On May 15, the new WWF report on the state of the living world (Living Planet 2012) confirms trends that have been evident for many years: an alarming decline in animal biodiversity and an increasingly unsustainable growth of human pressure on natural resources and ecosystems.
Between 1970 and 2008 (latest data available), the Living Planet Index, which is based on the evolution of more than 9000 animal populations belonging to 2688 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, reveals a global decline of 28% in animal biodiversity.
Moreover, since 1970, the annual consumption of natural resources by humans has exceeded the planet’s capacity to renew them. The ecological footprint, a parameter evaluating the pressure on the biosphere, is compared to the regenerative capacity of the earth, its biocapacity, which corresponds to the surface area of land available to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2 emissions. The evolution shows an increasing trend towards overconsumption; whereas in 1970, the ecological footprint started to exceed the biocapacity, it reached 18.2 billion global hectares in 2008 for a biocapacity estimated at 12 billion global hectares, i.e. an excess of 50%. It takes the planet one and a half years to regenerate the resources consumed in one year! This global observation should not hide the enormous disparities between countries and regions of the world; the authors of the study point out the particular responsibility of the so-called rich or developed countries. The average North American has an ecological footprint of 7.1 hag and the citizen of the European Union of 4.7 hag while the African barely reaches 1.45 hag.
A more detailed examination shows that the leadership in the destruction of the planet is ensured by the countries whose GDP per capita is among the highest, Belgium occupying an unenviable 6th place, just behind the United States and Denmark, the podium being logically occupied by the most artificial countries of the world that are Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
In fact, the WWF report provides little new information compared to previous versions. It only confirms the degradation that has been going on for half a century. The examination of the evolution curves, however, brings useful lessons that one may be surprised not to see drawn by the authors of the study.
If we analyze the data of the last twenty years, i.e. those that have elapsed since the 1992 Earth Summit, we are forced to note the absence of inflection of the evolution curves that should have been observed after the adoption of three major international conventions on climate, biodiversity and desertification. None of these agreements have had a measurable effect. On the contrary, in fact, at the turn of the year 2000, the ecological footprint increased faster than before, as did all its components, especially the carbon footprint.
It is true that these agreements take time to materialize, but the implementation protocols have not been followed by visible effects either. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997; a reading of the carbon footprint curve shows that it has not brought any improvement. Of course, it is justified to accuse the biggest polluter on the planet, in this case the United States. The unwillingness of this country is evident when it comes to making multilateral commitments. It has been expressed at all international summits devoted to environmental issues. This was again the case in Copenhagen in 2009. However, the stigmatization of such an attitude should not hide the essential fact, i.e., the irrelevance of the mechanisms implemented to achieve the objectives they claim to pursue.
The Kyoto Protocol is quite exemplary in this respect. First of all, let’s recall the facts: carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were almost 40% higher than in 1990, the reference year used by the Kyoto Protocol. The Annex 1 countries, signatories of this Protocol, have committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 5% by 2012. This minimalist goal will not be achieved. We can deplore this, but we must remember that this commitment is the result of very tough negotiations in which each country aimed above all to limit the constraints on its economic activities. Moreover, it only concerns emissions generated on national territory, which strongly limits its scope. This is all the more true since the acceleration of economic globalization has resulted, since the debate of the 1990s, in a general tendency to relocate industrial production to countries that are not subject to the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol, such as India, China or the countries of Eastern Europe, where the wage cost of production is derisory. Thus, the calculation does not take into account the emissions caused outside the national territory to manufacture and transport the finished or semi-finished products imported to satisfy the national demand. Countries that are considered virtuous because they appear to be on track to meet their Kyoto Protocol commitments have in fact offshored a significant portion of their CO2 emissions.
If we add that the mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, such as emissions trading and clean development, allow multinationals not only to escape their obligations but also to make substantial profits by offshoring pollution, we can understand that the regulatory structure that has been put in place is aimed above all at pleasing the dominant economic players while claiming to achieve ambitious objectives through greater efficiency and technological innovation.
The steady increase of the global ecological footprint is the consequence of an economic logic that largely ignores its ecological impact, neglects what has no market value and demands a permanent growth of its activities. Economic and financial globalization, by entrusting de facto the running of the world to the major economic and financial actors and by depriving political decision-makers of their main prerogatives, can only accelerate an intrinsically deadly process.
This has been underway for more than 20 years, the decisive step having been taken with the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994, two years after the Rio Conference. In such a context, the failure of this conference was programmed.
Sustainable development, a new name for the artificialization of the world, intended to rehabilitate economic development thanks to green technologies and better efficiency in the use of resources, can only be a dangerous illusion when it also concerns countries whose ecological footprint is already far greater than their biocapacity.
Political leaders and associations that claim to be concerned about the future of the planet and humanity must abandon the idea that market mechanisms are adapted to reduce overconsumption in developed countries; they must also realize that de-globalization is a necessary step if we want to rapidly and significantly reduce the pressure on ecosystems and natural resources.