Get Busy NASA, We Need a Second Planet

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It only seems appropriate to start with a word about the view out my office window in Hong Kong this morning, and that word is murk. As I was just discussing with a colleague visiting from New York, when you first encounter this kind of day in Hong Kong, you can convince yourself that you’re looking at fog that has rolled in over the harbor, but what you’re really looking at is some of the worst air pollution in the world, being belched out by buses, taxis, and the nearby factories in southern China every day, all day long.

Location is everything, and if you don’t live somewhere that looks like this on a regular basis, it can be hard to come to grips with some of the alarming findings that World Wildlife Fund (WWF) makes in their new 8th Living Planet Report, a report that measures the health of the biosphere against the humanity’s demands on it. It can be hard to come to grips with them even if when you’re staring at the murk every day.

The 2010 report finds that human demand on the biosphere – such as the amount of water we use, trees we cut down, and the space needed to absorb the amount of carbon we create – has doubled since 1961. More disturbingly, in 2007, our footprint managed to exceed the planet’s biocapacity by 50% in one year. In other words, we’re using resources like forest and water faster than they’re being generated, and according to WWF, if we carry on, we’ll need two Earths to meet our needs by 2030.

Given that’s not a likely option, what does such rampant overuse mean for the one planet we do have? Fish stocks are collapsing and the oceans, maxing out at their carbon absorption rates, are beginning to acidify. After tracking about 8000 populations of different species around the planet, WWF has found an average population decrease among them of about 30% between 1970 and 2007. Some populations’ numbers were up, like the Atlantic Sturgeon in the Albemarle Sound and the African Elephant in Uganda, while others were fading fast. Between 2000 and 2007, for instance, the white-rumped vulture population in Toawala, Pakistan, decreased by more than half. Things are particularly bleak in the tropics, where rapid industrial and agricultural development have encroached on habitats; as forest are cut down and river systems upset, species numbers have plummet. In temperate regions, losses were significantly less dramatic.

That difference has less to do with geography than economy. The report also looks at biodiversity loss by nations’ income, and the findings were stark: in high-income countries, that loss was about 5% between 1970 and 2007; for mid-income countries, 25%; and for low-income countries, 58%. Which means that the people who are worst affected by the degradation of natural resources are also the people who rely on them the most.

The report has a raft of suggestions about how to be more economical with the land on our little planet, including measures like increasing crop yield and restoring degraded forests. It recommends that global policy focus on these other areas too: bringing more focus on the environment, not just dollars, when looking at development goals, creating more protected areas, continuing to build up clean renewable energy resources, improving equitable access to energy and resources across the globe, and improving governance at international and nation levels over all of these measures. It’s a very tall order, but as my hazy view most days reminds me, it’s a very big problem – and not one we’re going to rectify on a second planet any time soon.