WWF, the global conservation organisation, has warned that human consumption of natural resources is currently outpacing by 20% the earth's capacity to regenerate, ultimately putting humanity itself under threat from ecological disasters such as climate change.
Presenting the fifth 'Living Planet Report 2004' on 21 October, Dr Claude Martin, Director General of WWF International, said: "We are running up an ecological debt which we won't be able to pay off unless governments restore the balance between our consumption of natural resources and the earth's ability to renew them."
The report is based on the 'ecological footprint' index, which measures consumption of natural resources. On average, the report says that each person on earth consumes 2.2 hectares of land when there are only 1.8 available. Energy consumption is the fastest-growing component of the ecological footprint index, increasing by nearly 700% between 1961 and 2001, according to the report. Waste, food, fibre and space needs for infrastructure are other components of the index.
A separate index tracks populations of more than a thousand animal species. According to this 'living planet index', populations fell by 40% between 1970 and 2000 - an average of 1 species disappearing every 13 minutes, the WWF said.
But the ecological footprint theory is disputed by some specialists who argue that applying the earth's carrying capacity to human populations is flawed. Humans, the critics argue, "can and do increase the carrying capacity of their environment to meet their needs", for example in the case of renewable energies. Moreover, they say, carrying capacity has limited relevance when resources can be traded to make up for their scarcity. Additional uncertainties include calculation methods to evaluate land space needs or the lack of distinction between land uses that are sustainable and those that are not.
Anticipating the critics, Tony Long, Director of WWF's European Policy Office said the Living Planet index is "not the last word" but only a measurement tool comparable to the Dow Jones index for the economy.
He criticised the EU for being "good at talking" about sustainable development and "project[ing] itself as a leader" but deplored progress was only "at a minimum".
Mr Long called on the incoming Barroso Commission to put sustainable development at the heart of its strategy and urged him to use the €30 billion structural funds as sustainable development funds. "We got all the words, we now need the political will", concluded Mr Long.