Albion Monitor /News

Enviro Problems Need Urgent Attention, Says Worldwatch

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- With the global economy speeding along at a steady clip the environment is under unprecedented stress, underlining the need for a "new economy" that respects the limits of the Earth's ecosystem, says the Worldwatch Institute.

The Institute's latest "State of the World" report says there is an urgent need for measures designed to curb population growth in poor countries, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and channel the record amounts of foreign investment flowing into developing countries toward sustainable uses.

Worldwatch calls on governments to tax environmentally destructive activities more heavily and to help develop new, environment-friendly technology for export to developing countries to help them "leap-frog" over older, more destructive technologies.

Despite bumper harvests in 1996 and 1997, world grain stocks actually dropped
The report, to be translated into 30 languages, also urges major news organizations to do more to ensure that accurate information about environmental destruction and risks is provided to the public, particularly in the light of "disinformation campaigns" by industry on such issues as global warming.

"The world's media giants have a special responsibility to disseminate information needed to fuel change on the scale required, and in the time available," says the report, the 15th in Worldwatch's annual series.

The 250-page study is generally gloomy in tone, although it stresses that existing technology could do much in moving the global economy in a more sustainable direction.

"If the world economy as it is now structured continues to expand, eventually it will destroy its natural support systems and decline," says Lester Brown, the Institute's president. "But already we can see how to make the transition to an ecologically sustainable economy if we adopt the right policies."

The report also stresses that more global companies -- even including some oil firms that are major fossil fuel producers -- are seeing that better technologies can be profitable. In one chapter, the report notes that the global wind power business has grown from virtually nothing a decade ago to two billion dollars a year and is growing at a rate of 25 percent per year.

At the same time, however, key environmental indicators are "increasingly negative" and make clear that "the western, fossil fuel-based, automobile-centered economy is not a viable model for the world."

This is especially clear in the case of China, says Brown, whose predictions about galloping grain demand in that country, and its potential effect on global food prices, have gained much media attention over the last two years.

According to Brown, if per capita Chinese beef consumption were to reach U.S. rates the amount of grain required to produce the cattle necessary to meet that goal would be equivalent to the entire U.S. grain harvest. The United States is the world's second biggest producer of grain.

Despite bumper harvests in 1996 and 1997, world grain stocks actually dropped, to only about 56 days of consumption due to rising demand. That demand has also translated into higher prices which, according to Brown "may be the first indicator that the world is on a path that is environmentally unsustainable."

Similarly, if car ownership and oil use per Chinese were to reach U.S. levels, China alone would consume more barrels of oil each day than is presently produced worldwide, according to Brown who notes that Beijing decided three years ago to make its automobile industry one of its most important growth areas.

Water tables have fallen on every continent -- especially quickly in China and India
Worldwatch is particularly concerned about the pressures building up on increasingly scarce fresh-water supplies which it calls "one of the most underrated issues facing the world as it enters the third millennium."

Water tables have fallen on every continent -- especially quickly in China and India which rank first and third in grain production. Some 70 percent of underground water is used for irrigation which is critical to achieving high grain yields. As the amount of water dedicated to agriculture is reduced due to competition from cities and industry, grain production may well fall.

All of this will take place against a backdrop of continuing high population growth. Latest projections indicate that the global population should rise from almost six billion today to 9.4 billion in 2050. Almost all of the difference will be added to developing countries whose cropland, water, and forest resources are, in many cases, facing excessive pressures.

"Stabilizing population as soon as possible -- and well before it reaches 9.4 billion -- is the first step to building a sustainable economy," according to the report.

While most industrialized countries have reached population stability, they still have much to do to replace their fossil fuel-based economy with a "solar/hydrogen energy economy" -- a transition which the report calls "extraordinarily difficult."

Still, there is some reason for optimism on this front, according to the report, which cites advances made by the United States in recycling such products as steel and paper. "The transition to a reuse-recycle economy is already under way," Worldwatch says.

Moreover, renewable energy production -- including wind and solar -- power is "expanding at a breakneck pace." Germany and India have successfully used technologies first developed in Denmark and the United States to become "wind superpowers," and recent inventories in the U.S. plains and China indicate that wind could generate at least as much electricity as the countries produce today.

The report notes new investments by British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell in renewable energy, and Toyota's latest efforts to produce a hybrid engine that could double fuel efficiency and cut carbon emissions by half.

It also applauds what it calls the increasing seriousness with which multinational companies are taking critiques by local and international environmental groups of their investments in developing countries.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor January 19, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page