World is economically richer and environmentally poorer

A broad overview of the global environment provides some surprises.

by the WorldWatch Institute

he world today is economically richer and environmentally poorer than ever before, reports a new study of global trends from the Worldwatch Institute. In 1997, the global economy expanded at a near record 4 percent, pushing incomes to a new high with the biggest gains coming in developing countries.

"It was also a year of disturbing new signs of environmental stress," said Worldwatch president Lester Brown, lead author of Vital Signs 1998. "Indonesia's rainforests burned out of control for several months, irreversibly damaging one of the earth's richest ecosystems. China's Yellow River failed to reach the sea for 226 days, depriving farmers in its lower reaches of irrigation water. And the Earth's temperature reached yet another record high, providing further evidence that the world is warming."

And there were many surprises in 1997, Brown noted. New electrical generation capacity from wind exceeded that from nuclear power. India produced more wheat than the United States. Two oil companies announced major investments in wind and solar energy. Vital Signs 1998: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, funded by the United Nations Population Fund, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and the Surdna Foundation, reports on more than 50 environmentally related indicators, many of which are not covered regularly by the media.


No population shortage


At the end of 1997, we shared the Earth with 80 million more people than a year earlier, adding nearly another Sweden each month. Of this total, nearly 50 million were added in Asia, the region that is home to more than half of humanity. And cities are growing faster than ever. In 1800, London was the only city with a million people. Today there are 326 cities with at least a million people, 14 of which have populations greater than 10 million.

"The combination of population growth and rising incomes are increasing stresses on the natural world," said Brown, "starting with the Earth's climate." Carbon emissions, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, and the Earth's average temperature climbed to record highs in 1997. Carbon emissions in 1997 totaled 6.3 billion tons, up from the 6.2 billion tons of 1996. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 climbed to 364 parts per million the highest in 160,000 years.


Heating up


With the record temperature set in 1997, the 14 warmest years since record-keeping began in 1866 have all occurred since 1979. Evidence of the warming can be seen in melting icecaps in the Andes, shrinking glaciers in the Alps and the breakup of the sea ice around Antarctica.

"There are clear signs that global corporations and governments are beginning to respond to these climate and energy problems," said Senior Vice President Christopher Flavin. With the commitment of $1 billion and $500 million, respectively, by British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell to the development of wind, solar, and other renewable energy resources, these leading oil companies are, in effect, becoming energy companies.

"From a commercial point of view, it is not too surprising that oil companies are turning to renewable energy resources," said Flavin. "During the 1990s, sales of coal and oil have grown just over 1 percent a year, while wind power has grown 26 percent a year. And sales of solar cells, averaging 15 percent annually from 1990 through 1996, jumped by a phenomenal 43 percent in 1997."

In the energy-intensive transportation sector, worldwide annual production of passenger cars set a new record. Auto manufacturers also unveiled several fuel-efficient, low-pollution models, including Toyota's Prius. In many parts of the world, bicycles are gaining in popularity. As a result, more than 100 million bicycles now come off the assembly lines each year, compared with fewer than 40 million automobiles.

Several countries in Europe are systematically increasing bicycle use. In Danish and Dutch cities, an estimated 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, of all trips are taken by bicycle. Bikes are also strongly encouraged in Germany, where use has increased by 50 percent over the last two decades.


Thought for food


On the food front, the world's farmers harvested a record 1,881 million tons of grain in 1997, narrowly eclipsing 1996's record harvest of 1,869 million tons. However, even this record harvest did not keep up with population growth, leading to a drop in per capita grain output from 324 kilograms to 322 kilograms.

Along with land scarcity, water scarcity is now emerging as a serious constraint on efforts to expand world food production. Growth in irrigated area is falling behind population growth, leading to a steady shrinkage in irrigated area per person. In China, the Yellow River, the northernmost of China's two major rivers, was drained dry by withdrawals from upstream provinces, failing to make it to the sea for 226 days out of 365.

Population growth is not the only source of increasing demand for food. Perhaps the dominant distinguishing feature of dietary changes over the last half-century has been the growing appetite for animal protein as incomes climbed. This hunger for protein has spurred an increase in the world fish catch of nearly fivefold, boosting it from 19 million tons in 1950 to 93 million tons today. The production of meat (beef, pork and poultry) has climbed from 44 million tons in 1950 to 211 million tons in 1997, raising consumption per person from 17 to 36 kilograms.

The enormous growth in human numbers and economic activity has had its most visible effect on the earth's forests. Between 1980 and 1995, the world lost at least 200 million hectares of forest an area larger than the cropland area of the United States. Among the more disturbing developments in 1997 was the uncontrolled burning of Indonesia's rainforests, filling the region's air with smoke so intense that it left millions physically sick. The fires also led to the cancellation of 1,100 airline flights and a precipitous drop in tourism earnings.

One of the consequences of the destruction of forests and other habitats is the accelerating loss of species. A recent study estimates that 11 percent of all bird species are threatened with extinction. For fish, the figure reaches 34 percent. In the Colorado River basin, 29 of 50 native fish species are either endangered or already extinct. Among the 233 species of primates, half are now threatened with extinction. The surviving populations of some primate species are measured in the hundreds.


The world online


One of the more dramatic areas of growth in 1997 was in telecommunications. The Internet has more than doubled in size in each year in the 1990s. Of the 100 million or so people online, more than half are in the United States, with most of the rest in Canada, Europe and Japan. The rest of the world lags behind, with only 8 percent of Internet users, but other countries are catching up. The number of people online in China and India, for example, is projected to multiply 15-fold by the year 2000. The Internet can bring many benefits to developing countries, such as telemedicine and health care education, improving rural access to global markets and linking local activists with supporters overseas.

Telephone access is also expanding rapidly. New telephone hookups are increasing 7 percent a year, reaching 740 million in 1996. The number of telephones per 100 people varies widely among countries. The United States, for example, has 60 phones per 100 people, while China has 4. But this gap is now narrowing as the number of telephones in developing countries is increasing by 19 percent a year.

Educational levels are rising worldwide, especially for females. Between 1990 and 1995, female enrollment in some 47 developing countries increased from 226 million to 254 million. As a result, nearly 70 percent of girls of primary-school age worldwide were in school in 1995. In industrial countries, the biggest gains for women have come in professional graduate schools. Law and business school enrollments are approaching gender parity. In medical schools in the United States and Canada, more than 40 percent of students are female. In veterinary schools, women now dominate with nearly 70 percent of total enrollment. In engineering and architecture schools, however, men still greatly outnumber women.

While female education is rising, military expenditures are falling. After peaking in 1984 at $1,140 billion (1995 dollars), global military expenditures dropped to $701 billion in 1996, a decline of 39 percent. U.S. outlays, down to $243 billion in 1997 from some $370 billion in the late 1980s, still account for a third of the world total.


Health signs


Vital Signs 1998 also tracks human health trends, including the global HIV/AIDS pandemic and cigarette smoking. In 1997, nearly 6 million people were newly infected with the virus that causes AIDS, bringing the total infected to date to 42 million.

While the number of cigarettes smoked per person has fallen 4 percent from the all-time high reached in 1990, the world still smoked some 5.8 trillion cigarettes in 1997, roughly 1,000 for each of its 5.8 billion people. Raising taxes on cigarettes in many countries has helped reduce smoking and the soaring health care costs associated with this deadly habit. In some countries, including Norway, the United Kingdom and Denmark, the tax per pack of cigarettes exceeds $4, compared with an average of 66¢ per pack in the United States.

Another trend gaining momentum is a shift from taxing income to taxing environmentally destructive activities. Six European countries have begun this tax shifting process. Sweden, Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Finland have all begun reducing taxes on personal income and wages while raising taxes on such things as carbon emissions, vehicle ownership, and garbage.

Although the world is still in the early stages of restructuring taxes to achieve environmental goals, this approach does promise to accelerate the shift to an environmentally sustainable economy. One attractive advantage of tax policy over regulation is that it enables policymakers to steer the economy in the right direction while exploiting the inherent efficiency of the market.

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