VITAL SIGNS 1996:WORLD GROWING HOTTER AND HUNGRIER
HOLD FOR RELEASE
6 P.M. EST
Saturday, May 18, 1996
WORLD GROWING HOTTER AND HUNGRIER
Last year's average global temperature was the warmest since record-keeping began some 130 years ago, according to Vital Signs 1996: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, the latest edition of the Worldwatch Institute's international annual.
As temperatures were climbing, crop-withering heat waves were shrinking the 1995 world grain harvest, making it the smallest since 1988. This, combined with the soaring worldwide demand for food, dropped carryover stocks of grain for 1996 to 48 days of consumption, the lowest level ever, reports the D.C.-based environmental research organization.
The stage was set for a record rise in world grain prices. Ironically, in an era of high technologyπof space exploration, the World Wide Web, and organ transplantsπhumanity was suddenly struggling in 1996 with one of the most ancient of challengesπhow to make it to the next harvest.
The average global temperature in 1995 reached 15.39 degrees Celsius, breaking the previous mark of 15.38 degrees in 1990. The 10 warmest years in the last 130 have all occurred in the eighties and nineties. And within these 10, the three warmest years were in the nineties.
In 1995, carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels reached a record 6.1 billion tons. Among other things, this indicates that governments of industrial societies are failing to meet the goal of limiting carbon emissions that was set by the Framework Convention on Climate Change signed at the 1992 Earth Summit.
Agriculture was not the only sector feeling the effects of higher temperatures. As temperatures rise, warmer oceans release more energy into the atmosphere, leading to more intense and violent storms. Worldwide, insurance industry payouts for weather-related damage have climbed from $16 billion during the eighties to $48 billion thus far during the nineties. The insurance industry is reeling from this dramatic surge in claims. Voicing the fears of many in the industry, Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, says, "The insurance business is first in line to be affected by climate change...it could bankrupt the industry."
Vital Signs 1996, which is funded by the Surdna Foundation, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and the United Nations Population Fund, notes that in 1995, the global economy grew by an estimated 3.7 percent, the largest gain since the 4.7 percent growth of 1988. This impressive expansion raised the global output of goods and services per person by 2 percent, but also increased further what had already become unsustainable demands on the earth's natural systems and resourcesπcroplands, aquifers, fisheries, rangelands, and forests.
Economic growth in the developing countries averaged some 6 percent in 1995, more than double the 2.5 percent of the industrial regions. Asia, excluding Japan, expanded by over 8 percent, marking the third consecutive year of 8 percent growth.
The most rapid growth in the region occurred in China, which completed its fourth straight year of double-digit economic growth, expanding its economy by an astounding 57 percent in four years. This put it well ahead of the official goal of quadrupling its 1980 economy by the end of the century.
The widely varying growth rates of various energy sources in 1995 hinted at a restructuring of the global energy economy, providing evidence of the expanding role of renewable energy resources and a movement toward a solar-based energy economy.
Production of coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear power each expanded by roughly 1 percent. The dramatic gains came in wind electric generation capacity, which expanded by 33 percent, and in the sales of photovoltaic (solar) cells, which climbed by 17 percent. Growth in wind power, which was once concentrated in the United States and Denmark, has now spread to other major economies, such as Germany and India. Germany led the world in new capacity in 1995 with 505 megawatts, closely followed by India with 375 megawatts.
As concern about the effects of global warming on food security and the insurance industry escalates, the pressure to shift to energy sources that do not disrupt climate seems certain to intensify. The World Bank, for instance, is beginning to invest in renewable energy resources, and particularly in solar cells in those Third World villages that are not connected to power grids.
The production of automobiles, the use of which accounts for much of the growth in oil production, increased by 1 percent in 1995, almost regaining the 1990 historical high of just over 36 million. Bicycles, meanwhile, have been setting a new record in each of the last few years.
As recently as 1969, when 23 million cars and 25 million bicycles were produced, the output of automobiles appeared ready to overtake that of bikes. But then came Earth Day 1970, with its rising environmental awareness, followed by the oil price hikes of the seventies. While automobile manufacture was edging up to 36 million, that of bicycles climbed to a staggering 114 million in 1995.
The physical condition of the earth continues to deteriorate. The deforestation of the planet continues unabated, reducing the capacity of soils and vegetation to absorb and store water, thus increasing rainfall runoff and soil erosion. The number of plant and animal species, perhaps the best single indicator of the earth's health, is diminishing.
One of the most distressing environmental trends is the accelerating loss of freshwater fish species. An estimated 37 percent of the fish species native to the lakes and streams of North America are either in jeopardy or extinct. The situation may be even worse in Europe, where some 80 out of a total of 193 species of freshwater fish are threatened, endangered, or of special concern. Two thirds of the 94 fish species in South Africa need special protection to avoid extinction.
The world's farmers fell further behind the growth in world population in 1995, with the smallest grain harvest since 1988. Grain production per person dropped to 293 kilograms, the lowest since 1965, and 15 percent below the 1984 historic peak of 346 kilograms. The world's farmers got little help from fishermen in expanding the food supply. The oceanic catch has fluctuated narrowly around 89 million tons since 1989.
Even as grain supplies tightened, the demand for meat, a grain-intensive food, surged to record levels worldwide, led by Asia. Consumption of pork in China jumped by a phenomenal 14 percent in 1995, accounting for half of the growth in world meat consumption. This higher pork intake, plus more beef, further reinforces China's new position as the world's leading consumer of red meat.
In 1995, the world added an estimated 87 million people to its population, as many people as live in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Of this total, over 80 million were added in developing countriesπwhere forests are shrinking, soils are eroding, and aquifers are being depleted.
In some countries, population growth is slowing, but for the wrong reasons. In Russia, economic decline, environmental pollution, and deteriorating health services have raised death rates, while a loss of hope in the future has lowered birth rates. Together, they reduced Russia's population, excluding migration, by 0.6 percent in 1995, the most rapid decline on record for a country not at war.
One indicator of growing social stress, the number of refugees, is increasing. The number of refugees eligible for U.N. assistance jumped by a record 4.4 millionπfrom 23.0 million in 1994 to 27.4 million in 1995.
Another important health indicatorπthe number of cigarettes produced per person in the worldπdeclined slightly from 972 in 1994 to 966 in 1995. As cigarette-related mortality increases in developing countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised its estimates of worldwide smoking-related deaths to roughly 3 million people a year, up from earlier estimates of 2 million.
While cigarette deaths are climbing, a combination of growing resistance to antibiotics, a decline in public health services, and crowding is leading to a resurgence of traditional infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria. In 1993, the latest year for which data are available, tuberculosis took 2.7 million lives and malaria took 2 million.
Among major infectious diseases, AIDS is growing most rapidly and is likely to move soon to the top of the list in terms of annual deaths, supplanting malaria and tuberculosis. HIV infections jumped by a record 4.7 million in 1995 as the epicenter of the disease shifted from Africa to Asia.
In Zimbabwe, births still exceed deaths, but by much less than a few years ago because AIDS-related deaths are increasing. As recently as 1992, Zimbabwe added an estimated 250,000 people, an annual growth of roughly 2.2 percent. In 1995, only 100,000 people were added, dropping population growth to 0.9 percent.
On the bright side, the United Nations' campaign to eradicate polio, patterned after its eradication of smallpox, has eliminated this crippling disease in 145 countries.
There was good news and bad news about international peacekeeping in 1995. The good news was that the war in Bosnia came to an end late in the year. And now that the Cold War is over, the U.N. Security Council is functioning much more as it was intended to, enabling the United Nations to respond to various conflicts and other crises in a more unified way.
The bad news is that many U.N. members failed to pay their share of peacekeeping expenses. In August 1995, they were behind in their assessments by a record $2.95 billionπclose to a full year's expenditures. This forced the U.N. Secretary General to do an extraordinary juggling of U.N. accounts just to keep food supplies flowing to the peacekeeping troops in the field.
Despite growing opposition to the use of landmines, the number of these instruments of terror in place around the world increased again in 1995. An estimated 110 million landmines are now scattered throughout the countryside in 64 countries.
One last bit of good news is worth noting: nuclear arsenals continue to decline. Not only did the number of nuclear weapons decline from 44,500 in 1994 to 40,640 in 1995πa drop of one tenthπbut the Australian government announced formation of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, a bold initiative designed to free the world of all nuclear weapons.
Vital Signs 1996: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, published by W. W. Norton & Co., in New York, is scheduled for release 6 p.m., EDT, Saturday, May 18, 1996. In the United Kingdom, Vital Signs will be available from Earthscan Publishers. Vital Signs is published in 19 languages.