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Earth 'going downhill' as consumption rises, report says

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
A satellite image features the heart-shaped northern tip of the western half of the Large Aral Sea (or South Aral Sea) in Central Asia. Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking over the past 50 years since the rivers that fed it were diverted for irrigation. In 2005, a dam was built between the sea's northern and southern sections to help improve water resource management and reverse the man-made environmental disaster. The dam allowed the river to feed the northern Aral, which has begun to recover. It hasn't solved the entire problem though, as the southern section is expected to dry out completely by 2020. The whitish area surrounding the lakebed is a vast salt plain, now called the Aralkum Desert, left behind by the evaporating sea. It comprises some 40 000 sq km zone of dry, white salt and mineral terrain. Each year violent sandstorms pick up at least 150 000 tonnes of salt and sand from Aralkum and transport them across hundreds of kilometres, causing severe health problems for the local population and making regional winters colder and summers hotter.
A satellite image features the heart-shaped northern tip of the western half of the Large Aral Sea (or South Aral Sea) in Central Asia. Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, the Aral Sea has been steadily shrinking over the past 50 years since the rivers that fed it were diverted for irrigation. In 2005, a dam was built between the sea's northern and southern sections to help improve water resource management and reverse the man-made environmental disaster. The dam allowed the river to feed the northern Aral, which has begun to recover. It hasn't solved the entire problem though, as the southern section is expected to dry out completely by 2020. The whitish area surrounding the lakebed is a vast salt plain, now called the Aralkum Desert, left behind by the evaporating sea. It comprises some 40 000 sq km zone of dry, white salt and mineral terrain. Each year violent sandstorms pick up at least 150 000 tonnes of salt and sand from Aralkum and transport them across hundreds of kilometres, causing severe health problems for the local population and making regional winters colder and summers hotter.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Living Planet Report shows world is still consuming more than Earth can replenish
  • Top 10 polluting countries topped by Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Denmark
  • Reports shows widening gap between ecological footprints of rich and poor nations
  • Biodiversity continues to shrink, particularly in the tropics

Hong Kong (CNN) -- From high above the earth, an astronaut launched the latest report card on the health of the planet which once again paints an alarming image of over-consumption and exploitation.

In a recorded message, Andre Kuipers, an astronaut with the European Space Agency on his second mission to the International Space Station, said he had a unique view of the earth which he orbits 16 times a day.

"From space, you see the forest fires, you see the air pollution, you see erosion," he said, launching the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report for 2012.

The biennial survey shows the world is still consuming far more than the Earth can replenish, along with a widening and "potentially catastrophic" gap between the ecological footprints of rich and poor nations.

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Italian astronaut, Paolo Nespoli captured a series of remarkable images of Earth during a six-month stay on the International Space Station. Italian astronaut, Paolo Nespoli captured a series of remarkable images of Earth during a six-month stay on the International Space Station.
An astronaut's view of Earth
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An astronaut\'s view of Earth An astronaut's view of Earth

"The report is clear that we're still going downhill, that our ecological footprint, the pressure we put on the earth's resources, continues to rise so we're now using 50% more resources that the earth can replenish and biodiversity continues to decline," said Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International.

The report includes a list of the world's top 10 polluting countries topped by Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East. They're followed by Denmark, Belgium and the United States. Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland make up the remainder.

Countries are ranked on their consumption of renewable resources versus their biocapacity, or ability to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2 emissions. Dominating the list are high-income countries, whose average ecological footprint is now five times that of low-income nations.

And the gap is increasing. Between 1970 and 2008, the ecological footprint of high-income nations rose seven percent, the report said. Over that period, the same index for poor countries tumbled 60%.

The disparity indicates richer nations are buying resources from poorer countries which have natural resources available to exploit, the report said.

"What one of the things that we as a global community have been slow to realize is that even in an industrialized economy will still demand very directly on the health of natural systems to provide the water we drink and to keep the climate stable," Leape said.

"As you see forest loss continue, as you see the depletion of rivers, you are undercutting the foundation for economic development in those countries," he said.

Leape said there are signs some large business and governments are taking steps to reduce their burden on the environment. Denmark, for example, number four on the list of worst polluters, has pledged to double the nation's windpower and to wean itself off fossil fuels by 2050.

Top 10 polluting countries:
Qatar

Kuwait

United Arab Emirates

Denmark

Belgium

United States

Australia

Canada

Netherlands

Ireland

"What you see now is companies and governments who are on the vanguard beginning to make shifts but those shifts have to be driven down into entire markets and across all governments. We're not yet getting to the scale required to begin to bend the curves," Leape said.

The impact of rich nations worldwide is clear in figures showing that the steepest drop in biodiversity over the past 40 years has occurred in poorer countries. The decline, the report said, demonstrates "how the poorest and most vulnerable nations are subsidizing the lifestyles of wealthier nations."

"Growing external resource dependencies are putting countries at significant risk," said Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network, which collaborated with the WWF and the Zoological Society of London on the report.

"Using ever more nature, while having less is a dangerous strategy, yet most countries continue to pursue this path," he said.

The main feature of the Living Planet Report is the Living Planet Index which tracks the health of the world's ecosystems by monitoring 9,000 populations of more than 2,600 species.

It shows a near 30% drop in biodiversity since 1970, and an even faster decline in the tropics of 60%. However, the index for temperate regions rose 31%, as some species showed signs of recovery after huge biodiversity losses the previous century.

"The read down on the temperate zone masks much more precipitous declines in other parts of the world. You see a huge loss of biodiversity across the tropics and in the poorest countries and I think that's the most alarming fact in those indices," Leape said.

The report was released just five weeks before the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, otherwise known as Rio +20.

"We need to see real leadership from the governments of the world coming together to commit themselves to step up to this challenge," Leape said.

"They can take some decisions in Rio that really would make a difference in terms of setting a new course for the global economy."

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