Humans helping the planet on some environmental fronts

Earth, eastern hemisphere --NASA

The future of the planet does not seem bright at times, environmentally speaking. Carbon emissions keep going up and so do global temperatures, contributing to climate change that will create – or, already is creating – major problems that will persist and become more severe for hundreds of years.

However, there is bit of unexpectedly good news.

The environmental impact overall of human activities is growing at a slower rate than the global population and economy, shows a new study. In other words, people are not harming the planet as much as one might assume. Wealthy countries tend to have stronger corruption and regulatory controls contributing to this positive trend.

The study looks at the global human footprint (or overall impact on Earth) between 1993 and 2009, and finds that it grew by nine percent over that 16-year period. At the same time, the global population increased by 23 percent, and the economy grew by 153 percent. This slower rate of expansion of the ‘footprint’ indicates people are doing a better job at utilizing resources, say the study authors.

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(Credit: Nature)

While this positive trend may be surprising to some, the scientists emphasize that it certainly does not mean we can shrug off concerns about global warming.

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“Our maps show that three-quarters of the planet is now significantly altered and 97 percent of the most species-rich places on Earth have been seriously altered. There is little wonder there is a biodiversity crisis,” said James Watson, co-author of the study, in a statement.

Places deemed to have high biodiversity are still at high risk. Their analysis, published in Nature Communications, finds that much of human expansion is connected to agriculture. Places deemed to be “biodiversity hotspots” are under very high pressure from humans. It means that conservation efforts must protect those areas, argue the authors.

There are few places left in the world unaffected by humans. The authors say that 97 percent of the most species-rich places are significantly altered. All the information still means that the planet is not headed in the right direction. However, the authors say that the relatively slow expansion of our human footprint leaves the opportunity to make the kinds of changes that will mitigate the pace of planetary harm.

The distribution of human footprint intensity bins across biodiversity hotspots. credit: Science

The distribution of human footprint intensity bins across biodiversity hotspots. (Credit: Nature)

“Sustainable development is a widely espoused goal, and our data demonstrates clear messages of how the world can get there,” said lead author Oscar Venter, in a statement. “Concentrate people in towns and cities so their housing and infrastructure needs are not spread across the wider landscape, and promote honest governments that are capable of managing environmental impacts.”

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That recommendation comes with its own problems. Buildings can only go so high and over-congestion in urban cities in low- and middle-income countries has led to problems like higher rates of air pollution.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.