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Feature: Moving forward to stand still

In 1961, a WWF (then the World Wildlife Fund) report Limits to Growth created international uproar when it suggested that the human economy would soon exceed the Earth's available resources. Now, 34 years later,
the most up-to-date WWF report Europe 2005 - The Ecological Footprint shows that the projected over- plundering has become a reality.

In short, the report says that "humanity's annual demand for resources is now exceeding the Earth's regenerative capacity by more than 20%...Humanity maintains this overdraft by liquidating the planet's natural resources". For those in the recycling industry who spend every working day trying to meet diversion targets or find new markets for recyclates, the fact that the fruits of their labour are falling so woefully behind what is environmentally required is galling.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that our own European ecological footprint has worsened by almost 70% since 1961.

The maths, according to the WWF's footprint equation, is simple: "We live on a bountiful planet, but not a limitless one. The global economy and human population continue to grow, but our planet remains the same size. Advances in technology can help us to stretch the planet's resources further - but the pace of growth in the global economy is outstripping the ability of technology to keep up."

The report states that Europe's demand on the biosphere is significant. Accounting for only 7% of the world population, the EU uses 17 % of the biosphere's regenerative capacity. Europe, it says, increasingly exports its insatiable demands for natural resources to poorer countries. The current footprint of the EU-25 is 2.2 times as large as its own biological capacity. This means that at its current rate of consumption, just over twice its own land and sea space would be required to support Europe's resource demands.

This compares with the situation in 1961 when the EU-25 nations' total resource demand was nearly commensurate with biocapacity.

However, the report notes that there are significant variations in the ecological footprints of the EU member states and also the underlying factors that make up the calculation.

France, for example, has moved from using, in net terms, slightly less than its full domestic biocapacity in 1961 to nearly twice its own biocapacity in 2001.

This parallels the EU-25 trend where biocapacity has slightly increased with improved technology and more intensive agriculture (using more fertilizsr, pesticides, and irrigation), but is outpaced by the growth of both population and consumption, and by the ecosystem degradation caused by intensive farming practices.

Rapid economic expansion and a large increase in consumption, particularly of energy, saw Greece's 2001 footprint increase by almost 180% over the level of 40 years ago - raising it above the EU-25 average by around 11%. The inflow of European regional funds has acted as an important motor of this economic expansion over the recent period, the report states.

Poland provides a more inspirational example. Although the country's economy has expanded considerably since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the opening up of central Europe, its footprint has not. "Poland," says the report, "has the potential to become a leading exponent of how the introduction of innovative technologies can de-couple economic growth from resource consumption."

Looking closer to home, in 1961 the UK used more than twice

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