'Consumption Gap' Perpetuates Poverty, Degrades the Environment

The wide gap in consumption between the rich and poor is taking its toll on individuals and local and global resources, according to The State of World Population 2001 report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

The report, Footprints and Milestones: Population and Environmental Change, says vast numbers of people have been left out of the 20th century consumption boom resulting in "a huge consumption gap" between those who live in industrialized countries and those living in developing countries, especially the very poor. In the worst cases, the poor are not consuming enough to sustain themselves—some 800 million people are chronically malnourished—while the rich are over-consuming, squandering vital resources and creating vast amounts of waste in the process.

Of the 6.1 billion people sharing the planet, the 20 per cent who live in high-income regions, including Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia, account for 86 per cent of total private consumption while the poorest 20 per cent account for only 1.3 per cent. On an individual level, a child born today in an industrialized country will add more to consumption and pollution over his or her lifetime than 30 to 50 children born in developing nations.

Overall, more people are using more resources with more intensity than ever before. The burning of fossil fuels has quadrupled during the past half century, consumption of water has nearly doubled since 1960, and the use of wood, both for industry and households, is now 40 per cent higher than it was 25 years ago. Human activity has affected every part of the planet, no matter how remote, and every ecosystem, from the simplest to the most complex.

The hearty appetite of wealthy countries for goods and services has a direct impact on the poor, the report says. Over-fishing, driven by demand for animal feed and oils in industrial nations, threatens the main protein source for almost a billion people in the developing world. Rich countries' greenhouse gas emissions, which constitute over half of the world's total, contribute to climate change, which will have multiple effects, especially on the poor who are the most vulnerable to damage from increasing storms and floods.

According to the report, the "ecological footprint"—the productive area of the earth required to support the lifestyle of one individual in a given population—in industrialized countries is nearly four times as big as in developing countries and is double the level that is sustainable. Compared to the average person in the developing world, the average person in an industrialized country consumes three times as much forest products and produces more than five times as much carbon dioxide emissions.

The United States alone, with only 4 per cent of the world's people, emits nearly one quarter of global greenhouse gases. The estimated 111 million people that will be added to the U.S. population over the next 50 years will further expand energy demands by more than the current total energy consumption of Africa and Latin America combined.

By 2050, world population is projected to increase to 9.3 billion, with nearly all growth taking place in developing countries, which already face environmental stress. Future population growth and rising consumption levels will test the links between population and the environment.

The report points to the agreements reached by the world's governments at United Nations conferences during the past decade as a good starting point for collective action to reduce poverty, slow population growth, reduce wasteful consumption and protect natural resources. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development linked environmental protection to individual decision-making, gender equality and the right to reproductive health and family planning.

Other recommendations include implementation of the Kyoto accords on climate change, the introduction of incentives such as subsidies and industry standards to promote sustainable production processes, further research and application of more sustainable practices, and consumer education about the content and ecological and social impacts of goods. The report also recommends environmental taxes—charging for pollution, congestion and depletion. Sweden's air pollution taxes, Malaysia's effluent charges and Singapore's automobile taxes are well established and effective, the report says.