05/15/2012 02:07 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT

WWF report calls on Canada to ease demands on its resources, protect the planet

TORONTO - Canadians are living far beyond the planet's means, according to a report from an international conservation group.

So far in fact, that if all the world's residents lived like a typical Canadian, about three and a half planets like Earth would be needed to support their demands on natural resources.

That's the statistic found in a report released by the World Wildlife Fund Tuesday.

The "Living Planet Report" says Canada has the eighth largest ecological footprint per person in the world. The footprint is based on the demands a country's residents place on natural capital.

Qatar leads the list followed by Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Denmark. The United States ranks fifth, followed by Belgium and Australia. The Netherlands and Ireland round out the top 10.

"Our ecological footprint is way beyond a sustainable level," Steven Price, WWF Canada's conservation science director, told The Canadian Press.

"By not dialling that footprint down, we are jeopardizing our future descendants' ability to enjoy a comparable lifestyle, because we're eating away at their natural capital."

The report has been published every two years since 1998. It describes the changing state of global biodiversity and the pressure placed on Earth from human consumption of natural resources.

In its latest edition, the publication says biodiversity has declined globally by about 30 per cent between 1970 and 2008 while demands on natural resources have gone up. Areas of high biodiversity are important, the report explains, because they provide important ecosystem services such as carbon storage, fuel wood, freshwater flow and fish stocks.

With the emphasis on ecosystem services, the WWF is trying to drive home the point this year that a large ecological footprint doesn't just threaten wildlife, but also undermines nature's ability to provide basics like clean air and fresh soil, which are often taken for granted.

"We're trying to make an economic point and a vital human survival point," said Price. "(Our ecological footprint) is actually undermining our own life support system that we use to sustain ourselves."

The organization argues that Canada has an opportunity as a resource-rich country to protect the future by valuing the natural capital that is at the core of its economy and identity.

"To maintain our lifestyles we consume enormous and wasteful amounts of energy and goods," said Price. "We believe we can dial that down greatly without undermining our livelihoods or health or our education and the other benefits that we enjoy."

The way to do that, the organization argues, is for governments to employ conservation policies, alongside development projects, which will protect the country's landscapes and reduce the use of fossil fuels over time.

On an individual level, Canadians should try to reduce their overall energy use and make greener consumption choices when they can, said Price.

That could be as simple as walking to the grocery store instead of driving and buying a green-certified product once there.

"We can actually live a better and healthier life by consuming less and more wisely," he said.

The WWF report's Canadian statistics don't come as a surprise to at least one sustainability expert.

"As a rule, we use more water and we use more energy than most other countries per capita," said University of Ottawa professor Andre Potworowski.

"There's very little incentives or encouragement to use less."

Part of Canada's high energy consumption, Potworowski explained, comes from the country's harsh climates, vast distances and the fact that it has large energy deposits of its own.

But while the country certainly could be using a lot less energy, and has the technology in place to do so, there isn't any push from the government to do so, he said.

The Conservative government recently rolled a number of new environmental provisions into the federal budget implementation bill, sparking criticism that there will be a narrowing of public participation on environmental policy.

It is also in the process of abolishing the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the federally funded advisory group formed to give advice and research on sustainable development.

Ottawa has a 2020 target to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels and has said it is committed to tackling climate change, but a recent audit of government regulations has shown reaching that target will be unlikely.

"We live in a political climate where environmental priorities are significantly scaled down," Potworowski said. "There's no political will and there's no popular will to scale our environmental footprint down."