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Assessing the State of World Biodiversity

The World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Living Planet Report is a periodic update on the state of the world's biodiversity as measured by the Living Planet Index (LPI) and the human pressures on them through the consumption of renewable natural resources'as measured by the Ecological Footprint (EF).

The LPI is an attempt to provide a benchmark of biodiversity'is derived from 30-year trends in the populations of hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish. The report shows that the index declined by about 35 percent between 1970 and 2000. This stark trend is a quantitative confirmation that the world is currently undergoing a very rapid loss of biodiversity.

The index is derived from an average of three ecosystem-based indices. The forest species population index declined by about 15 percent, the marine species population index fell by about 35 percent, while the freshwater species population index dropped 55 percent over the 30-year period.

WWF says the current rate of species loss is comparable with great mass extinctions that have occurred only five or six times in history.

The EF is a measure of the consumption of renewable natural resources by the people of a country, a region or the whole world. A population's EF is the total area of productive land and sea required to produce all the crops, meat, seafood, wood and fibre it consumes, to maintain its energy consumption and to provide space for its infrastructure. WWF then compares the EF with the biologically productive capacity of the land and sea available to that population.

The report points out that the planet has about 1.9 hectares per person of productive land and sea space. While the EF of the average African or Asian consumer is around 1.4 hectares per person, the average Western European's footprint is about 5.0 hectares, and the average North American's is about 9.6 hectares.

WWF says that the EF of the world's average consumer is about 2.3 hectares per person, or 20 percent above the earth's biological capacity of 1.90 hectares per person. In other words, humanity now exceeds the planet's capacity to sustain its consumption of renewable resources. We maintain this global overdraft on a temporary basis by eating into the earth's capital stocks of biodiversity and fertile soils. We also dump our excess carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

The only sustainable solution is to live within the biological productive capacity of the earth. However, the global ecological footprint has grown from about 70 percent of the planet's biological capacity in 1961 to about 120 percent of its biological capacity today. And future projections based on likely scenarios of population growth, economic development and technological change, show that humanity's footprint is likely to grow to about 180 percent to 220 percent of the Earth's biological capacity by the year 2050.

The WWF points out it is very unlikely that the Earth would be able to run an ecological overdraft for another 50 years without some severe ecological consequences that would threaten humanity's security. It would be far better to control our own behaviour than to leave it to nature to check our pattern of consumption for us.

To achieve a sustainable development pathway humanity will have to change in four fundamental ways, according to the report: