A new look at the planet under human pressure

A red titi monkey surveys its first home in the Amazon rainforest, Peru

An index of human pressure on the natural world gives us a new view of the damage we’re doing to the environment – and of how it might eventually be fixed.

By David Walker

Earth’s natural environment suffered a 9 per cent increase in the human “footprint” in just 16 years to 2009, according to a major new study of people’s impact on the planet. Depending on how you look at it, that may be bad news, good news or a little of both.

The study, published in Nature Communications in August, is titled “Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation”.

Lead author Oscar Venter, from the University of Northern British Columbia, and 11 other scientists use a series of indicators, from road-building to pastoral land, to construct an index of human pressure on the natural world. 

It shows central Africa, South America and South-East Asia as the areas where the human footprint is most rapidly degrading the environment.

Its worst news: human pressures are “perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying” in many of the regions with the greatest biodiversity.

“The more suitable an area is for agriculture, the greater the human pressures on it.”

The two biggest contributors to human impact in those 16 years are crop lands (whose impact increased by almost 20 per cent) and population density. Those two factors underline the challenge to the environment over the rest of the century; the human population is expected to rise from the current seven billion to an eventual peak of 10 billion or more around 2100.

In particular, the study found, the more suitable an area is for agriculture, the greater the human pressures on it. That is bad news for areas the study terms “biodiversity hotspots”, which have the world’s richest reserves of plant and animal life – areas such as the Amazon.

The authors say that maintaining biodiversity in those regions will take “extensive restoration”.

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The good news? Some of the report’s findings are in line with a controversial theory called the environmental Kuznets curve, which predicts that a country’s environment will only become more degraded until that country reaches a certain per-capita income, and then will start to improve.

In certain parts of the world, that seems to be happening. The study says human pressure on the environment is shrinking in some of the major economic growth zones – parts of North America, much of north-eastern Europe, parts of south-east China and parts of east Africa.

Of the 73 rapidly expanding economies the study looks at, 47 experienced “increased human pressure” – but in the other 26, the pressure reduced.

Sources: Oscar Venter, et al. “Sixteen years of change in the global terrestrial human footprint and implications for biodiversity conservation”, Nature Communications, August 2016The best-performed countries tended to have high rates of urbanisation, health and education and strong control over corruption. Encouragingly, they were not necessarily just exporting their environmental impact to other nations; they tended to be net exporters of agricultural and forest products.

Also encouraging is the fact that, while the human footprint has increased by 9 per cent in the 16 years to 2009, the human population has increased by 23 per cent and the world economy has grown by an even larger 153 per cent in that time.

Those figures suggest again the idea that INTHEBLACK explored in the June 2016 issue – that economies can continue growing, and even grow faster, without increasing their use of natural resources. 

With better management, clean government and the right incentives, economic activity and the natural world do seem able to co-exist.

Read next: Is global energy use finally slowing down?

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November 2016
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