Footprint Network Blog - Carbon Footprint
May and June this year were the hottest ever since record-keeping began in 1880, according to a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report. 2014 could go down as the warmest year yet, exceeding the previous records set in 2003 and 2013.
There’s no question that the Earth is warming, ancient ice is melting and sea levels are rising. Friends of Global Footprint Network are well aware of many of the risks that anthropogenic climate change poses, particularly to the world’s poorest regions.
A risk that remains under-appreciated, however, is the impact that water availability will have on energy, and that constrained energy supply will have on water.
After food production, electricity generation is the second-largest consumer of water globally. Thermal power plants – those powered by coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear – consume vast amounts of water in their cooling cycles. A single nuclear reactor can consume over 15 million gallons of water per day. Power generation accounts for 41 percent of freshwater withdrawals and about three percent of freshwater consumption (3.3 billion gallons of water per day) in the United States.
Warmer temperatures have been taking a toll on these thirsty facilities. Every summer, a lack of water (or of water that is sufficiently cold) forces power plants to shut down. Inadequate and irregular rainfall has also forced hydropower facilities to shut down, such as the Shivanasamudra plant in southern India this month.
Just as producing power requires water, producing water requires power. In California, one-fifth of the state’s electrical power is used to pump, treat, transport, heat, cool and recycle water. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the water in the state, which produces one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts consumed in the United States.
This year is on track to be the driest in the history of recorded rainfall in the state, and has already forced cattle ranchers to pare down their herds and almond farmers to plow under their trees. Food prices across the nation have crept up due to the drought.
California is emblematic of the predicament that the world now faces. A growing population puts water, food, and energy supplies under even more pressure even as they are increasingly strained by climate change. But the most accessible solutions often lead to destructive feedback loops. For example, California’s current plan to replace the 2.2 gigawatts of power generation from the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station, which was shut down in 2012, is likely to rely substantially on new power generation from natural gas, which will pump even more CO2 into the atmosphere and increase the probability of future droughts.
As we anticipate the announcement of Earth Overshoot Day this year, which will arrive earlier than ever, it’s worth contemplating how we can find a way out of our predicament, and find real and enduring solutions to the knot of problems in the energy-water nexus. As many have observed, it is really an energy-water-food-economy-security-and-everything nexus, because energy and water are so fundamental to life. Eliminating waste, and using the precious resources we have as efficiently as possible, is the obvious place to start – and that’s a challenge we can all help to answer.
Global Footprint Network is thrilled to announce that Co-Founder and President Dr. Mathis Wackernagel and Dr. William Rees, co-creators of the Ecological Footprint, have been named the winners of the 2012 Kenneth E. Boulding Award, the world’s top honor in the field of ecological economics.
The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), made the announcement leading up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), in Rio de Janeiro, where the awards will be presented.
The biennial award is given to “outstanding individuals who have contributed original and seminal approaches that have furthered our understanding of the interfaces between the social, ecological, ethical, economic and political dimensions of our world,” said the ISEE in announcing the award.
Building on Rees’ earlier work on human carrying capacity, Wackernagel and Rees in the early 1990s developed the Ecological Footprint, the world’s premier resource accounting system, to track humanity’s demands on nature. The Ecological Footprint measures the area of productive land and water, or “biocapacity,” required to produce the resources a human population consumes and to absorb its carbon waste.
For the last 10 years, Global Footprint Network has contributed to WWF’s bi-annual flagship publication “The Living Planet Report,” which has become a key publication for Ecological Footprint results. The 2012 edition was released in May from the International Space Station, generating the largest media response of any Living Planet Report so far. The latest Global Footprint Network calculations show that humanity’s demand for bio-resources exceeds the long-term regenerative capacity of Earth by over 50 percent.
“Ever more countries continue to use more resources than they can renew within their own boundaries,” Drs. Wackernagel and Rees said. “Until countries begin tracking and managing their biocapacity deficits, they put not only themselves at risk but, more importantly, the entire planet.”
The award will be presented at the ISEE Conference 2012 in Rio de Janeiro on June 19, where Wackernagel and Rees will deliver the keynote Boulding Award lectures.
Dr. Wackernagel has promoted sustainability on six continents and lectured at more than 100 universities. Dr. Rees is an ecologist, ecological economist, Founding Director of the One Earth Initiative, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning.
Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993) was President of the American Economics Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science. Past notable recipients include Herman Daly (American economist, considered the father of Ecological Economics) and Manfred Max-Neef, author of Real-Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation.
We thank you, our valued partners and supporters, for helping to promote our work around the world, and making awards such as these possible as we continue to make ecological limits central to decision-making.
Given humanity’s increasing demands on Earth’s resources, it’s never too early to start teaching the next generation lessons about sustainability and our Ecological Footprint.
One of most effective ways to learn is through story. A brother and sister team, Cecilia and Gyula Simonyi, have created Children of the Elements, a series of illustrated interactive stories for the iPad. They envision the app as a tool for parents to tackle the complex subject with their children. Cecilia and Gyula have worked with their father, who is the founder and President of the BOCS Foundation in Hungary, a Global Footprint Network partner organization.
Children of the Element is an educational app, hand-painted on 40 screens and presented in English and Hungarian. The app provokes thinking systematically about sustainability by exploring food, transportation, energy, technology, consumption, population and related issues, and weaving them into stories that show their interconnectedness.
Cecilia and Gyula have launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise funds to fully develop the series and reach a wider audience. While aimed for children ages 8 years and older, the stories are no doubt entertaining and edifying for adults as well. It follows four young children as they explore their world, giving readers an opportunity to make decisions for each character. Each episode addresses a different sustainability topic. Funds raised through the Kickstarter campaign will be used for a programmer, music, and special-effects.
“Our goal is to introduce the true face of sustainability, the complexity, the far-reaching impacts and reactions, and offer this in a format understandable and enjoyable by children,” says Gyula, the project manager. “With this series we hope to trigger real understanding, rather than oversimplifying (with) messages like ‘don’t litter.’ Our goal is to stimulate questions, generate discussion and inspire change in choices our readers make.
“Being a mother, I feel the most important knowledge I can give my child is how to live in harmony with our planet,” says Cecilia, author and illustrator of the stories, and mother of a 4-year-old. “Children growing up today are going to face all the challenges our generation have left behind for them to solve.”
Kickstarter allows backers to pledge various amounts to support the creative projects of their choice. If the project reaches its pledge goal by the end of the funding period, the pledges are collected and sent to the project team. However, if the full amount is not raised by the deadline, no money changes hands. On Kickstarter, backers are not only donating money to a project that inspires them, but their pledge is honored with special gifts the project creator offers.
To watch the campaign video and help make the full Children of the Elements series happen, visit their Kickstarter page. And stay up to date by visiting their Facebook page and Cecilia’s blog, which has new illustrations.
Editors update (July 3, 2012): The Kickstarter campaign is over, but the project is not. Follow the progress on the Children of the Elements blog.
The joint project between the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) and Global Footprint Network to assess the financial materiality of ecological risk was launched at the UN Foundation in Washington DC on 17 October 2011. Opening remarks from Paul Clements-Hunt (Head of UNEP FI) and Susan Burns (Senior Vice President of Global Footprint Network) showed a clear commitment from both organisations to this potentially ground breaking project. Richard Burrett, of Earth Capital Partners, also gave an inspiring presentation detailing not only the importance of this project but also how investors currently perceive the financial relevance of natural resources.
It is clear that the tightening constraints on resources and their potential impacts on national economies are not included within current financial analysis. Yet such factors are thought to have growing implications for the long-term credit risk of many government bonds, especially those with long-dated maturities.
A host of financial institutions were in attendance at the launch and participated in a stimulating discussion around the evidence base to show that ecological risks are becoming material for economies and how key ecological data can be linked to the financial and economic indicators. This project will endeavour to shine a light on such questions to explore the role of natural resource accounting in strengthening risk models for government bonds.
Global Footprint Network and UNEP FI would like to thank all those who participated in the launch event and invite any other institutions who are interested to join the project.
Humanity has reached a new milestone as we hit 7 billion. Never before have there been 7 billion people on planet earth, all at the same time. As we welcome the 7th billion global inhabitant, we also acknowledge the challenges we will face due to a burgeoning population explosion, resource depletion, food and water scarcity and overcrowded cities. This is especially true at a time when humanity as a whole is already using the planets regenerative capacity 50 percent faster than it can renew.
Although humanity’s total demand is unsustainable, this consumption is very unevenly distributed among the 7 billion people. A large portion of humanity does not have enough resources to secure even their most basic subsistence needs. This suffering is intolerable. It affects the rest of humanity, too, most visibly through conflict and instability.
Therefore, Global Footprint Network is mapping how much nature we have, how much we use, and who uses what. In a crowded, resource constrained world this information helps decision makers understand our present resource situation and find options for avoiding unpleasant consequences.
Global Footprint Network is the standard setting body for the only Ecological Footprint standards in the world. The Ecological Footprint standards set forth quality criteria for Ecological Footprint studies of sub-national populations, organizations, and products. The goal of the Ecological Footprint Standards is to build consensus among practitioners regarding Ecological Footprint methodology, transparency, and communications. This consensus is important because it helps to establish a forum or a common platform for understanding and communicating about natural resource constraints. To that end, the Ecological Footprint Standards are used as a way of maintaining the scientific credibility and accuracy of Ecological Footprint studies, the policy relevance, and the consistency and appropriateness with which the method is applied and findings communicated.
Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint Standards have been established through a committee-based process that incorporates input from our Partnership Network and Public Comment. The Global Footprint Network Standards Committee is starting the process to review and revise the Ecological Footprint Standards. Participation in the Committee and Procedures for the Committee are outlined in Global Footprint Network Committees Charter. The result of this process will be updates to the 2009 Ecological Footprint Standards to be released towards the end of 2012.
Improving comparability The original goal of the Ecological Footprint Standards is to increase the quality, reliability and consistency of Footprint assessments. As the Ecological Footprint is being adopted by a growing number of government agencies, organizations and communities as a measure of environmental performance, there is an even greater need for quality, consistency, and reliability. This review and revision process for the 2012 Ecological Footprint Standards is a way to maintain this goal of improving comparability.
In addition, as the Ecological Footprint methodology is applied in different circumstances by different practitioners, advances to the methodology and communications strategies are being made. Conducting a review and revision process every three years allows Global Footprint Network to stay on top of advances in Ecological Footprint science and application. By engaging with experts, our Partner Network, and public comment every three years, our Ecological Footprint Standards can allow for a dynamic process that encourages innovation and action.
Your feedback is welcome during the entire process! Before the revised Standards are finalized in 2012, there will be two 60-day Public Review periods, one in March – May 2012 and the second in July – September 2012. These are your opportunities to provide more input as the draft develops.
How a Carbon Tax Will Help Australia Compete
In recent weeks, opponents of a proposed carbon tax have succeeded in fanning fear that the tax could hurt national competitiveness by denting demand for Australia’s coal and mining sectors. Yet such fears are decidedly misplaced. The Gillard government’s plan to put a levy on the worst contributors to carbon pollution reflects a move toward pricing that is rooted firmly in the ecological realities of the 21st century. It is pricing that promotes forward-looking investment and innovation, rather than subsidizing an outmoded status quo. And it is pricing that will ultimately mean more jobs and better lives for Australian residents, and more stability for the Australian economy.
Coal and mining executives protest that jobs could be lost if importing countries such as China and Japan have a reason to seek out other markets. Such concerns, however, beg a question: If jobs are lost today because of an uptick in the cost of doing business, what will be the impact on the sector as the global marketplace moves to cleaner, greener solutions? In a world facing climate change and growing constraints on resources, the good money is on those industries that lead the way in energy efficiency and clean technology. Australia’s mining sector—in particular its coal industry—is on the other end of that spectrum, topping the list in carbon pollution and environmental demand.
“We really need to stop thinking that this will mean acting out ahead of the world,” GE Capital’s regional chief executive Steve Sargent was quoted as saying in a recent article in Business Day. “We actually have a long way to catch up. Germany has broken the nexus between strong economic growth, strong trade growth, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. With Australia, we have gotten worse.”
The booming profits of the coal and mining sector mask a growing cost to the health of another of Australia’s most important assets: its vast ecological wealth. Australia ranks seventh in the world in biocapacity, the amount of renewable natural resources its ecosystems can provide.
If well-managed, this self-replenishing source of wealth will offer Australia continued advantages, both in supplying the resources the rest of the world needs, and in providing for the needs of its own people. In a world in which the supply of renewable natural resources is shrinking while demand mushrooms, the potential value of this asset is inestimable. But there is a key problem: the principal is eroding.
Between 1961 and 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, Australia’s biocapacity per person fell by more than half, due largely to a similar amount of capacity being divided by a growing number of people. Total biocapacity has declined by about five percent. At the same time, Australia’s Ecological Footprint, the amount of productive land and sea required to produce the resources it consumes and absorb CO2 emissions, is the 12th largest in the world, and the country is one of the world’s highest per-capita emitters of carbon dioxide. This degree of resource-intensity implies significant changes not only to key sectors but to society as a whole if Australia is to keep step with the rest of world.
Analysis by investment firms such as Goldman Sachs, Citi, Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan have put the impact of the tax at less than two percent of earnings for all but a very few Australian companies. These are negligible impacts in a time of soaring profits, and they scarcely approach the true costs of emissions.
The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering assessed that, for every megawatt hour produced by brown coal, a cost of $50 in greenhouse gas pollution and health impacts accrues to society. Such costs are paid for by citizens or borrowed against Australia’s future in ways such as depleted ecosystems and lost agricultural productivity.
The Gillard government’s plan to institute a carbon tax recognizes a key reality: If we continue to build our success on using ever more resources, we are preparing for our demise. If instead, we invest in building environmental capital and reducing ecological demand, we can adjust more comfortably, and even profitably, to a changing world. Mechanisms that help us do so are anything but uncompetitive. They are a strategy for managing our economy with an eye to the future rather than the past.
As a society that relies extensively on resources from abroad, Hong Kong is particularly vulnerable to growing global constraints on resources, the report says. But in spite of its unsustainable consumption, there are a number of readily available measures that would enable Hong Kong to reduce its pressure on ecological services, and enable it to achieve a one-planet Ecological Footprint.
The Hong Kong Ecological Footprint Report, issued every two years, aims to provide a benchmark to track Hong Kong residents’ shifts in consumption, from which trends can be identified and actions proposed.
The 2010 report reveals that if everyone in the world lived a similar lifestyle to that of Hong Kong residents, we would need the equivalent of 2.2 Earths. In 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, Hong Kong residents had an average per person Ecological Footprint of 4.0 global hectares (hectares with world-average productivity). This level of demand is more than double the 1.8 gha that was available per person globally in 2007 to produce renewable resources and absorb CO2.
“Unsustainable demand on a global scale means that countries and regions such as Hong Kong will find it increasingly harder to meet their resource needs simply by relying on ecological services from abroad,” said Dr. Wackernagel. “The more it can provide a high quality of life for its residents on a smaller Ecological Footprint, Hong Kong will not only address global risks, but more directly, it will make its economy more resilient facing the future.”
The largest portion of Hong Kong’s Ecological Footprint—60 percent—comes from carbon dioxide emissions. Hong Kong’s carbon Footprint per person has grown 24-fold since 1962. While 26 percent of its carbon Footprint comes from CO2 emitted from within Hong Kong itself (for example, from vehicles and electricity use), the majority, 74 percent is embodied in goods and services produced abroad. Some 58 million tonnes of CO2 are emitted elsewhere to supply imports to Hong Kong.
Other major drivers of Hong Kong’s Footprint are consumption of seafood and timber products, which are mostly from unsustainable sources.
But there are reasons for optimism. In contrast to the rest of China, Hong Kong’s Ecological Footprint per person has declined 25 percent and leveled off since it peaked in the late 1990s. While it is no doubt benefiting from some increased efficiencies in the city, the decline appears largely due to vagaries in the trade of the embodied carbon of goods and natural resources, and of cropland products. It is mostly not the result of sustainable development policies.
One key way Hong Kong could reduce its Footprint is by boosting the market for sustainable goods. “Consumers can demand that the seafood and timber products we consume are produced sustainably,” notes Dr Andy Cornish, Director, Conservation at WWF-Hong Kong. “In this way we can leverage Hong Kong’s buying power and act as a regional catalyst to drive natural resource producers towards sustainability. In turn, this will create an increased and reliable supply of sustainable products for Hong Kong.”
With 70 percent of the average carbon Footprint coming from household consumption (as opposed to businesses or public infrastructure and services), individual choices have a key role to play. The report calls on Hong Kong to reduce excessive, inefficient and wasteful consumption. It also calls for transforming its modest agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries industries to minimize their impact to the environment.
“Solutions are readily available, and Hong Kong is a city used to reinventing itself,” the report concludes. “Reducing Hong Kong’s Ecological Footprint per person by half would approximate the biocapacity that is available globally and, therefore, make it a logical and sustainable objective.”
Radiohead, a well-known British rock-band, recently commissioned Global Footprint Network partner Best Foot Forward (BFF) to analyze the band’s Footprint and help reduce their tour’s carbon emissions. BFF’s report shows that transport, how fans get to Radiohead’s shows, is the most important lever for reducing the tour’s Footprint.