Vital Signs 2006-2007

by the Worldwatch Institute

WASHINGTON, D.C.-According to Vital Signs 2006-2007, 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.

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. Both 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."

About the Worldwatch Institute: The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization based in Washington, DC. Through accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues, Worldwatch helps to inform people around the world about the complex interactions among people, nature, and economies. For more information, visit

Vital Facts

Food and Agriculture

  • For the second year in a row, the world produced over 2 billion tons of grain (more than at any other time in history).

  • Since 1997, wild fish harvests have fallen 13 percent. Yet total fish production continues to grow-to 132.5 million tons in 2003-bolstered by a surging aquaculture industry.

  • World exports of pesticides reached a record $15.9 billion in 2004. Pesticide use has risen dramatically worldwide, from 0.49 kilograms per hectare in 1961 to 2 kilograms per hectare in 2004.

Energy and Climate

  • Oil use grew 1.3 percent in 2005, to 3.8 billion tons (83.3 million barrels a day).

  • In 2005, the average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reached 379.6 parts per million by volume, an increase of 0.6 percent over the record high in 2004.

  • The average global temperature in 2005 was 14.6 degrees Celsius, making it the warmest year ever recorded on Earth's surface. The five warmest years since recordkeeping began in 1880 have all occurred since 1998.

  • Economic damages from weather-related disasters hit an unprecedented $204 billion in 2005, nearly doubling the previous record of $112 set in 1998.

  • Global wind power capacity jumped 24 percent in 2005, to nearly 60,000 megawatts. The growth in wind power capacity was nearly four times the growth in nuclear power capacity.

  • In 2005, worldwide production of photovoltaic cells jumped 45 percent to nearly 1,730 megawatts, six times the level in 2000. (p. 38)
    * Production of fuel ethanol, the world's leading biofuel, increased 19 percent to 36.5 billion liters in 2005.

Economic Trends

  • In purchasing-power-parity terms, the global economy reached another new peak, with the gross world product hitting $59.6 trillion in 2005. (p. 52)

  • Global advertising spending increased 2.4 percent to a record $570 billion in 2005. Nearly half of this spending was in the United States, with $56.6 billion alone going to the production and distribution of 41.5 billion pieces of mail advertisements.

  • In 2005, steel production reached a new record of 1,129 million tons while aluminum production reached a record 31.2 million tons. (p. 56, 58)
    * Roundwood production hit a new record of 3,402 million cubic meters in 2004.

  • In 2004, nearly 1,800 transnational corporations or their affiliates filed corporate responsibility reports, up from virtually none in the early 1990s. While this reflects growing transparency and commitment to social and environmental principles, 97.5 percent of the nearly 70,000 TNCs worldwide still do not file such reports.

Transportation and Communications Trends

The world reached a new record in vehicle production, with 64.1 million cars and light trucks being manufactured in 2005.

  • Air travel hit new records as well: in 2004, 1.9 billion passengers traveled 3.4 trillion kilometers. Yet only 5 percent of the world's population has ever flown.
  • Total membership in car-sharing organizations (CSOs) hit 330,000 in 2005, 2.5 times the number in 2001. Total vehicles used by CSOs reached 10,570. According to studies, sharing a car reduces the need for 4-10 privately owned cars in Europe and 6-23 cars in North America.

Conflict and Peace

  • The number of wars and armed conflicts worldwide declined to 39 in 2005, the lowest figure since the peak in the early 1990s. Yet at the same time, global military expenditures hit $1.02 trillion, the highest spending since the early 1990s.

Health and Society

  • World population added 74 million more people in 2005, reaching a record 6.45 billion.

  • Five million more people were infected by HIV in 2005, while 3 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses.

  • Infant mortality rates fell 7 percent over the last five years, from 61.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1995-2000 to 57 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2000-2005.

  • Over half of the world's 7,000 languages are endangered, and more than 500 are nearly extinct.

  • One billion individuals, or one in every three urbanites, live in "slums," areas where people cannot secure one or more of life's basic necessities: clean water, sanitation, sufficient living space, durable housing, or secure tenure.

  • As of 2002, 1.1 billion people lack access to an improved water supply, and some 2.6 billion are thought to lack access to improved sanitation facilities.

  • Obesity now afflicts more than 300 million people, increasing their chances of contracting cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and other ailments.

Environment Trends

  • Humanity overdrew the natural capital it depends on by 23 percent in 2002.

  • Between 2000 and 2005, global forested area shrunk by more than 36 million hectares (just under 1 percent of the total forested area).

  • As of late 2005, an estimated 20 percent of the world's coral reefs had been "effectively destroyed," while 50 percent are threatened in the short or long term.

  • Twenty percent of the world's mangrove forests have been destroyed over the past 25 years.

  • Twelve percent of all bird species were categorized as "threatened" in 2005.

  • Three percent of all plant species are currently threatened with extinction.