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World moves into the ecological red

By Jeremy Lovell (Reuters) - January 6, 2007

The world moved into “ecological overdraft” on Saturday, the point at which human consumption exceeds the ability of the earth to sustain it in any year and goes into the red, the New Economics Foundation think-tank said.

Ecological Debt Day this year is three days earlier than in 2006 which itself was three days earlier than in 2005. NEF said the date had moved steadily backwards every year since humanity began living beyond its environmental means in the 1980s.

“As the world creeps closer to irreversible global warming and goes deeper into ecological debt, why on earth, say, would the UK export 20 tonnes of mineral water to Australia and then re-import 21 tonnes,” said NEF director Andrew Simms.

“And why would that wasteful trade be more the rule than the exception,” he added.

Not only was there a massive gulf between rich and poor but there were deep variations in environmental profligacy between the rich countries, NEF said.

If everyone in the world had the same consumption rates as in the United States it would take 5.3 planet earths to support them, NEF said, noting that the figure was 3.1 for France and Britain, 3.0 for Spain, 2.5 for Germany and 2.4 for Japan.

But if everyone emulated China, which is building a coal-fired power station every five days to feed its booming economy, it would take only 0.9 of a planet.

The NEF report comes as diplomatic momentum builds for UN environment ministers meeting in December on the Indonesian island of Bali to agree to start talks on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol on curbing climate change that expires in 2012.

Governments have started to sit up and take heed as global public opinion begins calling for urgent action to tackle what has been described as the biggest threat facing humanity.

But there is still no meeting of minds between the world’s biggest carbon polluter, the United States, and booming emitters like China and India; both sides insisting that the other make the first move.

But the NEF report “Chinadependence” noted that Britain among others was understating its carbon emissions because it in effect exported its smokestack industries to China in the 1990s and was now importing products it would have been making itself.

“As China is increasingly attacked because of its rising pollution levels, people overlook two important issues,” said Simms. “First, per person, China’s greenhouse gas emissions are a fraction of those in Europe and the United States.”

“Second, a closer look at trade flows reveals that a large share of China’s rising emissions is due to the dependence of the rest of the world on exports from China.

“Because of the way that data on carbon emissions gets collected at the international level, this has the effect of ‘carbon laundering’ economies like those of Britain and the U.S.,” he added.