Why We Measure: It’s All About People and Our Planet’s Well-being
From the Editor
As we wind down the year, we’re reflecting on the many leaders and organizations we’ve worked with around the world. 2013 has been an especially gratifying year as we celebrated our organization’s tenth anniversary. Below are just a few highlights from the past few months:
2013 Philippines Footprint Report Reveals Climate Change Vulnerability
Philippines Climate Change Commissioner, Nadarev Sano, who recently gained international attention for his impassioned speech at the opening of the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, has been one of the most outspoken champions of the use of the Ecological Footprint.
Through our partnership with the Philippines’ Office of the President, Global Footprint Network has been raising awareness of the link between the Philippines’ ecological deficit and the well-being of its people. As part of the second phase of a three-part investigation of the Philippines’ Ecological Footprint and resource constraints, we’ve recently released the report Restoring Balance in Laguna Lake Region. In his foreword for the report, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III stated, “This report affirms our conviction that our natural resources must be sustainably managed not only for the sake of our country’s economic and social development but also for the greater resiliency of our people and the integrity of our ecosystems.” Launched in October in Manila with the support of the Australian Government’s Aid Program, and in collaboration with the Philippines Climate Change Commission, Laguna Lake Development Authority, Metro Manila Development Authority, the report reveals that the Philippines’ Laguna Lake region — home to economic epicenter Metro Manila and provinces vulnerable to climate change — faces a staggering ecological deficit as its population demands ecological resources and services 30 times faster than what the region can renewably supply.
Climate Change is About People
A point often lost in climate change discussions is that it’s about people, Pati Poblete, Global Footprint Network Asia Regional Director, reminds us in a recent San Francisco Chronicle op-ed on the impact of Typhoon Haiyan. Pati also reminds us that “Sustainability is not just an environmental or moral issue. It’s about the well-being of humanity and our planet,” in Global Footprint Network’s new overview video.
Investor Rings Alarm Bells About Natural Resources Commodity Prices
For those of you following our work with the finance industry, you are most likely aware of the effect of rising commodity prices on the national economies of the world. No one makes the case better than Jeremy Grantham, chief investment strategist at the global investment management firm GMO. Read this thought-provoking interview with Grantham in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
2013 Francophonie Atlas Launched at the Climate COP19 in Warsaw
French-speaking countries span the globe from Laos to Madagascar. We’ve recently taken a close look at their collective ecological health in our new report: Atlas of the Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity of Francophonie Countries, which notes that 28 of 40 Francophonie countries are in ecological deficit — that is, their populations demand more than their ecosystems can supply. The study, a collaboration with IFDD-OIF and UICN, was released at the UN’s COP19 climate change talks in Warsaw. The report is a first step to deeper engagement with these nations as they navigate a resource-constrained future.
2013 Hong Kong Footprint Report Reveals Ecological Deficit
Did you know that if Hong Kong were a country, it would have the world’s 26th largest per capita Ecological Footprint? Hong Kong’s demands for renewable resources and ecological services is more than 150 times greater than what its own ecosystems can provide, Global Footprint Network and WWF-Hong Kong reveal in the 2013 Hong Kong Ecological Footprint report, released on Earth Overshoot Day. “The earth is like a bank … and we are now dipping into its savings of natural resource capital. It will be a crisis for us and for the future of our children,” Gavin Edwards, WWF-Hong Kong Director of Conservation, told the South China Morning Post.
WBCSD’s “Pitch for Nature” Video Explains Why Businesses Should Care About Natural Capital
What does nature provide for your business? And shouldn’t it be on your balance sheet? Global Footprint Network helped produce the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)’s “Pitch for Nature” video, launched at the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital last month.
The Mediterranean Region is Depleting its Ecological Resources
If world commodity prices continue to be as volatile as they have been over the past ten years the Mediterranean region faces a serious risk of supply disruption, explain Alessandro Galli and Martin Halle, members of Global Footprint Network’s Research & Standards team, in an esglobal op-ed. They calculate that just a 10 percent increase in commodity prices — a modest estimate given the fluctuations of the last decade — would worsen Mediterranean countries’ trade balance by the equivalent of 0.1 to 2.4 percent of their respective national GDP.
What’s Your Birthday Wish for Global Footprint Network?
We celebrated our Ten Year Anniversary with events in both Switzerland and Oakland, California. Supporters, donors, partners and staff— both past and present— reflected on all we’ve accomplished together. We look forward to many more years of advancing the Ecological Footprint and achieving our goal of living within the means of one planet.
Q&A with WWF-Brazil’s Geralda Magela da Silva and Terezinha Martins
WWF-Brazil’s tireless efforts to champion the Ecological Footprint as a powerful environmental mobilization and communications tool has helped fuel a national dialogue on sustainability and resource consumption in even this biocapacity-wealthy nation. WWF-Brazil’s Conservation Analyst Terezinha Martins and Communications Analyst Geralda Magela da Silva discuss how the Ecological Footprint has gained traction, particularly through the organization’s work with the city of Campo Grande.
|Geralda Magela da Silva
Q: Earth Overshoot Day 2013 received incredible media coverage in Brazil. Why do you think Overshoot Day and the Ecological Footprint resonates with Brazilians?
Even with Brazil’s great biodiversity, which makes it an ecological creditor, our Ecological Footprint has grown dramatically in recent years — indeed, if everyone lived like the typical Brazilian, it would take 1.7 planets to support the global population. Overshoot Day conveys the message that we need to rethink our current consumption trends, which are leading to the depletion of our natural resources and, consequently, jeopardizing the lives of our and future generations.
In the past 30 years we have changed from a rural to an urban country, and the resource demands of people in cities is rising. The middle class in Brazil is also increasing its consumption. So we can’t talk about environmental conservation without involving people living in cities. The Ecological Footprint shows the link between conservation and cities’ consumption in a way people can understand. It’s a powerful message when we say, “We’re in the red, like a bank account! We are spending more than we have!”
After using Global Footprint Network’s individual Ecological Footprint calculator, people understand the relationship between conservation and their lives. It’s a very different concept than conservation of the Amazon or Pantanal, for example — faraway, isolated bodies of land which people don’t understand as part of their lives. Yet everything comes from nature. The Ecological Footprint helps people understand that everything they use in their lives comes from these resources.
Q: Describe the scope of WWF-Brazil’s Ecological Footprint work.
WWF Brazil has been working with the Ecological Footprint for about 8 years as an education and communication tool. In the cities, we also participate in WWF´s annual Earth Hour campaign, the last Saturday of March when people around the world turn off lights for one hour to show their concern about climate change.
Three years ago, while designing the five-year Ecoregional Action Plan (EAP) of the Cerrado Pantanal Programme, we decided to include an Ecological Footprint study of Campo Grande (the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, the Brazilian state where the Pantanal wetland is located). This was the first time a Brazilian city had ever calculated its Footprint.
WWF-Brazil’s Campo Grande strategy included three steps: 1) measure Campo Grande’s Ecological Footprint, 2) mobilize stakeholders to take action with the data and 3) design a mitigation plan to help reduce the city’s Footprint. WWF-Brazil partnered with the Campo Grande Municipal Authority, Global Footprint Network and Anhanguera University - Uniderp. The report was published in 2012. Soon other cities became interested in calculating their Footprint. WWF-Brazil’s Conservation Director Michael Becker was invited to present the Campo Grande study at the Economic College of the University of São Paulo, the most important economic university in São Paulo. Then WWF Brazil partnered with the state government and municipality of São Paulo to coordinate the Ecological Footprint of the state and the city of São Paulo. This second study was launched at Rio+20 in June 2012.
Both Footprint studies were coordinated by Michael Becker and undertaken with Global Footprint Network and EcoSISTEMAS, a Brazilian partner of Global Footprint Network. The Economic Research Institute Foundation (FIPE) also contributed to the São Paulo report.
Q: In May 2012 WWF-Brazil received the Campo Grande Municipal Council’s Ecology and Environmentalism Award for its Campo Grand Ecological Footprint calculation. Tell us some highlights of the second phase, mobilization.
When we launched the Campo Grande report, we knew that its data was very important but not enough. Mobilization and mitigation work is necessary with different city sectors. When people feel part of the process they change their behaviors and influence others to do the same. We believe this “participative process” makes a project more sustainable. That is why we created the Campo Grande Ecological Footprint Management Committee, made up of representatives from WWF-Brazil, the Municipal Education Department, two local universities, and a few other NGOs and institutions.
In the past two years over 500 teachers (45 percent of the municipal educators) were trained in how to use the Ecological Footprint tool. The Footprint is also included in a teachers’ extension course on Sustainable Schools created by the Ministry of Education. The Footprint has also been presented at two Sustainable Solutions Exhibitions held in Campo Grande, as well as the 8th Brazilian Environmental Education Forum held in Salvador, Bahia.
At environment fairs, the Committee shares Global Footprint Network’s individual Ecological Footprint calculator webpage so people can learn how to reduce their Footprint. People love it!
Another important result is the implementation of the Sustainable Schools project in the Education Ministry’s Municipal Schools Network. The project aims to stimulate existing schools to carry out improvements to make them more sustainable. WWF-Brazil supports 11 sustainable schools which elect what they want to do to consume better and reduce waste. They implement green technologies such as rainwater collection that reduces water consumption and costs less money, or activities for students, such as cultivating vegetables for school lunches.
Finally, there’s a proposal with the Council Chamber of Campo Grande to include the Footprint in Campo Grande Municipality Law so that public policies can be planned with the Footprint as a permanent sustainable indicator for the city.
Q: What’s next on the horizon for WWF-Brazil’s Footprint work?
Two new studies are ongoing in Rio Branco, Acre (in the Amazon region) and Natal, Rio Grande do Norte (in northeast Brazil). We’d like all public schools to take part in the sustainable schools project, and use it as a model to spread to other cities.
The Ecological Footprint is a very important tool for promoting discussion between governments and the private sector of how to form more responsible consumers in a country in which more and more people have access to goods and services they previously did not.
The Opportunity of Scientific Debate
From time to time, the Ecological Footprint enjoys spikes in media coverage stemming from our campaigns, scientific reports and our work with governments. Some of this media coverage occurs in response to criticism of the science underlying the Footprint accounting methodology, or of the validity of the results.
As a science-based organization, Global Footprint Network welcomes scientific debate, as it helps us maintain our scientific rigor, improve our methodology and ensure its transparency. We have even published our own criticisms of the methodology to help drive its continuing refinement and comprehensiveness. And when a published critique is based on a mistaken understanding of how the methodology works or the research question it is intended to address, it provides us with a welcome opportunity in the media to clarify just what the Footprint is, and why it is so useful.
In recent weeks, the online edition of New Scientist and blogs on the Scientific American and Nature Conservancy websites discussed Does the Shoe Fit? Real versus Imagined Ecological Footprints, an article critical of the Ecological Footprint published in the November 2013 issue of PLOS Biology. While the article’s authors acknowledge the value of ecological resource accounting, “the broad influence and popular appeal” of the Ecological Footprint and the role of Footprint data “continu[ing] to infuse policy discussions,” they also question the Ecological Footprint’s relevance, arguing that Footprint measurements are misleading.
Like earlier critics, the PLOS article authors argue that, at a global scale, the carbon component of the Ecological Footprint — 55 percent of humanity’s total Footprint — largely accounts for the extent to which humanity’s demand for ecosystem services overshoots the planet’s capacity to meet this demand, and thus should be measured independently of the other Footprint components. Others have made a similar argument — that the demand for carbon sequestration is fundamentally different from the demand for renewable resources like food, fiber and timber, and thus the carbon Footprint should be disaggregated from these other Footprint components.
But precisely because the planet’s productive area is limited, and land used to sequester carbon emissions cannot also be used to provide renewable resources such as crops, it is only the sum of the area required to meet all these demands than can reveal the extent to which we are or are not living within the ecological capacity of the planet. An aggregated accounting also provides a systems perspective that clearly reveals tradeoffs important to policymakers: If we want to use forests to sequester carbon, for example, these forests can’t also be used for wood and wood products, nor can they be cleared to grow crops.
As the Ecological Footprint has garnered widespread attention in the popular media, it is not surprising that the measure and its results have been described with varying degrees of accuracy. Often people read into the metric what isn’t there. Some have taken it to be all-encompassing, incorrectly believing that it incorporates measures of ecosystem degradation such as soil erosion or water depletion; others confuse it as synonymous with the simpler carbon footprint. Despite the extensive documentation of the accounting methodology that Global Footprint Network makes freely available, even some of those who have published criticism of the Footprint in scientific journals have misunderstood what the Footprint measures. As New Scientist’s Fred Pearce acknowledged in his opinion piece, the Ecological Footprint “does not measure the things that most of us assumed it does.”
So just what does the Footprint measure, and why is this so important in setting policy to move us toward a sustainable society? The strength of the Ecological Footprint lies in its ability to answer one critical research question: How much of the planet’s large but limited ecological capacity is used by humanity? This question can help determine not only how much capacity is available, but also the extent to which different demands—e.g., for housing, transportation, food, goods and services — are competing for this ecological capacity. The metric can be applied at any scale, from an individual’s lifestyle to the economy of a city or nation, to humanity’s demand on the planet as a whole. No indicator answers this research question better than the Ecological Footprint.
And it’s an essential question, because unless human demand “fits” within the capacity of the planet, sustainability will remain elusive. But while the Footprint is a measure of this “fit,” used alone the metric is not sufficient to tell us if we are sustainable. A more complete picture is provided by using the Footprint in conjunction with other indicators. For example, if sustainability is defined as “living well, within the means of the planet,” the Footprint can give an indication of the latter, and it is often paired with the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), an index of well-being, to help complete the picture.
Pearce also questions the Footprint’s relevancy for policy makers, arguing that it tends to underestimate human demand on the planet. In calculating global overshoot, Ecological Footprint methodology — like that used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — is by design conservative. It may underestimate human demand and overestimate the ecological capacity available to meet this demand; if so, this helps ensure that claims of overshoot can’t be dismissed as exaggerated. But scientists don’t ignore climate change because the IPCC conservatively underestimates the extent of carbon emissions, nor should we ignore what the Footprint tells us: Current demand on the planet is more than its ecosystems can keep up with, and continuing on this course will inevitably deplete resource stocks or allow the continuing accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere.
We look forward to working with others to continue improving Ecological Footprint accounting. Nations need to know how much of Earth’s ecological capacity humanity is using, and no indicator measures this better than the Ecological Footprint.
Check out our latest commentary on the value of Ecological Footprint accounting, How Much Nature Do We Have to Use?, published on Scientific American’s guest blog.
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