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November 1st, 2008:

An Environmental Credit Crunch

Kevin Rafferty – SCMP | Updated on Nov 01, 2008

With the whole world heading for financial meltdown, what can possibly get worse? Well, if a group of international experts are correct, the Earth is greedily hurtling towards a crisis far worse than the financial one. We are – the world is – running out of resources. By 2030, we will need two Earths to support the lifestyles we have got used to, that is, if there is anything left after we have consumed or destroyed most of the riches of the planet.

“A more fundamental crisis looms – an ecological credit crunch caused by undervaluing the environmental assets that are the basis of all life and prosperity,” declared James Leape, international director general of WWF, in publishing the “Living Planet Report 2008“. It was prepared in co-operation with the renowned Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network.

The authors estimate that the ecological debt is between US$4 trillion and US$4.5 trillion a year, or double the estimated losses made by the world’s financial institutions as a result of the credit crisis. But who can put a true monetary value on the deforestation, degraded soils, polluted air and water, and declines in the numbers of fish and other species every year? All in all, the Living Planet says that human beings are using 30 per cent more resources than the Earth can replenish each year.

It is a chilling report. But the real surprise is that nothing should be surprising about what it says except the rapid speed of deterioration and the failure to heed the warnings. We are living ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been, seeking instant gratification without thinking of the consequences.

Until the 1960s, most countries lived within their ecological means but, today, three-quarters of the world’s people live in countries that consume more than they can replenish. The report contains information on the “water footprint” of every country and says that 50 nations are already experiencing “moderate to severe water stress on a year-round basis”.

The report calculates that global biocapacity – that is, the area available to produce our resources and capture our emissions, which would keep the Earth’s biosystem in balance – is 2.1 hectares per person. But the actual footprint per person is 2.7 hectares.

The two countries with the biggest ecological footprints are the US and China, each with about 21 per cent of global biocapacity. But there are big differences in the way Americans and Chinese live. If everyone in the world lived as the average American does, we would already need 4.5 planet Earths because US citizens require 9.4 global hectares; average Chinese consumption is 2.1 hectares, so, if everyone lived like an average Chinese, we’d be OK … just.

Consumption and the actual biocapacity of a country, meaning the resources available within that country, are different. The US, China and India all have average footprints greater than their national biocapacity. The US, with its huge land and resources, is consuming 1.8 times its national biocapacity, China 2.3 times and India 2.2 times. In Beijing and New Delhi, alarm bells should be ringing to ask at what price the rising economic growth will be purchased.

The responses of the two major players is discouraging enough to make one despair for the future of the planet.

Being in the US recently, in the run-up to the presidential election, was something of a surreal experience. Here is a country that is in financial crisis, heavily indebted to the tune of US$10.2 trillion and fighting wars on several fronts that are bleeding it of another US$600 billion a year (and that is without counting unfunded little details like social security, Medicare and Medicaid, which would push total debts to a whopping US$60 trillion) and, yet, none of the political contenders dares to give a reality check.

The US is the best country in the world, with the best workers in the world and we are gonna win the war, whatever it takes – that is the message from both contenders.

John McCain and “Sreamin’ Scarah” Palin go further and declare that they won’t allow America to be pushed around by foreigners and won’t permit anyone to commit the mortal sin of increasing taxes.

How in heaven’s name is the existing mess to be paid for, let alone the future? this week offered five good reasons for buying an SUV, in total denial of anything real except pandering to pampered lifestyles.

The attitude from Beijing is, by these standards, more measured. China has finally admitted that its greenhouse emissions have caught up with those of the US – though most outside experts say that China passed the US last year. But China stubbornly insisted that its emissions will not fall any time soon and it will not allow the battle against emissions to impede its quest for growth. Yet Beijing also offered its solution to the problem, even though it involves transfers of US$300 billion a year from the Group of Seven industrialised countries, or five times total economic aid from all rich countries to all poor countries.

The US and China, and most other countries, should listen to Bill Clinton. Safely out of office and without having to face the daily pressures of his Congress and electorate, he said that there is hardly a major problem of the world that one country can solve on its own.

In these issues of the fragile future of the planet we are all bound together. The exquisite flapping of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause a tornado in Texas, just as greenhouse gas emissions from China are already spreading across the Pacific to Los Angeles, and plastic bags discarded in North America are turning up in the stomachs of albatrosses on remote Midway Island.

Poor Earth, poor all of us and our children unless we can make our leaders see how fragile are the precious resources of the planet.

Kevin Rafferty is editing a book for the Poznan Climate Change conference, in December, that is supposed to work out a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol