How much is 1.4 Earths?

3 11 2009

National Geographic recently announced in its State of the Earth 2010 Collector’s Edition that the 6.8 billion people on the planet are using up “1.4 Earths’ worth of resources per year.”

The number has changed since then – only 1.3 Earths now, according to the Global Footprint Network, the environmental data center where National Geographic got its statistics. The figure would appear frightening if it did not also appear physically impossible. If we really are consuming 1.3 Earths a year, it is a bit odd that we have not yet consumed our planet out of existence.

Fortunately for humanity, the number does not refer to the entire Earth. It refers to Earth’s biocapacity – how much of what we consume the planet can regenerate in a year. At the moment we are using its resource supply faster than it can replenish it.

“We’re over budget, which is essentially that our expenditures are exceeding our income,” said Nicole Freeling of the Global Footprint Network.

This is not to say the Earth doesn’t have a savings account. But Freeling pointed out that the more we overspend, the deeper we have to delve into it.

“You can cut your hair faster than it re-grows and you still have hair, but eventually at some point you’ll go bald.”

The data center’s latest information says the human race is consuming 30 percent more resources each year than the Earth can regenerate, and carbon emissions account for nearly half of it. Carbon is also the one of the fastest-growing components: Between 1961 and now, the amount of land and sea needed to absorb all the carbon our species emits increased elevenfold.

But consumption isn’t evenly distributed across the globe. If everyone consumed like Americans, for example, we would need 4.6 Earths to sustain us. (National Geographic’s numbers say 5.4, but they are a bit out of date. This doesn’t mean Americans are getting any more environmentally conscious; Global Footprint just changed its methodology.)

The Chinese figure isn’t nearly as catastrophic – 1.02 Earths – which they have managed to maintain despite emitting more carbon dioxide than any other nation on the planet.

The key to China’s better score has more to do with its population than anything else. The country as a whole has higher emissions than America, but it also has more people. This means that the emissions per Chinese citizen – which is what the Earth figure looks at – is much lower than it is for American citizens. So if everyone lived like the Chinese, our planet would still be in danger, but not nearly as much as if everyone spontaneously turned into Americans.

As for the countries that have under-one Earth figures, many of them have large populations living in abject poverty. There aren’t any developed countries who consume less than one planet’s worth of resources, although a few come close, including Malaysia, Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia.

And the figures are going up. This is partly because the number of people on the planet is rising, and partly because we are consuming more per person than we used to. That leaves the big unanswered question of how much time we have before we eat up our savings and actually do consume our planet out of existence. And that’s a question the Global Footprint Network doesn’t have the staff or budget to answer.

Find out your own carbon imprint and see how you compare with the rest of the world with Global Footprint Network’s Personal Footprint Quiz.

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