How many
Earths?

 
Jacqueline McGlade
describes how Europe’s standard of living is rooted in the overuse of resources from other parts of the world, and calls for an eco-efficiency revolution

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously identified two liberties: freedom to do good things, and freedom from obstacles and constraints. The good life comes from getting the balance right between them.

Much effort has been put into achieving the freedoms to, such as the liberty to speak, act, vote, organize and create work and wealth, at least up to the point where exercising them limits the freedoms and rights of others. There is now increasing emphasis on achieving the freedoms from such as from fear, poverty, hunger, accidents, terrorism, unemployment, homelessness and disease.

Most recently the concept of ‘environmental security’ has arisen to define a new class of these negative freedoms, such as freedom from shortages of water, energy and other vital resources, and from pollution, natural and industrial disasters, and the loss of essential services provided by the world’s ecosystems (see table). When such insecurities are high enough, they can cause migrations which themselves are sources of further insecurity.

Concern about such environmental sources of insecurity has been increasing in foreign policy and military circles for at least a decade. Warren Christopher said in 1996, when US Secretary of State: ‘Our ability to advance our global interests is inextricably linked to how we manage the Earth’s natural resources... [and to how we contend with] the vast new danger posed to our national interests by damage to the environment and resulting global and regional instability’.

New threats
Unfortunately, military minds and national security communities in many countries are not well suited to dealing with these new threats: they are too conservative, insular and focused on short-term and obvious military threats. In contrast, much of the public is more in tune with these new dangers and with what must be done to combat them: in a recent poll, the Slovenian public judged that its army’s first priority was to help with natural disasters. As floods, heat waves, fires and avalanches associated with climate change increase in Europe and elsewhere, publics will increasingly rely on military help when disaster strikes.

National and environmental security in Europe has been tied up in a complex web of imperialism and colonialism since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Europe has never been self-sufficient in the raw materials needed to meet its consumption patterns and lifestyles.

European countries’ standards of living heavily and increasingly depend on resources that lie outside their borders and which are also demanded by the expanding economies of China, India and South America. For example, 95 per cent of Hungary’s water comes from neighbouring countries and 40 per cent of Europe’s gas comes from Russia via the Ukraine, an insecurity that recently drew an urgent warning from the International Energy Agency.

During the struggle for Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi was asked whether his liberated country would achieve the same standards of living as its colonial power. ‘It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve its prosperity,’ he replied. ‘How many planets will a country like India require?’

Today, thanks to WWF’s Living Planet Report, we have an answer. If European lifestyles were replicated worldwide, it concludes, humanity would need more than two and a half planets like Earth to renew resources as quickly as they are being consumed (see figure). Even now, it adds, global demand exceeds the regenerative capacity of the planet by about 20 per cent.

Eco-efficiency
If environmental insecurities, both in Europe and worldwide, are not to accelerate, there must be an eco-efficiency revolution that enables continuing high standards of living accompanied by at least a ten-fold reduction in the use of energy and materials, thereby decoupling energy and resource use from economic activity. Such radical innovation could leave enough ecological space for the 5.5 billion people not living in OECD countries to achieve good living standards, without the need for extra, unobtainable, planets.

Decoupling depends on how much each person consumes, and on the efficiency of the production of goods; it also needs to address equity in consumption. Eco-efficiency can be greatly improved in three main ways. Firstly by the more elegant and equitable use of resources through eco-innovations that make good use of labour and natural capital. Secondly by shifting the balance from capital-intensive products towards labour-intensive services. Thirdly by achieving high-quality lives more through a focus on ‘qualitative sufficiencies’ in consumption and conviviality rather than from just ‘quantitative efficiencies’ in resource and energy use.

A European Environment Agency report in 2004, EEA Signals, demonstrates some progress in relative eco-efficiency in energy use: energy consumption rose by 7 per cent between 1995 and 2001, but not as fast as the 16 per cent increase in economic growth. There has been little progress, however, in other areas such as transport, resource use and waste creation. Monitoring these trends to detect early warnings is critical: the proposed European Global Monitoring Environmental Security system (GMES) could play a key role in this.

The European Commission, in its ‘Lisbon Strategy’, has linked economic stability and prosperity – particularly in terms of job creation and competitiveness – to social cohesion. This is seen as a largely socio-economic issue, to be addressed through developing the internal market, giving greater emphasis to employment, technology, innovation, citizenship and individual responsibility.

Europe’s industry is undergoing a structural shift from manufacturing to service-based knowledge. Simultaneously, Europe’s population is becoming largely urbanized and more physically separated from the natural resources that sustain consumption patterns and underpin its quality of life. These factors combine to create a perception of great distance from natural resources in the minds of many citizens.
Global demand exceeds the regenerative capacity of the planet by about 20 per cent
Europe’s environment plays a key, but often forgotten, role in underpinning its social structure. Environmental equity has been identified as a key component of societal stability and cohesion at many different scales, ranging from national security to local stability. Environmental problems – such as climate change, hotspots of urban air pollution or over-reliance on imports of energy and resources – may act to destablize European society in the long term. Sound environmental policies, accompanied by open and transparent processes for comparison of country performance and progress, are therefore important elements in maintaining social cohesion.

On the agenda
In 2004, Europe’s borders shifted eastwards and ever closer to more unsettled zones in the Caucasus, central Asia and the Middle East. In a post-9/11 world, the issue of security is now firmly on the European public agenda. Within the newly enlarged Europe there is greater inequity than ever before. The GDP of the ten new member states combined is less than the GDP of many single European countries. Regional disparities are increasing between the rural east and south, and the more affluent centre and north. With the potential expansion of Europe to include Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, these inequalities may well become more pronounced in coming years.

Europe can help to increase social cohesion and environmental security both within the European Union and beyond by taking active responsibility for its use of nature, promoting best practice in eco-efficient technologies and developing sound environmental protection policies that benefit all


Professor Jacqueline McGlade is Executive Director of the European Environment Agency.

PHOTOGRAPH: Myung Von Kang/UNEP/Topham


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid

Complementary article:
People (World Heritage and Protected Areas) 2003