Environment Losing Ground To Growing Population
WASHINGTON, DC, January 5, 2001 (ENS) - As world population continues to grow, natural resources are under increasing pressure, threatening public health and social and economic development, warns a new report from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
The world's growing population is squeezing natural ecosystems into dwindling corners of the planet, and creating problems for people as well (Photo courtesy indymedia.org)
"As we humans exploit nature to meet present needs, are we destroying resources needed for the future?" ask Don Hinrichsen and Bryant Robey, co-authors of the latest issue of "Population Reports, Population and the Environment: The Global Challenge," published by the Johns Hopkins Population Information Program.
"Most developed economies currently consume resources much faster than they can regenerate. Most developing countries with rapid population growth face the urgent need to improve living standards" but risk irreparable harm to natural resources on which they depend, according to the report.
"Water shortages, soil exhaustion, loss of forests, air and water pollution, and degradation of coastlines afflict many areas," write the authors. "Without practicing sustainable development, humanity faces a deteriorating environment and may even invite ecological disaster," they note.
Illegal logging is a problem in developing countries, while many industrialized nations clearcut their forest resources with destructive efficiency (Photo courtesy World Wide Fund for Nature)
Sustainable development requires slower population growth, the Hopkins report concludes. While the rate of population growth has slowed over the past few decades, the absolute number of people continues to increase by about one billion every 13 years, and the environment continues to deteriorate.
"Can we assume that life on earth as we know it can continue no matter what the environmental conditions?" ask the authors.
THE WARNING SIGNS
Over the past 10 years environmental conditions have either failed to improve or appear to be getting worse, the authors' review of the evidence finds. For the future, how people protect or abuse the environment could largely determine whether living standards improve or deteriorate, according to the report.
Despite international concern about the environment since the 1992 Rio de Janeiro "Earth Summit," almost every environmental sector is still cause for concern:
- Unclean water, along with poor sanitation, kills more than 12 million people a year. Air pollution kills three million more.
- In 64 of 105 developing countries, population has grown faster than food supplies. Overcultivation, largely due to population pressures, has degraded some two billion hectares of arable land - an area the size of Canada and the United States.
- By 2025, with world population projected to be at eight billion, 48 countries containing three billion people will face chronic water shortages. In 25 years, humankind could be using more than 90 percent of all available fresh water, leaving just 10 percent for the rest of the world's plants and animals.
Coastal areas, like these barrier beaches near Westerly, Rhode Island, face increasing development threats as population grows (Photo by Hope Alexander, courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
- Half of all coastline ecosystems are now under pressure because of high population densities and development. About half the world's population occupies a coastal strip 200 kilometers wide - just 10 percent of the world's land surface.
- Over the past 50 years, almost half of the world's original forest cover has been lost. Current demand for forest products may exceed the limits of sustainable consumption by 25 percent.
- Since 1950, according to one estimate, some 600,000 plant and animal species have disappeared, and now nearly 40,000 more are threatened. This is the fastest rate of extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared.
- Over the past 40 years ocean surfaces have warmed an average of over half a degree Celsius, largely as a result of carbon emissions from fossil fuel use and from burning of forests. Global warming could raise the sea level by one to three meters as polar ice sheets melt, flooding low lying coastal areas and displacing millions of people. Global warming also could result in droughts and disrupt agriculture.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT KEY TO SAVING ENVIRONMENT
The report urges governments and policymakers to take immediate steps toward implementing sustainable development. Sustainable development means raising current living standards without destroying the resource base required to meet future needs.
As conflicts over scarce resources increase, crowds of refugees like these in Macedonia will become more common (Photo courtesy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent)
In effect, the world needs to live off its ecological interest" rather than using up its "ecological capital," the authors write.
Steps toward sustainable development include:
- Using energy more efficiently
- Managing cities better
- Phasing out subsidies that encourage waste
- Managing water resources and protecting freshwater sources
- Harvesting forest products rather than destroying forests
- Preserving arable land and increasing food production - a second Green Revolution
- Managing coastal zones and ocean fisheries
- Protecting biodiversity hotspots
- Adopting a climate change convention among nations
Stabilizing population through good quality family planning services "would buy time to protect natural resources," according to the report. It would also provide opportunities for women and families to raise their living standards.
The authors note that the number of people in developing countries who want family planning services has risen. But annual global spending on family planning programs is less than half the US$17 billion agreed to for 2000 at the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994.
Farmer in Morocco tries to coax a living from dry land. Irrigation can create arable land from deserts, but consumes fresh water that could be used for drinking and ecosystem purposes (Photo courtesy United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization)
Developed country annual commitments total just $2 billion - less than half the US$5.7 billion they promised to donate at Cairo. In the balance is whether the world's population could eventually stabilize at nine billion or less, or whether it will grow to 11 billion and even beyond.
"Just when it stabilizes will have a powerful effect on living standards and the global environment," write the authors.
The full text of the report is available at: http://www.jhuccp.org/pr/m15edsum.stm