World at the Crossroads, warns Report

Renewable energy has become the most economical and inflation-proof energy source available in many regions of the world, according to the latest annual report from the WorldWatch Institute.

WASHINGTON, DC – Renewable energy facilities can also be installed much faster than the three-year minimum that is required for a natural gas-fired power plant, says the Washington research organization. The world’s “over-dependence on geographically concentrated fossil fuels is a recipe for economic instability” that has been noted during the past year as the prices for oil, natural gas and electricity have rised simultaneously. “Global environmental trends have reached a dangerous crossroads as the new century begins,” says the State of the World 2001. Signs of accelerated ecological decline have coincided with a loss of political momentum on environmental issues, and the failure of global climate talks calls into question whether the world will be able to turn these trends around before the economy suffers irreversible damage. “Governments squandered a historic opportunity to reverse environmental decline during the prosperity of the 1990s,” says the Institute’s president Christopher Flavin, who is co-author of the report. “If in the current climate of political and economic uncertainty, political leaders were to roll back environmental laws or fail to complete key international agreements, decades of progress could unravel.” Scientific evidence indicates that many global ecosystems are reaching dangerous thresholds, including the thinning of the Arctic ice cap by 42 percent and the loss of 27 percent of the world’s coral reefs, both of which suggest that some of the planet’s key ecological systems are in decline. Environmental degradation is leading to severe natural disasters which have cost the world $608 billion over the last decade. The choice before political leaders is whether to move forward rapidly to build a sustainable economy or to risk allowing the expansion in human numbers, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the loss of natural systems to undermine the economy. Unless the use of fossil fuel slows dramatically, the Earth’s temperature could rise to as high as 6 degrees above 1990 levels by 2100, leading to acute water shortages, declining food production, and the proliferation of deadly diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. Environmental decline is exacting a toll on people. After a decade of declining poverty in many nations, 1.2 billion people still lack access to clean water and hundreds of millions breathe unhealthy air. Poor people in some countries are pushed to destroy forests and coral reefs in a desperate effort to raise living standards. A collective commitment by leading industrialized nations to new energy systems could have a dramatic impact on energy markets and reduce the rate of global warming. These countries could have influence in slowing climate change. “The prospect of a new U.S. President entering office has raised questions about whether the United States will choose to be a leader or an impediment to global environmental progress in the decade ahead,” says Flavin. “The U.S. has the world’s largest economy and its environmental impact is second to none, so the signal it sends is crucial.” It is clear that the world is still searching for consensus on how to forge an environmentally sustainable economy, says the report. If the U.S. retreats to a more defensive view of global environmental threats, it would create a leadership vacuum. “The question now is one of leadership,” adds Flavin. “Will the United States help lead the world to a sustainable economy in the twenty-first century-as it led the way through global crises in the last century? Or will it be left to other countries to show the way to a sustainable economy in the new millennium?”