May 25, 1997 in Nation/World

Worldwatch Checks Earth’s ‘Vital Signs’ Encouraging Trends In Renewable Energy, Global Warming Counter The Doomsayers

Associated Press

The world is burning irreplaceable oil, natural gas and coal at a record pace, but the biggest increases in energy use last year were in more abundant resources - wind, sun and geothermal energy.

The latest collection of data on the earth’s pulse, “Vital Signs 1997,” published this weekend by Worldwatch Institute, spotlights some surprisingly optimistic human and environmental trends amid the usual gloom and doom of a world suffering from increased pollution and the spread of AIDS.

On the rise, the report found, were energy consumption, carbon emissions, storm damage, car and bicycle production, fertilizer use, irrigated acreage, grain stocks, carbon emissions, AIDS infections, population and the world economy.

Declining were global temperatures (ever so slightly), refugee populations, U.N. peacekeeping operations, armies, arms production, non-human primate populations, food aid, spending for research and development and the number of languages spoken in the world.

Under the mixed and sometimes contradictory trends, the bottom line is that robust world economic growth is outpacing developments in the ecosystem on which it depends, said Worldwatch President Lester R. Brown.

“The evidence of this is painfully clear,” said Brown, citing how increased consumption and demand has exceeded the capacity of fisheries, grasslands, forests and water supplies.

But Brown acknowledged that some news about the planet is good.

“We see hope … that humanity may be close to turning historic corners on some of its most pressing problems,” he said in the report’s foreword.

By far the fastest growing energy sources last year were wind, solar and geothermal, heat that comes from within the earth. And, while fossil fuel consumption was at all-time highs, the biggest increase was in natural gas, considered the most environmentally safe of nonrenewable energy sources.

Use of gas, coal and oil rose by 4.5, 2.3 and 1.8 percent respectively, reaching all-time highs. At the same time, geothermal energy increased by 5.5 percent, solar power by 16 percent and wind energy by a whopping 26 percent.

Germany for the first time passed the United States in wind-generated electricity, while India moved ahead of Denmark into third place, according to an article in the report by Worldwatch researcher Christopher Flavin.

Reflecting optimism in other areas, this year’s Vital Signs provides bright counterpoints for some of its most foreboding data:

While world highways are now jammed with a half billion automobiles, bicycle production is up to three times that of cars.

World population hit an estimated 5.8 billion in 1996, but annual growth is now declining, with 80 million people added last year, compared to 87 million in 1990.

Carbon emissions worldwide set a new record of 6.25 billion tons. But production of chlorofluorocarbons continued a downward trend, setting the stage for possible healing of the ozone layer that blocks harmful rays from the sun.

Worldwatch is an independent environmental research institute, funded by private grants and sale of its own publications.

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