Vital Signs 2006 - 2007:
Economic Gains Mask Underlying Crisis

by Worldwatch Institute

Nearly 80 Percent of the World's Energy Comes From Oil, Coal, or Natural Gas.

WASHINGTON, D.C.- According to Vital Signs 2006-2007, [0] released today by the Worldwatch Institute, economic indicators are on the rise: in 2005, more steel and aluminum were produced than ever before, vehicle production reached a record 45.6 million units, and gross world product reached a record $59.6 trillion. The number of Internet users worldwide topped 1 billion in 2005, and cell phone sales reached an estimated 816 million units.

However, while these trends point to unprecedented levels of commerce and consumption, they are set against a backdrop of ecological decline in a world powered overwhelmingly by fossil fuels. In 2005, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration increased 0.6 percent over the high in 2004, representing the largest annual increase ever recorded. The average global temperature reached 14.6 degrees Celsius, making 2005 the warmest year ever recorded on the Earth's surface.

As of late last year, an estimated 20 percent of the world's coral reefs had been destroyed, as were 20 percent of mangrove forests over the last 25 years alone. Both can provide a natural buffer for coastlines against weather-related disasters, the cost of which hit a record $204 billion in 2005, with $125 billion of this caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The findings in Vital Signs 2006-2007 build on those of the United Nations-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released in 2005, which notes that degradation of Earth's natural systems has been brought about by human activity. For example, deforestation accounts for 25 percent of annual human-caused carbon emissions, and nearly 1 percent of the global forested area was lost between 2000 and 2005 (with the greatest losses posted in Africa and Latin America, at 3.2 percent and 2.5 percent respectively). The decline of ecosystems is undermining the vital services they provide, including the provision of fresh water and food and the regulation of climate and air quality. Ecosystem decline is also increasing the risk of disruptive and potentially irreversible changes such as regional climate shifts, the emergence of new diseases, and the formation of low-oxygen "dead zones" in coastal waters.

"Business as usual is harming the Earth's ecosystems and the people who depend on them," said Erik Assadourian, Vital Signs 2006-2007 project director. "If everyone consumed at the average level of high-income countries, the planet could sustainably support only 1.8 billion people, not today's population of 6.5 billion. Yet the world's population is expected not to shrink but to grow to 8.9 billion by 2050."

Nearly 80 percent of the world's energy comes from oil, coal, or natural gas, fossil fuels that contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that precipitate climate change. Fossil fuel burning continued to rise despite soaring energy prices over the past two years: in 2004, coal use jumped 6.3 percent and natural gas consumption rose 3.3 percent; in 2005, oil use increased 1.3 percent.

These growth rates were dwarfed by those in renewable energy: global wind power capacity jumped 24 percent in 2005, solar photovoltaic production increased 45 percent, and biofuels production jumped 20 percent. "These developments are impressive and are likely to provoke far-reaching changes in world energy markets within the next five years," said Worldwatch Institute president Christopher Flavin. "But the transition will have to move even faster to prevent the kind of ecological and economic crises that may be precipitated by continuing dependence on fossil fuels."

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