No matter how you phrase it, the impact mankind is having on the planet is huge. But according to a new study, our ecological footprint isn’t growing as fast as our population is. The bad news is that the footprint is increasing fastest in the areas with the greatest biodiversity.
The ecological footprint is a measure of human impact on Earth’s ecosystems. It’s typically measured in area of wilderness or amount of natural capital consumed each year. This year for example, we consumed all the planet’s renewable capital in early August, faster than ever before.
The bulk of the damage is done through the conversion of land for urbanization or agricultural purposes. Although in our daily urban lives we rarely interact with this change, this probably does even more damage than global warming. With an ever growing population, things will only get worse.
But it’s not all bad news. A new study has shown that our ecological footprint isn’t growing quite as fast as you’d think.
“Seeing that our impacts have expanded at a rate that is slower than the rate of economic and population growth is encouraging,” said lead author Dr. Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Columbia, “it means we are becoming more efficient in how we use natural resources.”
He and the rest of the team found that, across the globe, the overall human footprint grew by 9% between 1992 and 2009, despite a 23% growth in human population size over the same time period. Although it was extremely rare for the footprint to decrease, some encouraging trends were reported. Particularly, the rate of increase was smaller for wealthier countries.
There also wasn’t a direct correlation between footprint and economic growth, which was quite surprising. You’d expect economic growth to be coupled with environmental damage, but that appears to not be the case – thanks to good governance, nonetheless.
Dr. Eric W. Sanderson, WCS Senior Conservation Zoologist, and lead author of the original Human Footprint study in 2002 added:
“It is encouraging that countries with good governance structures and higher rates of urbanization actually grew economically while slightly shrinking their environmental impacts of land use and infrastructure. These results held even after we controlled for the effects of international trade, indicating these countries have managed in some small measure to decouple economic growth from environmental impacts.”
The downside is that the most increase in pressure was reported in regions with large numbers of threatened species. Virtually the entire planet is tainted, and no region is left impact-free. Dr. James Watson, co-author of the study from the University of Queensland and Wildlife Conservation Society, said:
“Our maps show that three quarters of the planet is now significantly altered and 97 percent of the most species-rich places on Earth have been seriously altered. There is little wonder there is a biodiversity crisis.”
To sum it up, humanity’s impact on the planet is getting worse, but not as worse as we’d expect. Per capita, things seem to be improving, but the sheer population growth makes it so that the overall impact increases. Also, many emerging economies with a growing impact are located in biodiverse areas, further accentuating the ecological footprint.
Journal Reference: Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial Human Footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation. DOI 10.1038/ncomms12558
Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.