/ 30 September 2014

Humans wipe out wildlife at speed

Elephant populations in Central Africa are going into decline
Elephant populations in Central Africa are going into decline

In the past four decades the human race has managed to wipe out more than half of all wildlife, pushing its consumption levels so high that 1.5 planets are now needed for it to be sustainable.

These are the main findings of the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature’s biannual Living Planet Index, released on Tuesday. The comprehensive survey covered 3 000 species in 10 000 different animal populations.

In 1961, when the report’s timeline started, the world’s human population was 2.5-billion. By 2050 it will be nearly 10-billion. Dr Morné du Plessis, the nongovernmental organisation’s head, said there has been a steady decline in the health of planetary systems.

“Things are pretty bleak,” he said, offering the analogy of a speeding car: “We are heading for a very sharp bend, faster than we know will get us around the corner.”

All the warning signs are there, as is the science to be more efficient, he said. But little is being done to change consumption and extraction patterns to ensure humanity could lessen, and survive, the impacts of climate change.

“Humans have a propensity to assimilate a lot of knowledge but we do not respond in the scale that we should because we think we can get away with it,” Du Plessis said at the launch of the report.

As a result, humans are continuing to live beyond the ability of the planet to support them. If everyone lived like people in Qatar, 4.8 planets would be needed to make the lifestyle sustainable.

South Africa’s unsustainable footprint
South Africa’s per capita ecological footprint is just below the world average – which is disproportionately raised by excessive living in the rich world – but it is higher than what should be the world average for a sustainable future. The local lifestyle would require 1.4 planets to be sustainable, the report said.

Most of the problem in South Africa comes from the burning of fossil fuels for power generation. This uses up two-thirds of the footprint that South Africa should have if it were to be sustainable.

“Our economy is so carbon-intensive that before we even start feeding, clothing and energising people, we’ve basically blown our fair share of what we can produce sustainably,” said Du Plessis.

The worst offenders are high-income countries, mainly in Europe, North America and the Middle East. The report said these have maintained per capita footprints higher than the available biocapacity in those countries. The system is dependent on people in poor countries not having high footprints.

The pressures on land and resources mean that wildlife is being destroyed rapidly. The worst-affected population groups are freshwater animal populations, of which 76% have been lost. This is because people live along rivers, over-fish and pollute these habitats. Eighty percent of turtles have been lost, according to the report.

Terrestrial animal populations have been reduced by 40%, and those of marine species by 39%. Elephant populations in Central Africa are going into decline, with deaths from poaching exceeding births. A similar trend is happening with rhino. And only 880 mountain gorillas remain in the wild.

External costs of corporate sphere
Saliem Fakir, head of the Living Planet unit at the WWF, said half of South Africans already do not have enough food. This is in contrast with the small number of extremely wealthy who are pushing the country’s per capita footprint up.

Almost 100% of all water supply has already been allocated, he said. Serious attention has to be given to the function that ecosystems serve – through filtering water or animals looking after their food chain. “The biosphere underpins our food, water and energy systems,” he said.

But on a global level, carbon concentrations in the atmosphere have already reached 400 parts per million. To keep temperature increases below two degrees, these have to be dropped back to 350 parts per million.

Du Plessis said this means pressure has to be placed on companies to work properly. “They need to take on full responsibility. We need to make sure there are no external costs, where you shift the burden of producing your commodity on to others.”

This would force corporations to look after their surroundings, Du Plessis added. If this does not happen, large chunks of global wealth will be lost as a result of climate change and the collapse of ecosystems. Countries therefore have to reach a binding agreement on tackling climate change at next year’s UN Congress of the Parties, he said. 

The Living Planet Index concluded by saying humans are not being good stewards of the planet. The way people are meeting their needs today is compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, it said.

“Humanity’s wellbeing and prosperity – indeed, our very existence – depends on healthy ecosystems and the services they supply.”