Footprint Network Blog - Ecological Limits

How do we measure sustainable development? Two new indexes, two very different views

07/20/2016 11:54 PM

It’s been a busy day for launching new country rankings. Today (July 20), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) released a 427-page report ranking countries by 77 indicators tied to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals approved last year. The SDG index averages countries’ performance on those goals. Each goal is assessed by a mélange of indicators, including poverty and obesity rate, traffic deaths, literacy rate, seats held by women in national parliament, access to water and electricity, unemployment, mobile broadband subscriptions, wastewater treatment, and carbon emissions.

How does compliance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals SDGs square with achieving development that can be sustained within the means of our planet? Ultimately, to be sustainable, development need to fit within our planet's resource budget. Therefore sustainable development can be mapped as development achievement, on the on hand, and resource demand, on the other.

The graph below summarizes the results. It shows the position of the top and bottom 10 countries on the SDG index in terms of their Human Development Index scores and their Ecological Footprints.

(Click image to enlarge)

The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) measures a country’s average achievements in the areas of health, knowledge, and standard of living. An HDI higher than 0.8 is considered "very high human development." The Ecological Footprint tells us how much of the earth’s bioproductive areas are needed to provide for that development. An Ecological Footprint less than 1.7 global hectares per person makes a country’s resource demands globally replicable.

What this graph shows is that fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals is no guarantee for sustainability. The top-ranked nations on the SDG index all have high Ecological Footprints. If everyone in the world lived like them, we would need more than three planets. In fact, it seems that there may be a tension as material development achievements are far more prominent in the SDGs than the need to preserve the underlying natural capital.

This leads us to the second sustainability index that came out today: the Happy Planet Index from the New Economics Foundation. This index has far fewer ingredients than the SDSN index: The HPI is based on a ratio of a country’s wellbeing measurements (such as life expectancy, equality and satisfaction) divided by its Ecological Footprint. It measures who gets the best lives per unit of renewable natural resource.

(Click image to enlarge)

The Happy Planet Index results differ markedly from the SDSN index: The top country is Costa Rica, home to amazing biodiversity and residents who have higher well-being than the residents of many higher-income countries, including the US and the UK. Residents in Costa Rica also live longer than Americans. All this is achieved with an Ecological Footprint per person that is one third of the American Ecological Footprint and a GDP per capita that is less than a quarter of that of many Western European and North American countries.

Perhaps the adage money doesn’t buy happiness holds true after all. Or does the SDSN index suggest otherwise?

Categories: Ecological Limits, Footprint for Government, Human Development, Our Partners’ Work


Global Footprint Network’s Footprint Calculator Scores High Marks in High Schools

07/20/2016 09:58 PM

Reports card’s out! High schools around the world are starting to integrate the Footprint calculators into their curriculums. Governments and organizations, including the United Nations and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are also catching on to the importance of environmental education in meeting long-term sustainability goals.

So how did today’s students do on the quiz? Teachers found that students were often times surprised at how large their Footprint was compared to others, leaving even the most eco-conscious students wondering what more they can do to protect Earth. By putting into perspective their own footprints, students can understand their personal impact on the world’s resources and begin to make choices that will collectively change the course of our future.

Educators have also praised the calculator for its animated components, echoing the sentiment that being able to communicate information visually helped teach sustainability to students in a digestible way. The calculator uses Global Footprint Network’s methodology to determine how many planets it takes to sustain each user’s lifestyle.

"Instead of giving just the pounds of carbon, the number of planets helped them understand what their number actually translated to in real life," noted Robin Dick (pictured at right), a teacher at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, California. "After they saw how much transportation of food had an effect on their planet number, [students] realized the importance of locally grown produce," Dick added.

With its animated simulations, the quiz is essentially an interactive computer game that is much more appealing to students than a worksheet crowded with numbers and facts, making it an effective and engaging tool for educators in the classroom.

"I used the calculator for my AP environmental science class. I really liked it and so did my students. They loved building their avatars," Karen Jackson, a teacher at Hobbs High School in Hobbs, New Mexico, told us via email.

Two million people took the online Ecological Footprint quiz last year. We hope this is a sign of the emergence of a global ecological worldview and we are excited for the integration of sustainability into more education initiatives. Going forward, we are looking to update the current calculator to work on mobile phones.

Categories: Carbon Footprint, Ecological Limits, Personal Footprint


Can China transform into an ecological civilization?

07/05/2016 10:31 PM

Creating an economy that operates in harmony with nature is the centerpiece of China President Xi Jinpig’s vision of transforming the country into an ecological civilization.

Can China become such a civilization?

To find out, we engaged with the Province of Guizhou. We are launching the results of our close collaboration with the province on Wednesday, July 6, at the EcoForum Global conference with a report titled "The Guizhou Footprint Report: Metrics for an Ecological Civilization."

Without a doubt, China is facing steep challenges: growing resource demand far beyond its own ecological resources and services; heavy dependence on fossil fuels; and growing expectations among citizens, with many people, particularly in rural areas, still needing to be lifted out of harsh economic conditions.

The Guizhou Footprint Report was created with financial support from the Swiss government. With mountainous ecosystems, rich biodiversity, and diverse people, Guizhou Province is a unique region of China that shares geographic similarities with Switzerland. So the report also includes a comparison of the two countries, China and Switzerland.

Here are some findings that highlight the challenges that Guizhou is facing:

Our work in Guizhou builds on the China Ecological Footprint Reports published by WWF China in collaboration with Global Footprint Network. Together, Global Footprint Network and WWF China are approaching other provinces in China about incorporating the Ecological Footprint into their work. Our next meeting is with the province of Sichuan.

Global Footprint Network also has a close relationship with the China Academy of Sciences (IGSNRR). There already have been dozens (if not more) Ecological Footprint papers published in international scientific journals by Chinese academics. Global Footprint Network is seeking to accelerate the Chinese academic leadership in applying and furthering Ecological Footprint accounting.

For more information about our work in China, visit www.zujiwangluo.org or www.chinafootprint.org. Download the Guizhou Footprint Report in English here or in Chinese here. A two-page summary of the report is also available in Chinese here.

Categories: Carbon Footprint, Ecological Limits, Footprint for Business, Footprint for Government, Our Partners’ Work


Can the UK survive on its own?

06/24/2016 11:11 AM

In the wake of the stunning Brexit vote results, we ask, what does it take to the support the UK’s demand for natural resources? Consider this:





The UK’s forest land only covers 3% of UK resident’s demand for forest products and carbon emissions sequestration. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel use make up 63 percent of the UK’s overall demand for nature, or its Ecological Footprint.






If the UK used all of its forests for forest products only (and nothing for carbon sequestration), they would meet only 27% of UK residents’ demand for forest products, including timber for building and paper. This means that nearly three-quarter of the UK’s demand for forest products is met by other countries.






The UK’s grazing lands meet only 42% of UK residents’ demand for grazing products – primarily meat and dairy. More than half of the demand is met by resources beyond its borders.








The UK covers 72% of its demand for crops with resources within its borders. In other words, it is relying on the resources of other countries to meet more than one quarter (28%) of its citizens demands for crops.







Overall, the UK requires 3.8 times more than what the UK’s ecosystems can renew including the sequestration of carbon from fossil fuel use. If all fossil carbon was magically sequestered, the UK would still require 1.4 UKs to meet its citizens’ remaining demand, leaving no space for wild species inhabiting the UK.





Even after the vote, the UK is far from independent. It seems that the Brits may be underestimating their reliance on the rest of the world to meet their demand for natural resources.

Categories: Carbon Footprint, Ecological Limits


Making conservation everybody’s business through Verified Conservation Areas

05/22/2016 09:12 AM

To mark International Day for Biological Diversity, Global Footprint Network is proud to support its partner Earthmind’s innovative program to boost ecosystems’ restoration and biodiversity conservation around the world, mitigating the Ecological Footprint.

What if conserving biodiversity wasn’t just the prerogative of national parks and protected areas? What if conserving biodiversity and restoring ecosystems could also be the responsibility of every local government, every business, every community and every individual with stewardship over a productive piece of land? And what if we could recognize and encourage communities, companies and others who conserve nature?

This vision is no pie in the sky. It has been guiding the Verified Conservation Areas (VCA) Approach launched two years ago by Francis Vorhies, the former CEO of Earthwatch Institute Europe and Chief Economist of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“To protect our planet, we need to conserve through management, not just legislation. The VCA approach is about supporting and promoting the sustainable management of productive landscapes, including farms, forests, and even golf courses—not just national parks,” explains Dr. Vorhies, a conservation veteran.

Global Footprint Network and Earthmind, the organization founded by Dr. Vorhies, are partnering in order to implement and promote the VCA approach as an inclusive measure for area-based conservation.

How the VCA idea works

The VCA approach is a voluntary program for recognizing area-based conservation. It offers transparency and accountability to area managers thoroughly listing VCAs on a public registry. Access to the VCA Registry is set out in the VCA Standard, which details what needs to be done to get and remain listed. 

To register an area, a VCA-compliant conservation management plan and associated third-party audit are required. To remain listed, an annual conservation performance report and associated audit is required. VCA plans, reports and audits are all publicly available on the Registry to inform stakeholders, including funders of the area’s conservation efforts and outcomes.

“It is very hard today to recognize sustainable land management efforts in the private sector or by local communities. Yet a recognition label can go a long way toward building up conservation as an asset,” Dr. Vorhies explains.

In fact, the VCA Registry is designed to make it easier to “buy conservation.” Environmentally minded consumers (individuals or organizations) can discover what suppliers of goods and services deserve their business because of their conservation efforts. Or they can identify VCA projects they wish to donate to or invest in.

“Our goal is to create a supply of conservation projects around the world that people anywhere can support,” says Dr. Vorhies. “We hope to turn conservation into an area for beneficial transaction opportunities to mitigate ecological overshoot.”

Vorhies is careful to stress that the definition of “conservation” used in the concept of a Verified Conservation Area is the one presented in the path-breaking 1980 IUCN World Conservation Strategy document. It includes not only restoration but also the “sustainable utilization” of land as a “positive” action “embracing preservation” for the sake of future generations.

As an example, a recent VCA project proposal was issued by the Dutch water company Vitens and five other landowners. The area is a narrow, 15-hectare strip of land called Lizards Lane in the Netherlands to be developed and managed as an ecological heathland corridor to enhance the viability of local populations of amphibians and reptiles. A detailed plan will have to be submitted within two years for the project to be listed as “registered.”

Other registered VCAs include a marine area in Yemen (fish pictured at top), a 250,000 restored wilderness conservancy in Mozambique.

Seeking critical mass

Boosting conservation efforts on the global scale is nothing short of a pressing priority. Growing human population and increasing levels of prosperity keep intensifying the pressures on biodiversity. Current conservation efforts are insufficient to address the ever-increasing global Ecological Footprint.

On the bright side, the global community has committed to conserving 17 percent of terrestrial areas and to restoring 15 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2020 under the international Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. This commitment was reconfirmed in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in September 2015.

Furthermore, the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group that finances and provides advice for private sector ventures and projects in developing countries, has included eight environmental performance standards in its lending policy. Performance Standard 6 addresses biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of living natural resources.

“The current international policy framework is technically sufficient to allow for the acceleration of conservation efforts everywhere. What we mainly need at this stage is transparency, accountability and scaling up of best practice,” points out Sebastian Winkler, Vice President Programme and Outreach at Global Footprint Network. He also helps with VCA development efforts.

The challenge ahead is as daunting as the opportunity. Since launching the VCA initiative about two years ago, Dr. Vohries and his team have attracted a dozen of projects on four continents to its registry. The initiative has been relying solely on the support of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, and is seeking a wider funding base to grow its clout and expand its reach.

Fortunately, the tipping point may be at hand. Conversations with financial institutions including Credit Suisse are picking up momentum. Investment facility Althelia Ecosphere recently expressed interest in piloting VCA projects in its portfolio. And if the team’s development efforts follow their due course, the two-year experiment may blossom as early as the end of this month into a full-fledged global initiative backed by governments and international agencies.

All eyes on the second session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly

Less than a month ago, Dr. Vorhies hosted a side event at the 20th meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-20) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an international body created in 1993 in the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil. The 40 participants in attendance, who were comprised of government and international NGO representatives, showed keen interest in VCA’s conservation solution.

Dr. Vorhies and his team are intent on capitalizing on that surge of interest quickly. Eight months after the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in New York, the United Nations is reconvening this week in Nairobi (UNEA-2) to discuss budgets and priorities with regard especially to further sustainable production and consumption. The goal is to have VCA taken in consideration as an official UN-approved tool to protect biodiversity, with a view to have it introduced at the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP13) to the CBD this December in Cancun, Mexico.

UNEA-2, we hope, will prove pivotal for VCA, thanks to the official endorsement by a non-European—yet to be announced—government, and the public launch of the VCA Coalition by a multi-stakeholder group.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE (May 28, 2016): The VCA Coalition was launched on May 27 in Nairobi at the signing ceremony of this Letter of Intent.  All partners are committed to helping promote, further develop and secure the sustained and increase use of the VCA Approach as a contribution to sustainable land management in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Categories: Ecological Limits, Our Partners’ Work, Personal Footprint


Celebrating Trees on Earth Day

04/22/2016 12:03 AM

#pledgefortheplanet

Together with our partner Earth Day Network, we’re happy to give trees a special nod today.

At Global Footprint Network, we have a soft spot for trees and forests. They are an essential pool of biodiversity. And they are one of our most important ecological assets: A whopping 70 percent of humanity’s Ecological Footprint is comprised of demand for forest products (paper, timber, etc.) and carbon capture, an ecological service that forests provide.

In fact, even if the whole Earth were covered with forests, we still wouldn’t have enough to meet our current demand for their products and services…Besides, we obviously need to leave some productive land available for crops to feed us.

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Categories: Carbon Footprint, Ecological Limits, Our Partners’ Work


Imagine happiness treading lightly on the Earth

03/25/2016 11:10 AM

How did you celebrate UN World Happiness Day last Sunday? All of us had plenty to chew on with the release of the World Happiness Report 2016—the fourth edition since 2012. Prepared by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an international panel of economists, psychologists and public health experts convened by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the happiness ranking of 156 countries was based on individual responses to a global poll conducted by Gallup.

The scholars found that three-quarters of the variation across countries could be explained by six variables: gross domestic product per capita (the rawest measure of a nation’s wealth); healthy years of life expectancy; social support; trust (as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business); perceived freedom to make life choices; and generosity (as measured by donations).

The glaring omission on this list is the significance of resource consumption. Yet combining the Happiness Index and Ecological Footprint data on one graph reveals interesting patterns.

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Categories: Ecological Limits, Human Development, Personal Footprint


ENERGY LAB (Zürich, 10. Mai 2016)

03/21/2016 03:53 PM

Im Energy Lab suchten wir nach den gemeinsamen Eckpunkten und Grundprinzipien der diversen Teilnehmer für eine Energiepolitik der Schweiz nach dem Pariser Klima Abkommen.

Energy Lab: Wie werden wir die Schweiz antreiben?
(Agenda)

Der Klimawandel stellt die zukünftige Nutzung fossiler Energie in Frage. Heute kann die Schweiz nur 56% seiner Elektrizität durch Wasserkraft produzieren, etwa 13% ihres gesamten Energieverbrauchs. Achtzig Prozent der verbrauchten Energie kommt aus dem Ausland, mit nur wenigen Prozenten davon aus erneuerbaren Quellen.

Wir ladeten Experten, Politikern, NGO Vertretern und Studenten zu einer interaktiven Debatte ein, um gemeinsame Prinzipien für die zukünftige Schweizer Energielandschaft zu entdecken. Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmer wurden aufgefordert, ihre persönliche Sicht für die Schweiz zu erörtern.

Sind wir bereit, unsere persönlichen Träume für die Zukunft zu offenbaren? Was haben unsere Träume gemeinsam? Wo scheiden sich unsere Perspektiven? Was steht zur Debatte? Gibt es einen attraktiven Weg in die Zukunft? Sie sind gefragt, einen Beitrag zu leisten, gemeinsam mit anderen Schweizern eine Zukunftsvision für unsere Schweiz zu entwickeln.

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Categories: Carbon Footprint, Ecological Limits, Footprint for Government, Personal Footprint


FOOD LAB (Bern, 17. Mai 2016)

03/21/2016 03:52 PM

Im Food Lab suchen wir nach den gemeinsamen Eckpunkten und Grundprinzipien der diversen Teilnehmer für eine Nahrungsmittelpolitik der Schweiz nach dem Pariser Klima Abkommen.

Food Lab: Wer wird die Schweiz ernähren?
(Agenda)

Das Ziel von Paris unter 2 Grad Celsius Klimaerwärmung zu bleiben, bedingt eine radikale Reduktion der Treibhausgasemissionen vor 2050. Was bedeutet das für die Nahrungsmittelproduktion hier und weltweit? Die heutigen Ernährungssysteme sind für 30% der globalen Treibhausgasemissionen verantwortlich. Auch wenn es uns gelingt, den Klimawandel auf 2 Grad zu beschränken, bedrängt er die Nahrungsmittelproduktion. Zudem braucht eine wachsende Weltbevölkerung mehr Nahrung. Das alles macht nachhaltige Erzeugung ein noch unabdingbareres Ziel.

Wie kann die Ernährungssicherheit in der Schweiz langfristig gewährleistet werden? (Besonders unter Berücksichtigung der Ziele des Pariser Klimaabkommens 2015)?

Wie werden wir uns 2050 ernähren können (und gleichzeitig soll die Welt bis dann auch CO2 neutral sein)? Und was müssen wir deswegen JETZT tun? Was sind die grossen Fragen und Themen?

Heute schon bekommt die Schweiz nur 50% seiner Nahrungsmittel aus der eigenen Produktion (BFS 2013,bit.ly/1S73Y5f). Der Rest kommt aus dem Ausland, wie auch ein Grossteil der Futtermittel für heimische Tiere für die Fleisch- und Milchproduktion. Bis 2050 leben wahrscheinlich 10 Millionen Menschen in der Schweiz. Werden wir das Geld haben für die Nahrungsimporte? Kaufen wir das Essen einfach den anderen weg – oder stimulieren wir mit dem Geld die notwendige Mehrproduktion (und das ohne Fossilenergie)?

Das bedeutet auch: Wie kann die Landwirtschaft, hier oder im Ausland, langfristig eine höhere und zugleich nachhaltigere Nahrungsmittelversorgung sicherstellen? Welchen Beitrag kann die biologische Landwirtschaft dabei liefern? Gibt es Synergien zwischen biologischer und industrieller Landwirtschaft? Könnten Ansätze aus der biologischen Landwirtschaft in konventionellen Systemen vermehrt integriert werden, um einen schonenderen Umgang mit Ressourcen zu gewährleisten? Kann die biologische Landwirtschaft durch Innovation und günstige Rahmenbedingungen zur breiten Anwendung gebracht werden? Und wie viel Produktion und Konsum braucht es überhaupt? Was würde eine faktenbasierte, menschenfreundliche Thematisierung des Themas Suffizienz bringen? Welche Lösungsoptionen stehen zur Verfügung?

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Categories: Ecological Limits, Footprint for Government, Personal Footprint


From outdoor party to environmental awareness, a student’s view of Earth Hour in China

Krina Huang - 03/18/2016 09:52 PM

When I was growing up in Shenzhen, China, one of the must-join activities in my high school was the “Earth Hour” performance. On the last Saturday in March, companies, government, and environmental organizations run by high school students organized performances and games using only small lights (rather than bright stage lighting) in large communities to encourage residents to join outdoor activities while turning off their lights at home. The performance that I remember most was a student band and chorus performing in the dark, without any lights at all. In that darkness, we seemed to be able to hear the music more clearly and enjoy it more. 

To this day, about half of the lights are turned off in government buildings and public areas—on streets and in squares—in Shenzhen to support Earth Hour. Words such as “1 Hour,” “60 Minutes,” and “3600 Seconds” are spelled out with LED lights and can be seen everywhere in the city.

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Categories: Ecological Limits, Personal Footprint


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