Worldwatch News Release"Trends Jumping Off the Charts"

Saturday, May 29, 1999
6:00 PM EDT

"This past year was an off-the-chart year. In 1998, the Earth's average temperature literally went off the top of the chart we have been using for years in Vital Signs," said Worldwatch President Lester Brown, co-author of Vital Signs 1999: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future.

This record-high temperature, leading to more evaporation and rainfall and powering more destructive storms, may have helped push other indicators off the chart as well. For example, weather-related damage worldwide totaled $92 billion in 1998, up a staggering 53 percent from the previous record of $60 billion in 1996. This huge jump not only went off the top of the chart, it went off the page.

Record storms and floods drove an astounding 300 million or more people from their homes in 1998, more people than live in the United States, noted the study, funded by the W. Alton Jones Foundation and the UN Population Fund. Many of those forced from their homes lived in China's Yangtze River valley, in Bangladesh, and in eastern India. Smaller numbers, living in the Caribbean and Central America, were driven from their homes by two of the most powerful hurricanes ever to have come out of the Atlantic: Georges and Mitch.

Was this a glimpse of the future? Are rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning causing climate change to spiral out of control? Or was 1998 an aberration, something that happens rarely and may never be repeated? We cannot know for sure, but climate simulation models suggest that the events of 1998 could be a window on the future, a consequence of failing to rein in carbon emissions soon enough.

While the rise in the Earth's temperature was accelerating, the growth of the global economy was decelerating. Economic turmoil in East Asia, Russia, and Brazil slowed economic growth from 4.2 percent in 1997 to 2.2 percent in 1998, the slowest in seven years. Closely associated with the economic turmoil was a 4 percent drop in international trade in 1998, the first decline in 15 years.

"The increase in armed conflict was another source of turmoil in 1998," said co-author Michael Renner. After five annual declines, the number of wars in the world climbed from 25 to 31 in 1998. Nearly all were internal or civil wars in the developing world, except for Serbia's Kosovo province.

Driven partly by concerns about climate change and partly by depletion of fossil fuel resources, the world energy economy is undergoing massive reconstruction, shifting from historically heavy reliance on oil and coal to renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar cells. While wind use was expanding at 22 percent a year from 1990 to 1998, and solar at 16 percent per year, the use of oil was growing at less than 2 percent, and that of coal was not increasing at all. Glimpses of the new emerging energy economy can be seen in the solar cells rooftops of Japan and Germany and in the wind farms of Denmark, India, Spain, and the U.S. states of Minnesota, Wyoming, and Oregon.

The foundation is being laid for the emergence of wind and solar cells as cornerstones of the new energy economy. The growth in world wind generating capacity from 7,600 megawatts in 1997 to 9,600 in 1998 was concentrated in a handful of countries. Germany led the way, adding 790 megawatts of capacity followed by Spain with 380 megawatts, Denmark with 308 megawatts, and the United States with 326 megawatts. Within the developing world, India is the unquestioned leader with more than 900 megawatts of generating capacity in operation. With the help of the Dutch, China began operation in 1998 of its first commercial wind farm, a 24-megawatt project in Inner Mongolia.

In 1998, sales of solar cells jumped 21 percent. Growth is being fueled by a new photovoltaic roofing material that generates electricity. In Japan nearly 7,000 rooftop solar systems were installed in 1998. The new coalition government in Germany announced the goal of 100,000 solar roofs. In response Royal Dutch Shell and Pilkington Solar International are together building the world's largest solar cell manufacturing facility in Germany. Italy joined in with a goal of 10,000 solar rooftops.

On the food front, world grain prices in late 1998 dropped to the lowest level in two decades, partly because of the economic downturn in several East Asian countries, but more fundamentally because of extensive overpumping for irrigation in both China and India, with 1.25 and 1 billion people, respectively. In effect, both countries are expanding food production in the short run by depleting their aquifers, which means they will face sharp cutbacks in irrigation water supplies once the aquifers are depleted.

"In the world protein economy, growth in beef production has largely come to a halt in the 1990s," said co-author Brian Halweil, " while the oceanic fish catch has been growing by scarcely one percent per year." The rapid growth is now coming in the more grain-efficient sources of animal protein, namely poultry and the fish that are produced on fish farms. World poultry production growing at over five percent per year during the nineties has now overtaken beef, making it second only to pork.

Aquacultural output, growing at nearly 12 percent per year during the nineties, is emerging as a major new source of animal protein in the world food economy. Increasing from 7 million tons in 1984 to an estimated 27 million tons in 1998, it is the world's fastest growing source of animal protein. The 1998 production is just over half of world beef production, which totaled 54 million tons in 1998. If recent trends continue, aquacultural output could easily overtake that of beef before 2015.

Over the last year, the number of phones and the number of Internet connections increased dramatically, integrating more and more people into the global electronic network. This growing linkage was facilitated by the launching of 140 satellites in 1998, most of them commercial communication satellites. Satellite launches, once dominated by government military satellites, have now been eclipsed by the launching of private communication satellites.

For telephones, the number in the global phone network increased from 741 million in 1996 to 781 million in 1997, a gain of 40 million. Cellular phone sales, which jumped from 144 million in 1996 to 214 million in 1997, increased by 60 million, marking the first time that sales of cellular phones topped those of traditional phones. Stated otherwise, nearly two-thirds of the worldwide growth in new telephones is in those linked by radio waves rather than those linked by traditional phone lines.

The number of lines linking host computers to the Internet increased to 43 million in 1998, up from 30 million the year. This growth of 43 percent means that 147 million people worldwide now have access to the Internet. The United States, with 76 million individuals linked to the Internet, accounted for half the world total. Japan was a distant second with 10 million users, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany with 8 million and 7 million, respectively. Some of the most explosive growth is coming in China, where the number of users doubled in 1998, reaching 1.6 million. One projection shows the number of Internet users in China exceeding the number of automobile owners by 2002. This raises the question of which contributes more to mobility: access to the Internet or ownership of an automobile? For someone interested in visiting the great museums of the world, the Internet obviously provides more mobility. And for someone wanting to shop, the Internet offers a wider range of goods than any shopping center, however large, can possibly provide.

Cigarette production per person fell by two percent in 1998, continuing a decade-long trend. After peaking in 1990, cigarette production per person worldwide has dropped almost eight percent. This follows a U.S. trend where cigarettes smoked per person have dropped 41 percent since 1981.

The changing fortunes of the tobacco industry is evident in its landmark agreement in the United States to pay the 50 state governments collectively a total of $251 billion over the next 25 years to compensate for the Medicare costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. This comes to nearly $1,000 for every American. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice plans to file a lawsuit to recover federal Medicare costs associated with smoking. Six other national governments-Bolivia, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands, Nicaragua, Panama, and Venezuela-have also filed suits in U.S. courts against the U.S. tobacco industry to recover the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses.

Progress in reducing cigarette smoking, the source of an estimated 3 million deaths per year, was more than offset by the rise in HIV infections. New infections in 1998 totaled nearly 6 million and deaths from the virus totaled 2.5 million. The highest infection rates are in several countries in Africa where 18-25 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive. Without a dramatic advance in developing a low-cost treatment for the disease, countries like Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe will lose one fifth to one fourth of their adult populations within the next decade.

In 1998, world population increased by 78 million, roughly the equivalent of another Germany. In its biannual update of population numbers and projections released in late 1998, UN demographers reduced the projected population for 2050 by some 500 million. Roughly two thirds of this decline was due to falling fertility, but unfortunately one third was due to rising mortality, largely the result of the HIV epidemic, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another sign of deteriorating human health is a fall in sperm counts. Among men in the United States, average sperm counts per milliliter of semen have dropped from 120 million in 1940 to just under 50 million in 1998. Counts in the European countries indicate a similar decline. The principal explanation for this is the so-called endocrine disruption hypothesis, namely that chemicals in the environment act as "environmental estrogens." These imitators of this basic female hormone-found in plastics, pesticides, and industrial pollutants-may adversely affect male reproductive functioning, among other things.