Vital Signs 1995


July 1995
ISBN: 0-393-31279-8
155 pages

Table of Contents

The world is growing warmer, more crowded, and ecologically less stable, according to Vital Signs 1995: The Trends That Are Shaping Our Future, a Worldwatch Institute report. In 1994, global temperature rose from 15.20 degrees Celsius to 15.32 degrees. This rise, equivalent to 0.22 degrees Fahrenheit, made 1994 the fifth warmest year on record.

In addition to getting warmer, the world is also getting more crowded. Of the 88 million people added in 1994, 79 million were in the Third World. The buildup is most noticeable in Asia, which added 58 million.

Growing ecological instability is evident in the collapse of oceanic fisheries, the continued shrinkage of the earth's forests, and falling water tables.

Prominent among the signs of social instability is a swelling flow--nearly a 10-fold increase--of international refugees in just 10 years.

The world's temperature has been rising gradually for more than a century, but mainly since the late seventies. Indeed, the 10 warmest years since recordkeeping began around 1860 have all occurred since 1980.

The hottest year on record was 1990, at 15.47 degrees Celsius. Rising temperatures in early 1991 were headed for yet another record when Mt. Pinatubo, the Philippine volcano, erupted in June. The enormous explosive force of the volcano pushed some 20 million tons of sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere. These quickly spread around the planet, producing a thin, reflective layer that bounced a minute amount of sunlight back into space.

This led to a cooling effect that abruptly dropped the temperature in 1992 to 15.13 degrees Celsius. By early 1994, the sulfate aerosols had largely settled out, signalling an end to the sabbatical from global warming. The near-record-high temperature in 1994 suggests that the pronounced warming trend of the eighties and early nineties is resuming.

Vital Signs 1995, which is funded by the Surdna Foundation, the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and the United Nations Population Fund, notes that the warming of the earth is being driven by the emission of greenhouse gases, predominantly carbon dioxide (CO2), but also nitrous oxides, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons. Carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning, running at nearly 6 million tons per year in recent years, plus a modest contribution from deforestation, are steadily raising the atmospheric CO2 levels. Between 1959, when the systematic measuring of atmospheric CO2 began, and 1994, concentrations rose from 316 ppm to 359 ppm, a gain of nearly 14 percent.

Emissions of one greenhouse gas, chlorofluorocarbons, have dropped precipitously, not because of its greenhouse role, but because of the damage it does to the stratospheric ozone layer that protects life on earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. After peaking in 1988, production declined rapidly in response to the Montreal Protocol, falling from 1.26 million tons in 1988 to 295,000 tons in 1994, a remarkable drop of 77 percent in 6 years.

The burning of fossil fuels has changed little in the past year. World oil production rose 1 percent in 1994, the first significant increase in 5 years. After a string of 11 consecutive annual gains in output for natural gas, its steady rise slowed to 0.3 percent in 1994. Production of coal, which had been declining since 1989, levelled off in 1994.

The two activities that could reduce fossil fuel use--the development of renewable sources of energy and the adoption of new energy-efficient technologies-- both made strong gains in 1994.

On the renewable front, wind power soared, increasing from 3,050 megawatts to 3,710 megawatts, a gain of nearly 22 percent. Germany led the expansion in 1994 with an addition of 300 megawatts of capacity, followed by India, which offered tax incentives for windpower investments to reduce dependence on polluting coal-fired power plants.

Solar cell shipments also climbed, rising from 60 megawatts in 1993 to 69 megawatts in 1994, a gain of 16 percent. In Third World villages not yet linked to a grid, photovoltaic cells are becoming a popular source of electricity. By the end of 1994, some 250,000 Third World households were getting their electricity from solar cells.

On the efficiency front, perhaps the most spectacular gain comes with replacement of traditional incandescent light bulbs with the highly efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, which use only a fifth as much electricity. From 1993 to 1994, sales increased from 168 million to 195 million, an increase of 16 percent. If these bulbs were all in use at the same time, they would save as much electricity as that generated by 28 large coal plants, roughly 28,000 megawatts.

In addition to the need to stabilize climate, the world is also trying to stabilize population. World population growth is slowing gradually, dropping from a high of over 2 percent in 1970 to 1.54 percent in 1994. Unfortunately, this is too slow to reduce the annual increment, which has averaged close to 90 million people per year for the last 15 years.

World production of grain rebounded in 1994, but not enough to match the growth in consumption, driven largely by population growth. As a result, grain stocks dropped for the second year in a row. Measured in days of consumption, carryover stocks of grain have dropped from 66 days in 1994 to an estimated 62 days in 1995, the lowest level in 20 years. In 1973, when stocks dropped to a record low of 56 days, world grain prices doubled.

The world fish harvest in 1994 regained the losses of recent years, moving up to 101 million tons, slightly above the previous high of 100 million tons in 1989. Much of this growth came from a surge in fish farming in China. Even with this recovery in the world harvest, the seafood supply per person is still 7 percent below the all-time high of 1988.

Growing human demand is putting heavy pressure on the world's underground water resources. In all the major food-producing regions, excessive demand for water is lowering water tables. Eventually, aquifer depletion will force a reduction in pumping, reducing it to the rate of recharge.

Expanding demand for food is also putting excessive pressure on the world's cropland. Soil losses from erosion can now be seen in silt-laden river flows on every continent, with major rivers, such as the Huang He (Yellow River) of China and the Ganges of India, carrying 1.9 and 1.7 billion tons of topsoil, respectively, to the ocean each year.

Rising food demand leading to forest clearance for crop production and ranching, along with timber harvesting, is leading to a steady loss of forest cover in the tropics. Collectively, Asia, Africa, and Latin America are losing nearly 1 percent of their forest cover each year.

One of the most disturbing trends in this year's report is the decline in amphibian populations, mostly frogs, toads, and salamanders. The combination of habitat destruction, chemical contamination of water bodies, and for frogs, harvesting for food, is threatening the world's amphibian species.

In Chile and Greece, and in California, more than half of all amphibian species are declining in number and may be facing extinction. This decline in amphibians reflects the deteriorating health of wetland habitats.

Signs of excessive population pressure on resources are commonplace, particularly in the Third World. One of the measurable symptoms of social stress is the growing number of international refugees. Between 1975 and 1994, this number soared from 2.6 million to 23 million. The 3 million increase in 1994 is the largest annual increase on record.

Another key trend in 1994 was the continuing rise in United Nations peacekeeping expenditures. Between 1986 and 1994, these climbed from $242 million to over $3.7 billion. However, even with this dramatic growth, the world's governments still spend roughly $50 on their military establishments for every $1 devoted to peace and disarmament.

Another social indicator affecting both demographic trends and development is the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In 1994, the number of people estimated to be infected with the virus increased to 26 million, up from 22 million in 1993. Of this rise of 4 million, nearly half occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic.

New infections in Asia totalled 1.7 million. With the number of new infections in Africa apparently plateauing and the number in Asia still climbing, Asia may soon overtake Africa as the focal point for this deadly disease.

The number of people with full-blown AIDS climbed from 6.9 million in 1993 to 8.5 million in 1994. An estimated 1.5 million died of AIDS in 1994, four-fifths of them in Africa. In some African countries, AIDS may eventually cut life expectancy by some 25 years, partly because so many infants are born with the disease. In Zambia, for example, at least 20 percent of women aged 15 to 49 are HIV-positive.

Another social trend affecting human health and claiming even more lives than AIDS is smoking. The good news is that world cigarette production has plateaued. Thus, cigarettes smoked per person have declined from the historic high of 1,029 in 1988 to 946 in 1994, a drop of 8 percent.

Many industrial countries are now using high taxes to actively discourage cigarette use. Denmark is leading the way with a tax of $3.88 per pack, followed by Norway ($3.44), and the United Kingdom ($3.27). Germany and France tax cigarettes at $2.25 and $1.94 per pack, respectively.

The United States, which in some ways seems to have the world's most health- conscious population, has an average cigarette tax of just 56 cents per pack, one of the world's lowest. In the United States, cigarette smoking claims some 417,000 lives each year, compared with roughly 50,000 lost to AIDS.

Worldwide, smoking is claiming an estimated 3 million lives per year, compared with 1.5 million from AIDS. But the AIDS toll is rising much more rapidly and could eventually overtake cigarette deaths.