switzerland plans to have at least one solar electric system in each of its 3,000 villages by 2000.

A fact that is both infuriating and comforting at the same time is that enormous strides could be made if the governments and industries kept to the 200 agreements they have signed since Rio and made their production of energy more efficient. After all, the technology is there. There are micro-turbines that have a 90 percent efficiency rate, "superwindows" that reduce heat loss by 75 percent, and fluorescent bulbs that use a quarter of the amount of electricity of conventional bulbs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that industries could reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels simply by upgrading machinery with these technologies. That is considerably beyond the European's commitment made at Kyoto to reduce emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, and way beyond the U.S. commitment to reduce emissions to five percent below 1990 levels by 2010.

In spite of the numerous smallscale efforts of individual governments, the kind of global collaboration and international effort needed remains elusive. Money spent on research into and development of alternative forms of energy is less than half of 1980 levels-the height of a global recession caused by the 1970s oil shortage-and governments and industry still rely on large energy projects which disrupt local cultures, destroy habitat, and displace humans and animals. It is here that the news is almost unremittingly depressing. The forest fires in Brazil and Indonesia in 1997 only brought home the enormous costs of forest loss-erosion, displacement of peoples, increased carbon emissions, loss of endangered species, and economic hardship. Yet in the rush to get cash to pay off crippling debts, developing countries virtually give away their natural resources to industries which neither have any incentive to use those resources sustainably nor to keep the money they make in the country they make it in. In spite of international agreements and an increasing legal trade in forest products ($142 billion in 1995), forests are being felled or burned down with little understanding that in the long run a forest yields much more money and economic development intact than when it is cut down and the soil exhausted after a few years.

 What are these forests being chopped down for? Some of the use is for making throwaway chopsticks, for grazing cattle, and growing palm oil. But 40 percent of wood is used for paper and nearly half of that is used for packing. Who is using the paper? Mostly us: the Europeans, Americans, and Japanese consume more than 50 percent of the world's timber and more than two-thirds of its paper. Even though 40 percent of all paper is now recovered and recycled worldwide, global paper demand is expected to grow by 50 percent in the next 15 years. Unless governments recognize that forest products-such as medicines, flora, tourism, and rubber (international trade in non-wood forest products alone is worth over $11 billion a year)-as well as what forests provide (erosion barriers, water cleansing and air purification systems, carbon sinks) offer an invaluable economic as well as natural resource then the short-sighted slash-and-burn industries will continue to denude our world of the remaining 50 percent of the world's forests that haven't gone in the last 30 years.

If you combine global warming with destruction of habitat, you get a loss of biodiversity and the ecosystems in which the other five to 30 million other species depend. Of the 50,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish currently known, about a quarter are either declining in numbers, limited to dangerously small populations, or facing pressure from land clearance, road building, excessive hunting and fishing, and other human activities. While species extinction has always been part of the cut and thrust of life on this planet, scientists estimate that extinction rates are 100 to 1,000 times greater than normal-and rising all the time. And it's not just bizarre amphibia or weird birds who are in trouble: nearly half of the world's 233 primate species are threatened-again mostly because we are destroying their habitat. In Madagascar, southeastern Brazil, and Southeast Asia nearly 70 percent of non-human primates face extinction.

In the seas, 30 percent of coral reefs are in critical condition because of pollution and destructive fishing and mining. Although world fish production reached an all-time high of 121 million tons in 1997, 11 of the world's 15 most important fishing areas are in decline and 60 percent of the major fish species are either fully or overexploited. Once again, the economics of this make no sense. Non-food uses of fish in industrial countries (such as animal feed and oils) is greater than the total supply of fish for direct human consumption in Latin America, Africa, and India combined-where most of the fish are caught. From 1985 to 1995, the world's shrimp farmers used 36 million tons of wild fish to produce just 7.2 million tons of shrimp-shrimp, moreover, that use up and pollute more than 15,000 hectares of coastal areas where wild species spawn and eat. While fish are often a valuable source of protein in the developing world, it is the developed world which consumes a disproportionate amount of the fish, and then pays $20 billion a year in subsidies to the domestic fishing industry to continue overfishing the oceans.

I'll leave it to Hilary French, one of the Worldwatch authors, to draw the obvious conclusion: "Countries rich in natural wealth all too often squander this bounty by investing in ill-conceived projects that mine natural resources for the short-term economic gain of political elites [and, we might add, developed countries], at the expense of local peoples and future generations. A wiser long-term strategy would be to funnel capital into economic activities that preserve natural endowments." This, it should be emphasized, is beginning to take place, and in certain areas is growing rapidly. But-as these papers graphically and clearly illustrate-there is much, much more that needs to be done-both in actual activity from individuals through to corporations and governments as well as conceptual shifts all round-if we are to avoid the global catastrophe that threatens all of us in the next century.

More Reading

Rising Sun, Gathering Winds: Policies to Stabilize the Climate and Strengthen Economies by Christopher Flavin and Seth Dunn. Worldwatch Paper 138, November 1997

Investing in the Future: Harnessing Private Capital Flows for Environmentally Sustainable Development by Hilary F. French. Worldwatch Paper 139, February 1998

Taking a Stand: Cultivating a New Relationship with the World's Forests by Janet N. Abramovitz. Worldwatch Paper 140, April 1998

Losing Strands in the Web of Life: Vertebrate Declines and the Conservation of Biological Diversity by John Tuxill. Worldwatch Paper 141, May 1998

Rocking the Boat: Conserving Fisheries and Protecting Jobs by Anne Platt McGinn. Worldwatch Paper 142, June 1998

Published by Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036-1904. To order any of these reports send $5 per report plus $4 shipping and handling.



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