Other vital signs of ailing planet earth are more mixed, according to Worldwatch. There is increased pollution and there is more population than ever, but there is also a very slight lowering in global temperatures and CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) production, refugee populations and arms production.
The sharp and sometimes disturbing contrasts indicated in about 40 trends identified by Worldwatch are published in "Vital Signs 1997: The Environmental Trends That Are Shaping Our Future." The annual planetary check-up, issued in late May, generally gives a mixed status report on current environmental factors. The bottom line, the report says, is that the world's robust economic growth is outpacing developments in the ability to sustain the world environmentally.
But outstanding amongst the doom and gloom is one glimmer of hope, the pace of growth of renewables. "There are a lot of indications that we're really in a breakthrough period now," says Worldwatch's Chris Flavin. Wind and solar "could be in transition from small insignificant energy sources to being an important part of the energy system," he adds. "The [wind] industry's getting to the scale where prices will really start to be driven down and substantial companies will get involved." He cites China as the market that is about to explode in terms of market potential.
According to the report, the fastest-growing source of energy in 1996 was wind at 26%, albeit on a small base, with total installed capacity now exceeding 6000 MW. Flavin, however, points out that everything must start small -- "you could have said that about Microsoft at one point" -- and that wind's growth has been sustained at about the same level throughout the 1990s. "Compound rates of small growth turn small things into large things very quickly," he comments.
The slowest growth in energy use was nuclear power, at just 1%. Manufacture of PV cells was up 26%. The report found that overall energy use is up, as is storm damage, car and bicycle production, fertiliser use, irrigated acreage, grain stocks, and the world economy. Fossil fuel consumption is at an all-time high, and fastest-growing amongst non-renewables is the use of natural gas with a 4% growth.