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State Of The Earth



drawing of polluted earth and building covered planet

Human impact on the earth becomes ever greater and more damaging, from global warming to deforestation, from soil erosion to road building. Humans are only just beginning to try to walk on the earth with a lighter step.


graph that charts the earth's average surface temperature rise since 1965

1995 was the warmest year on record and the ten hottest years in recorded human history have all occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. The earth has this century undergone the fastest warming since the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago.1

The major human impact on the atmosphere is the release of carbon dioxide through burning fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which creates a 'greenhouse effect'. A warmer world would bring in the long term higher sea levels as well as more frequent floods, droughts and hurricanes.

pie chart showing the main causes of soil degredation

Emissions of carbon from fossil-fuel burning also reached an all-time peak in 1995 at 6,056 million tons, compared with 5,172 million tons in 1980 and 4,006 million tons in 1970. As a result the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen steadily over the period ­ from 325 parts per million in 1970 to 361 parts per million in 1995, an 11-per-cent increase.2

Industrial nations are still responsible for almost half the carbon emissions, despite making up only 15 per cent of the world's population. But the developing world is fast closing this gap, while the emissions of former Eastern-bloc countries have recently fallen due to post-Soviet economic collapse.


soil degredation chart

The world is losing seven million hectares of fertile land each year due to soil degradation, an area nearly as large as Ireland. Overgrazing is the single most prominent cause of soil damage.


deforestation chart

The world is losing almost 10 million hectares of forest land each year, an area about the size of South Korea. This rate of destruction has remained unchecked despite international initiatives like the Earth Summit.


Ozone action

Production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which deplete the ozone layer continues to drop following international agreements to phase them out. They are now back below the level produced in 1965 ­ where there is a will, there is a way.

aerosol plus CFCs graph


  • Production of CFCs in developing countries is increasing: it surged by 87 per cent between 1986 and 1993, by which point they accounted for 20 per cent of global CFC production.5
  • A black market in CFCs is developing: at least 10,000 tons of CFCs were believed to be smuggled into both the US and the European Union (from Russia, India and China) during 1995.6
  • Ozone-depleting substances already in the atmosphere will continue to be active for decades. Stratospheric ozone is declining at a rate of almost 3% per decade.7

[image, unknown] Nature's gifts

World production and use of renewable, non-polluting energy continues to rise.


Though nuclear energy has stagnated and new nuclear-power stations are now rare, nuclear energy is still responsible for 62 times more electricity-generating capacity than wind and solar power combined ­ some 340,000 megawatts in 1995.9

drawing of wounded earth

Pedal peak

Bicycle production is booming. Car production is still growing but whereas the number of bikes and cars produced each year was comparable in 1965, by 1995 three times more bikes than cars were being produced.

But...The number of cars (new and old) in the world reached a new all-time high in 1995 of 486 million.10

chart showing number of bikes and cars 1965 & 1995


1 Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, cited in Vital Signs 1996/1997, Worldwatch Institute.2 Worldwatch Institute, op cit, drawing from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, British Petroleum, the US Department of Energy and Energy Information Administration. 3 World Resources 1992-93, cited in Joni Seager, The State of the Environment Atlas, Penguin 1995. 4 Forest Resources Assessment 1990: Global Synthesis, UN Food & Agriculture Organization 1995. 5 UN Environment Programme, cited by Worldwatch Institute. 6 Jim Vallette and Mokoto Rich, cited by Worldwatch Institute. 7 World Meteorological Organization, cited inInternational Environment Reporter, 13 Dec 1995. 8 Worldwatch Institute, op cit. 9 Worldwatch Institute, drawing from the International Atomic Energy Authority. 10 Worldwatch Institute figures, drawn from Interbike Directory, American Automobile Manufacturers Association and DRI/McGraw-Hill.

[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

New Internationalist issue 287 magazine cover This article is from the January 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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