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Vital Signs: World Record Levels of Consumption

EU should raise pressure on US

Consumption of energy and many other critical resources is consistently breaking records, disrupting the climate and undermining life on the planet, according to the latest Worldwatch Institute report, Vital Signs 2007-2008. The 44 trends tracked in Vital Signs illustrate the urgent need to check consumption of energy and other resources that are contributing to the climate crisis, starting with the largest polluter, the United States, which accounted for over 21% of global carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning in 2005. An overview by WDEV

Europe, already feeling the effects of climate change, should pressure the United States to join international climate negotiations, according to Erik Assadourian, Vital Signs Project Director. "The world is running out of time to head off catastrophic climate change, and it is essential that Europe and the rest of the international community bring pressure to bear on US policymakers to address the climate crisis," said Assadourian, who spoke at the launch of Vital Signs at the Catalonian Ministry of the Environment in Barcelona, Spain, organised by the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia. "The United States must be held accountable for its emissions, double the per capita level in Europe, and should follow the EU lead by committing to reducing its total greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050."

* Europe as a showcase
This summer, the European Union has become a showcase for how the world will be transformed by climate change, including tragic fires in Greece and the Canary Islands, dramatic floods in England, and heat waves across the continent. Assadourian urged European leaders to push the United States to engage more constructively with the international community on climate change, starting at the United Nations later this month and in the Bali climate negotiations at the end of the year.

With a global population of 6.6 billion and growing, the ecosystem services upon which life depends are being stretched to the limit due to record levels of consumption:

* In 2006, the world used 3.9 billion tons of oil. Fossil fuel usage in 2005 produced 7.6 billion tons of carbon emissions, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 380 parts per million.
* More wood was removed from forests in 2005 than ever before.
* Steel production grew 10% to a record 1.24 billion tons in 2006, while primary aluminum output increased to a record 33 million tons. Aluminum production accounted for roughly 3% of global electricity use.
* Meat production hit a record 276 million tons (43 kilograms per person) in 2006.
* Meat consumption is one of several factors driving rising soybean demand. Rapid expansion of soybean plantations in South America could displace 22 million hectares of tropical forest and savanna in the next 20 years.
* The rise in global seafood consumption comes even as many fish species become scarcer: in 2004, 156 million tons of seafood was eaten, an average of three times as much seafood per person than in 1950.

The expanding global appetite for everything from everyday items such as eggs to major consumer goods such as automobiles is helping to drive climate change, endangering organisms both on land and in the sea:

* The warming climate is undermining biodiversity by accelerating habitat loss, altering the timing of animal migrations and plant flowerings, and shifting some species toward the poles and to higher altitudes.
* The oceans have absorbed about half of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans in the last 200 years. Climate change is altering fish migration routes, pushing up sea levels, intensifying coastal erosion, raising ocean acidity, and interfering with currents that move vital nutrients upward from the deep sea.
* Despite a relatively calm US hurricane season in 2006, the world experienced more weather-related disasters than in any of the previous three years. Nearly 100 million people were affected.

While U.S. carbon emissions continue to grow, the fastest rise is occurring in Asia, particularly China and India. But without a US commitment to emissions constraints, persuading China and India to commit to reductions is unlikely. "The only hope for reducing the world's carbon emissions is for the US to begin reducing its emissions and cooperating with other nations immediately. The EU may be the only entity that can make that happen," said Assadourian.

* The window appears to be closing
"With the U.S. Congress preparing to take up far-ranging climate legislation this fall, and with President Bush planning to hold an international climate change summit in Washington, now is the time to act. If the US and other nations walk away without concrete plans to implement a binding agreement, the EU should not hesitate to use its diplomatic clout to press the issue," suggested Assadourian.

Already, the window to prevent catastrophic climate change appears to be closing. Some governments are starting to redirect their attention away from climate change mitigation and toward staking their claims in a warming world. "Canada is spending $3bn to build eight new patrol boats to reinforce its claim over Arctic waterways. Denmark and Russia are starting to vie for control over the Lomonosov Ridge, where new sources of oil and natural gas could be accessed if the Arctic Circle becomes ice free-fossil fuels that will further exacerbate climate change. These actions assume that a warming world is here," said Assadourian.

* Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2007 – 2008, 176 pp., Washington D.C., September 2007. Available at: www.worldwatch.org.

Posted: 13 Sep 2007

Recommended citation: WDEV (2007), ‘Vital Signs: World Record Levels of Consumption. EU should raise pressure on US’, World Economy & Development In Brief (WDEV), Luxembourg, issue 5/Sep-Oct (www.wdev.eu)

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