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WWF's Living Planet Report Paints Stark Picture of Unsustainable Development

Humanity's ecological footprint is increasing (chart)

By expanding cities, cutting down forests and overfishing the seas, humanity has caused a 52% decline in the population of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish since 1970.

Cover of Living Planet Report 2014 from WWFThis is the staggering and sobering headline fact to leap out of the latest Living Planet Report from WWF. It documents the fact that in less than two human generations, the populations of vertebrate species have dropped by half.

"We ignore their decline at our peril," they say. "We are using nature's gifts as if we had more than just one Earth at our disposal. By taking more from our ecosystems and natural processes than can be replenished, we are jeopardizing our very future. Nature conservation and sustainable development go hand-in-hand."

Wonderful, creative, imaginative, scientific human beings "are not only threatening our health, prosperity and well-being, but our very future," says this 10th edition of the Report.

Since the last report was published in 2012 the researchers have re-examined the basis upon which they make their calculations only to find that the situation is worse than they had previously expected.

The Ecological Footprint (above) shows that 1.5 Earths would be required to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year. These demands include the renewable resources we consume for food, fuel and fibre, the land we build on, and the forests we need to absorb our carbon emissions. For more than 40 years, humanity's demand has exceeded the planet's biocapacity – the amount of biologically productive land and sea area that is available to regenerate these resources. This continuing overshoot is making it more and more difficult to meet the needs of a growing global human population, as well as to leave space for other species.

Humanity must leave room for other species upon the planet. Part of the problem is that demand is not evenly distributed, with people in industrialized countries consuming resources and services at a much faster rate. As industrialisation spreads and development increases, pressure upon the natural world also increases.

The report carefully examines a number of planetary boundaries, thresholds of consumption and destruction over which we stray at our peril. It says that three of the nine planetary boundaries appear to have already been crossed:

  1. biodiversity, declining far faster than any natural rate;
  2. atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, already significantly changing our climate and ecosystems;
  3. nitrogen pollution from fertiliser, poisoning watercourses and areas of the sea.

Other headline findings are equally depressing:

  • populations of freshwater species have declined by 76% since 1970, twice the rate of marine and terrestrial populations (39% each);
  • in areas reserved for protected species on land, populations still declined, but only by 18%;
  • agriculture accounts for 92% of the global water footprint, exacerbating water scarcity, as seen now in the West of North America;
  • the ecological footprint per capita is five times higher in high-income countries than poor ones;
  • these rich countries are outsourcing biodiversity loss through their imports from poorer nations;
  • a high level of human development equates to higher ecological footprints; countries must learn to increase development while keeping their footprint down.

Is ecosystem service pricing a way of helping capitalism account for its rapacious consumption of natural resources, the report wonders. It says by way of an answer: "While it is impossible to put a price-tag on nature, ascribing an economic value to ecosystems and the services they provide is one way to convey what we stand to lose if we continue to squander our natural capital.

The final chapter in the report demonstrates ways in which this might be done by describing how people around the world are finding better ways to manage, use and share natural resources within the planet's capacity – with widespread environmental, social and economic benefits:

  • in southern Chile marine conservation goes hand-in-hand with salmon production and social equity;
  • in Uganda, mountain gorilla populations are increasing, which is also benefiting the people who live alongside them;
  • in Belize a new coastal development plan takes full account of the huge value of natural ecosystems;
  • in South Africa, smart and land-use planning has restored a vital wetland and created successful partnerships;
  • in Australia investment in water stewardship on the Great Barrier Reef has boosted agriculture, fishing and tourism;
  • Denmark is showing how wind power can defy critics' expectations to power a developed nation;
  • the We Love Cities project by WWF is beginning to turn around the ecological footprint of cities, along with Urban Solutions, a global inventory of resources and the Low Carbon Cities network in China;

A Signpost to One Planet Living (chart)

It is inconceivable that the authors of the report could not have been emotionally affected by their findings, but in their conclusion they try to find optimism and a route away from this self-destructive trajectory. They say:

"It is in ourselves, who have caused the problem, that we can find the solution. Now we must work to ensure that the upcoming generation can seize the opportunity that we have so far failed to grasp, to close this destructive chapter in our history, and build a future where people can live and prosper in harmony with nature."

The report was produced in collaboration with: