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World: Economic Growth Unsustainable, Says Environmentalist

World Watch, a Washington-based environmentalist organization, this month released a report saying the planet faces a stark choice: either allow the loss of natural ecosystems and the expansion of human numbers to lead to potentially irreversible economic damage, or try to build what it calls a "sustainable economy" to turn these trends around.

Christopher Flavin is the head of the World Watch Institute and a co-author of the report. He was in Brussels recently where he met with RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas to discuss some of the report's findings.

Brussels, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The World Watch report, entitled the "State of the World 2001," broadly concludes that the Western economic model has reached the point where -- if not corrected -- further expansion could very soon start to erode the very basis of its economy. The report says the current trends are unsustainable.

Our correspondent first asked co-author Christopher Flavin what constitutes economic unsustainability.

Flavin says:

"The current economy is unsustainable in the sense that it's based on the use of non-renewable resources and on patterns that can't continue indefinitely. For example, the energy system is based on fossil fuels which are limited in nature and which are adding to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A sustainable economy would be based on reuse and recycling of materials and the through-put of the renewable energy that arrives on the Earth each day so that it could go on -- in principle -- indefinitely."

Flavin continues:

"Today's economic systems are destroying the ecological life supports on which the entire economy rests, devastating oceanic fisheries, for example, depleting groundwater supplies, cutting down forests, depleting fossil fuel reserves. None of that can go on indefinitely without eventually collapsing the economy itself."

Flavin was then asked what are the main signs of global environmental decline.

"[There are] several things we've noted in this year's report. One is the dramatic decline in Arctic ice, a 40 percent decline in the average thickness of Arctic ice, which according to Norwegian researchers suggests the Arctic could be ice-free in the next half-century -- the first time in tens of millions of years. Second, we've seen a massive die-off in coral reefs around the world, which are very sensitive to rising ocean temperatures. Coral reefs are the tropical forests of the oceans. They're really the base of the ecological support system. And third, we have an entire chapter on the decline of the amphibians, a very important life form which is very environmentally vulnerable. Almost anywhere in the world where scientists have looked, they've found that many amphibian populations are either in decline or in many cases have disappeared entirely."

Flavin was asked to discuss what he considered to be realistic, large-scale alternatives to reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels.

"The challenge now is to move from the carbon-dominated energy system of the 20th century to a hydrogen economy during the course of the 21st century. A hydrogen economy would be based on the most abundant element in the universe, which is broadly available in seawater and which can be turned into a useful fuel using solar energy and other renewable forms of energy."

Flavin goes on to say that another alternative, gaining popularity in Europe, is wind energy. He says more than 10 percent of the energy consumption in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein is provided by wind generators. In Denmark, wind energy covers 9 percent of the country's total energy needs.

The World Watch report suggests that a radical revision of taxation systems would help to promote the environmentally sound use of natural resources. Flavin says the idea would be to encourage development that emphasized the environment and human health.

"The idea is to shift the tax base from being entirely focused on income, labor, and property and those sorts of things, and shifting a substantial part of the tax burden to pollution, so that we're using taxes to discourage activities that are damaging human health and the natural world, and putting less tax on things that we want more of, like jobs and income."

Rather than attempting to rewrite entire fiscal ideologies, the World Watch report lists a number of -- in Flavin's description -- "modest" but nevertheless encouraging trends. Among them is a tax levied by Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Germany on the sale of pesticides to encourage farmers to find less polluting ways of pest control. The report also proposes measured cuts in global fossil fuel subsidies, which often take the form of price supports and tax breaks. Instead, it suggests a "carbon tax," with a view to helping fund not only environmental rehabilitation but also social expenditures in general.

The World Watch report points out that more than 200 international environmental treaties have been enacted in the past 80 years. Yet most of these remain unratified or unenforced. Flavin was asked to comment on the what the future holds for international agreements following the most recent failure, in November, of EU-U.S. environmental talks on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases thought to contribute to global warming.

Flavin says the talks on global climate change have become very complex in an effort to bridge the gap between the Europeans and the United States in terms of how much in the way of emissions can be reduced.

Flavin is not much of an optimist in this regard. He says the result is that the Kyoto (greenhouse gas talks) process may be finished. He says the administration of new U.S. President George W. Bush is unlikely to begin negotiating seriously from where things left off in November.