Europe is in the grip of an escalating debt crisis that goes far beyond billion-euro bail-outs and nervous bond traders. This is an ecological debt crisis: a story of accelerating extinction, degraded forests, polluted rivers and seas, choked skies and rising temperatures.
On 21 August 2010, the world was officially ecologically in the red. This was the point in the year when humanity had used up its annual budget of natural resources – carbon-dioxide absorption, land, timber, food and fibre and seafood – and tipped into ecological deficit. Every year “Earth Overshoot Day” has been creeping forward as demand for resources continues to grow and supply constraints tighten.
As with their financial equivalents, it is tempting to ignore ecological deficits. But sooner or later, the consequences have to be faced: natural resources become depleted, pollution becomes overwhelming. A group of scientists writing in Nature in 2009, concluded that humanity has already crossed three critical boundaries: biodiversity loss, climate change and the nitrogen cycle.
This ecological deficit has been run up in record time. Around 50 years ago, the vast majority of countries were in ecological surplus, ie, they were within the limits of the world’s natural resources. But between 1961 and 2007 human demand on the natural world doubled, according to the Global Footprint Network, a non-governmental organisation that promotes awareness of Earth Overshoot Day. In effect, the world is living as if we had one and a half planets, according to the “Living planet” report, a regular survey of the world’s “biocapacity” by WWF, a conservation group. If current trends on population growth, consumption and climate change continue, the world will be consuming the equivalent of two planets by 2030, the report states.
Concern is not just the preserve of environmentalists and scientists. A report by the World Economic Forum, which organises the annual gathering of economic and business leaders at Davos, has also sounded the alarm about unsustainable pressure on natural resources, highlighting the incentives that encourage “short-term responses in production and consumption that undermine long-term sustainability”.
Next week the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a rich-country think-tank, will publish a “green growth strategy” for world leaders at an event which forms part of the OECD’s 50th anniversary celebrations. “The environment and the economy can no longer be considered in isolation,” said the OECD’s interim report last year, which called for green growth to transform production processes and consumer behaviour.
A green economy
The European Union has also been busy drawing up strategies. In January the European Commission published a plan for a “resource-efficient Europe”, one of the so-called flagship initiatives of the EU’s economic strategy for the next decade. Next week (24-27 May) hundreds of officials, business representatives, green groups and academics will gather in Brussels to discuss these ideas at the Commission’s annual green week conference.
There is no shortage of informative reports. The problem is the yawning gulf between understanding the problem and taking action. This is “the great conundrum of our times”, says Tony Long, director of WWF’s European policy office. “The prospects for a successful realisation or implementation of a new set of policies to correct these past wrong choices or past wrong signals is pretty dim,” he concludes.
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This disconnect can be explained by “vested interests”, “inadequate policy levers” and possibly “a population that is not ready for change”, he says. As such, the answers he proposes are equally wide-ranging. Policymakers should come up with new ways of measuring resources to count environmental costs, as well as making it “fashionable to consume less”. But Long also lays down a challenge for conservationists, scientists and environment officials. They need to look for new allies, by contacting “a group of politicians we haven’t appealed to or engaged with – finance ministers. This is a very powerful political class that haven’t been touched.”
In Europe at least, this means persuading the economic elite to divert their gaze from the eurozone crisis and to pay attention to a debt crisis that could have far more profound and long-lasting consequences.