Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 12:38 pm (KSA) 09:38 am (GMT)

Hunger, climate and resources

Michel Morkos

The United Nations held a special summit last week, to evaluate the commitment of UN members regarding the Millennium Goals aimed at reducing poverty in the world, and reducing the number of the poor by half by the year 2015.

But senior UN officials and officials in the countries concerned fear the inadequacy of these efforts in light of the needs that are compounded and rendered more urgent by natural and environmental disasters, in particular in poor countries such as Pakistan.

At the end of the same week, experts from 75 FAO member states agreed that the unexpected rise in the prices of foodstuffs “constitutes a major threat to food security”. This is while UN member states await their next meeting in December to reconcile the divergent views on tackling climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are at the origin of climate-related disasters.

The concerns of the United Nations and its subordinate bodies run parallel to the desired goals, both in terms of food security and in terms of curbing environmental disequilibrium resulting from harmful greenhouse gas emissions, as these affect the arability of the land and the productivity of farmed areas that are subject to disasters. Consequently, reducing carbon emissions are the key to restoring soil fertility worldwide and increasing [agricultural] productivity.

As such, the scientific community links the productivity of the planet to the Ecological Footprint index concept, which represents the amount of biologically required areas of land and water needed to secure the needs of an individual or human population in one year, of the essential items they need to survive.

Based on this index, the earth’s surface area is 51 billion hectares, of which 22 percent is fertile arable land (12 billion hectares), while the rest represents the Antarctic, deserts and oceanic regions. Dividing the most fertile and productive areas in the planet by the world population (6.5 billion people), the per capita share would range between 1.7 and 1.8 hectare. This represents the average surface area of the “virtual farm” that encompasses cultivated land, forest, pastures, and fisheries. However, it is wise [for the latter] not to be cleared as it is also desirable to maintain spaces that are suitable for wild life.

The task force put together by Mathis Wackernagel, the President of the U.S.-based think tank Global Footprint Network, drafted the Ecological Footprint method in order to measure the natural resources consumed by each individual, i.e. the area of his “farm” where his needs of food, timber, fabric for clothing, and infrastructure for housing are produced, and also to quantify what is needed to dispose of his waste, most importantly carbon emissions, which he produces in heating, transportation and manufacturing.

Measurements were calculated for the largest 150 countries, taking into account what is produced and what is exported in each country. The resulting damages to the environment were not factored in, however.

Despite the fact that these calculations did not convince many experts, who also do not consider the human development index to be compatible with the Ecological Footprint concept, their significance is proven and irrefutable. In truth, the ecological footprint worldwide rises to 2.2 hectares per capita. This means that the world consumes 25 percent in excess of what the Earth’s resources provide in one year. In other words, humans are overdrawing the Earth’s resources and are thus bleeding the planet excessively. To put it in other terms, the planet needs one year and three months to generate what humans consume in one year.

Mankind is severely depleting the resources present on the planet, especially since 1980, as a result of carbon emissions. In fact, the ecological footprint of the latter has been multiplied by nine, which means that 9 times the Earth’s surface is needed to absorb the carbon gas emissions in 2010.

In parallel, other biological violations are exemplified by production methods that threaten biodiversity. For the sake of comparison, a factory ship manages to extract and process 100 tons of fish in only one hour today, something that took a sixteenth century vessel an entire season of the year to do. This means that humanity has depleted in the past century, 20 times the quantity of fish extracted 4 centuries ago.

Several research studies point out how to avoid environmental pollution in order to preserve soil fertility, and guard against landslides and erosion, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to evaluate the overall impact of any producer on the environment, the results of globalization may also be considered, particularly at the level of agricultural and industrial production. This is because multinational companies now produce the components of their products in different countries. While these companies seek to reduce their production costs to achieve greater competitiveness, they are causing – when transporting these parts to the assembly plants – greater carbon emissions resulting from the movement of the transportation vehicles, mostly in the sea or air.

According to some calculations, made for entertainment purposes only, transporting one apple from New Zealand to a British town that stopped producing the same kind of apples, takes 27 thousand kilometers and consumes 35 times the energy needed to produce the fertilizers used in producing the apple, or enough to light a 100-watt light bulb for more than two days. Similarly, producing one kilogram of sweet corn, from production to packaging and then shipping, consumes 6500 calories while providing 500 calories upon consumption.

For this reason, scientists are developing an optional mechanism designed to promote preference of certain products over others, based on their footprint, from extraction until they are on the shelves, a process known as a "life-cycle analysis". It is aimed at improving the choice that helps reduce damages to the planet, and one that is produced in a better manner.

But what will the Ecological Footprint mean in 2050?

*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Sept. 27, 2010.

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