Footprint Network Blog
Our staff has been busy this past month spreading the word about the Ecological Footprint at conferences and engagements around the world. Click locations below to learn more about our work.
Last month, David Lin, a lead scientist at Global Footprint Network, traveled to India to provide support to Pragyan Bharati, our India director, on our new pilot project there called Sustainable Development Return on Investment. The project aims to empower local villagers to have a more informed voice in shaping development in their communities. Here is a short travelogue by David on his experience meeting villagers with our partners International Development Enterprises-India (IDEI) and Gram Vikas (of India).
When my plane from Delhi landed in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, I immediately noticed the change in environment. Odisha, located in East India, is a region covered by a dry tropical and deciduous forest, evident even in the most urban areas of the town. The tribal communities we visited were located near the town of Phulbani, about 5 hours by car from Bhubaneswar. The trip was a beautiful one, passing through oceans of green rice fields and tall forests, punctuated by many small towns and villages.
Earlier during the trip I was saddened to see displaced populations in the cities, both Phulbani and Delhi, possibly the result of recent urbanization in India, and I was expecting to see the more rural areas in worse shape. When I arrived, I was surprised to see what seemed to me a higher level of happiness—which I, of course, precisely and scientifically calculated by the smiles and other expressions on the peoples’ faces. As we drove, we passed multiple groups of farmers, uniformed students going to and from school, and herds of water buffalos, cattle and lamb. Surrounded by lush vegetation, I wasn’t sure why the cows were so thin and bony, but I soon learned the answer to this.
When we arrived at the village center, I immediately noticed a large painted mural that covered the entire side of a building. The mural was a relic of previous government interventions to empower the village and a reminder to maintain those empowering values moving forward. For instance, we were told by the villagers that the government has incentivized girls to continue education by giving them bicycles after graduating from a certain grade. The high level of government support for tribal communities was consistent in the communities that we visited and confirmed in conversation with our NGO partners.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in our initial encounter in the village, but the community members were accustomed to outsiders through government and NGO involvement, which have aimed to empower them socially and economically. Our partners at IDEI had developed a trusting relationship with them through recent work to improve agricultural practices.
We sat down with the heads of a household, and Pragyan asked them a whole list of questions related to harvests, visits to the local market, consumption, etc. This was a first attempt to see if the questions were appropriate for people to answer easily, and if they could be translated into usable data. We learned, for example, that a farmer could describe the crop harvest by how much storage space it filled but not by volume. This was among the simpler challenges we had to address for our assessments.
After we compile information on the production and consumption patterns of the village, we will determine the ratio of village Ecological Footprint (consumption) to its biocapacity (ability of the land to produce and regenerate what is consumed). By monitoring sets of villages, each with different levels and types of government and NGO development, we will be able to (1) assess the sustainable development return on investment of the different approaches and (2) educate and empower the villages to take control of their future development.
Earlier during an orientation, we met with staff from Gram Vikas and IDEI, as well as others active in the local NGO community. Their excitement about creating lasting impact on these villages was evident. One of the major improvements we learned about was the treadle pump. Without the pumps, crops can only be grown in many areas during monsoon season because they rely on surface water and precipitation. The lush, green environment I saw was the direct result of the recent rainy season. The cows, however, hadn't yet had time to fatten up.
One major benefit of the pumps is that they get around this seasonality problem, enabling these communities to grow several crops throughout the year, actually increasing the land’s productivity. These pumps were produced and distributed through a social entrepreneurship program intended to benefit and empower local communities.
Witnessing the multi-disciplinary efforts of our partners in creating lasting impact was a most interesting part of the trip. Artists and videographers attended our orientation to lend their experience in engaging communities through various forms of art whether in the form of a mural, village-hosted play or symbolic structure built in collaboration with the community.
The government programs and support toward creating better lives in India was clear on this trip, and we hope our involvement and partnerships can empower people to choose sustainable paths moving forward.
For more information about our project in India, see our interview with Pragyan Bharati.
The spectacular 40 percent crash in oil prices that began in July and accelerated in October has focused the world’s attention once again on the "master commodity" and its far-reaching effects on the global economy. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage has revolved around nationalistic narratives that have little bearing on the facts.
Given oil’s significant role in today’s economies and its interplay with both biocapacity and Ecological Footprint pressures, we wanted to share our view on:
• why oil prices are down;
• when and why might they go back up; and
• who gets hurt and who wins.
The Runaway Fracking Train
As ever, oil prices are a function of three main factors: supply, demand, and the outlook of traders. Oil is always a forward-looking trade, and a leading indicator of the health of the global economy.
On the supply side, U.S. "tight oil" production (from fracking) has been a runaway train, adding around 1 million barrels a day (mb/d) of new supply each year. Its output is up 3.8 mb/d since 2007, a significant addition to a global market that consumes around 91 mb/d. With no constraints upon their production other than profitability, U.S. tight oil producers have continued drilling frenetically without any apparent regard for the effect of that new supply on the global market balance.
OPEC’s production, in contrast, has remained fairly flat over the same period. According to OPEC’s own figures, the cartel’s output in November 2014 was just over 30 mb/d, roughly the same as it was one year ago (as was Saudi Arabia’s production), and 0.5 mb/d lower than it was in September when the price crash accelerated.
While Saudi Arabia and a few other OPEC producers have offered modest price discounts to select customers in the current battle for market share, the steep fall in global prices to 2009 levels cannot be attributed to OPEC. If we must point a finger at a supply-side culprit, then it must be pointed at U.S. tight oil producers. If U.S. producers assumed that OPEC members would cut their own production to accommodate U.S. output, that was simply a strategic error on their part. Speaking at the climate summit in Peru this week, Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi was blunt, saying "Why should we cut production? Why?"
Since U.S. output has been growing steadily for several years, accounting for all of the growth in non-OPEC supply, and OPEC output has been flat, traders priced the supply growth into their outlooks long ago.
What changed is the outlook for demand, which has been weakening since mid-2014, according to the International Energy Agency. In addition to stagnant economies in Europe and anemic growth in the U.S., China’s blistering growth rate in recent years has finally begun to moderate a bit, as have the growth rates in other parts of the developing world. That is the new factor that traders began to price in around July. Indeed, the decline in prices matches the decline in global GDP estimates nicely.
But in late September, as oil prices continued to fall, it became a momentum trade as traders rushed to one side of the boat. Now, as the end of the year approaches, the falling price of oil seems to have become a purely financial event as fund managers liquidate their positions to capture year-end gains and raise cash to settle wrong-footed positions. U.S. oil trading around $61/bbl as of this writing cannot be justified by supply and demand fundamentals. It is also well below the breakeven price of some tight oil operations, and far below the $100-plus price range that oil exporters such as Iran, Venezuela and Iraq need to balance their budgets.
If prices remain at their current depressed levels for another three months or more, we should expect a marked slowdown in U.S. production growth. Some slowing is already indicated, as new drilling permits fell by 40 percent from October to November.
Crystal Ball Gazing
When prices will rise again is difficult to say. If the short-sellers exhaust themselves by the end of the year as fund managers make their final tallies, prices should stage a slow recovery. And if prices remain low for six months or more, causing U.S. output to flatten or even fall, it will set the stage for prices to rise again until it is profitable to resume a frenetic pace of drilling. And frenetic it must be, for the rapid production decline rates of fracked wells require rapid drilling just to keep overall output flat.
It is also certainly possible that OPEC producers could decide to cut their own production to support prices at some indeterminate time in the future. However, the tenor of recent OPEC talks suggests that the cartel is having a difficult time achieving consensus, and comments like al-Naimi’s suggest that Saudi Arabia and other deep-pocketed OPEC members might rather wait until low prices force U.S. producers to cut back. With substantial financial reserves to fall back on, they can afford to wait.
Winners and Losers
According to data compiled by Trevor Houser of the Rhodium Group, the winners and losers in all this might not be the ones you’d expect. Those with the most to lose are small economies who depend heavily on oil exports, like the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Kuwait. Those with the most to gain are small economies who are heavily dependent on oil imports, like Djibouti, Seychelles and Kyrgyzstan. The global heavyweight producers like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States seem content for now to keep pumping all-out until somebody blinks, but all will suffer a loss of revenues.
The real winners in the short term are consumers, who are suddenly finding it a lot cheaper to fill up their tanks. But that has a downside too: U.S. consumers are already back to driving full-sized SUVs and pickups off the new car lots, and demand could rebound in many parts of the world that struggled when oil was over $100/bbl. Should prices remain low and demand surge back, it would delay the already-slow deployment of more efficient modes of transportation. And in that event—as climate hawks at the Peru conference right now are certainly aware—the real loser would be the planet.
Meet 10 year-old Daigo Toubaru of Okinawa, Japan, who recently calculated his Ecological Footprint for the first time. This short Q&A is part of our CrowdRise Campaign to raise funds for a Footprint calculator mobile application and help preserve our natural resources for future generations!
The average Japanese Footprint is 2.26 Earths – If everyone in the world lived like the average person in Japan, we would need 2.6 Earths. How do you feel about your Footprint results?
I think 1.9 Earths is too big, so I want to rethink my lifestyle!
How can you reduce your Footprint? I want to choose more local food and more natural food. I want to eat less processed and packaged food items too. Oh, sometimes I have leftover food that goes to waste, I can reduce that!
Do you have any messages to your friends in the world? Let’s work together, friends. Let’s try not to use Earth-san too much because we only have one Earth. Okinawan culture has an animism point of view where everything including inanimate objects has soul. Here Daigo refers to Earth-san as a living thing.
This is a series of videos in Global Footprint Network’s crowdfunding campaign for a Footprint calculator mobile app. Learn more at www.bit.ly/ecofootprintapp.
Meet Rob Gotto of Oakland, California and learn how he harnesses the sun to reduce his Footprint – and the Footprint of Kaiser Permanente!
Statement by Mathis Wackernagel, President, Global Footprint Network
The landmark U.S.-China climate change agreement announced this week is a game changer for our energy future because it represents strong recognition of the need to wind down fossil fuel use to zero within a few decades. What had been a physical necessity but a political taboo is now being acknowledged by the two countries with the largest CO2 emissions.
Other countries have been waiting on the sidelines for the United States and China to act on climate change. So President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable energy adoption by 2025 and 2030 respectively—just 10 and 15 years away—sends a promising signal to the world community on the path to the Paris climate summit at the end of next year.
The new goals would keep the United States on the trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide carbon emission reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050, according to the White House. China, meanwhile, has targeted total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources to around 20 percent by 2030. Both actions will happen well within the lifetimes of many people today.
These targets represent a significant shift in political momentum and suggest that moving out of fossil fuels may finally have won mainstream acceptance.
Susan Burns, co-founder and CEO of Global Footprint Network, will be honored today at the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) Conference in Denver, Colo., as both she and co-founder Mathis Wackernagel are inducted into the ISSP Sustainability Hall of Fame. She has taken this opportunity to share insights from her journey.
How did you "fall" into a career as a sustainability professional?
As a child I loved nature, and I somehow knew there was a problem with pollution and the extinction of species, even though during my suburban upbringing it wasn’t exactly kitchen table conversation.
After earning a degree in environmental engineering, I started working in the consulting industry. I like to joke with my younger colleagues that I was working in this field before “sustainability” was even a word! I started the pollution prevention practice at ERM West. Then I met Ernest Lowe and Gil Friend, some of the early thinkers around the idea of industrial ecology and how the waste of one industrial process can be used as the input for another industrial process. The idea is to mimic nature where production and “waste” are all incorporated into one closed loop, and everything is utilized. I ended up starting a small consulting firm, Natural Strategies, with Adam Davis and the late Charles McGlashan, two brilliant men. Our vision was to help global corporations adopt sustainability as a source of competitive advantage even though the business world was very skeptical at the time.
What if doing the « right » thing for the planet—like recycling or buying sustainably sourced items such as organic-cotton garments—earned you money? As an individual, would you be more inclined to take that extra step toward a more sustainable lifestyle, one behavior, one purchase at a time? As a business owner, would you adopt a more sustainable supply-chain strategy?
This is the big bet that environmentalist David French went for when he founded My Drop in the Oceans, a global currency platform designed to "empower people to value nature" through partnerships with businesses and local authorities. Launched last month in Switzerland, My Drop in the Oceans rewards participants for actions that improve sustainable living, including measuring their Ecological Footprint with Global Footprint Network’s Swiss online calculator.
For the first time, Global Footprint Network is partnering with other NGOs to support both sustainable and human development at the community level in India. While Global Footprint Network projects often target decision-makers at the national, sub-national, and city levels, this new pilot in India aims to give local villagers a more informed voice in shaping development in their communities. The project, titled "Sustainable Development Return on Investment: Empowering Communities and Measuring Investment Effectiveness," or SDRoI, is a partnership with International Development Enterprises-India, Gram Vikas (of India) and Fundación Escuela Nueva (of Colombia).
Pragyan Bharati (right), Global Footprint Network’s India director, is leading the 18-month project. She holds a doctorate in sociology and is a social development specialist with experience in leading various water and sanitation projects with ONE DROP, UNICEF, and the government of Odisha’s Ministry of Rural Development.
We asked Pragyan a few questions about the new project.
Northern California’s Folsom Lake on January 16, 2014. The reservoir, 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, has shrunk from 97 percent capacity in 2011, to 17 percent capacity in this past January, according to a news release from the California Department of Water Resources.
California is waking up to the value of the Commons. State lawmakers have acknowledged the need for the responsible management of its natural capital.
This major cultural shift occurred last week when Governor Jerry Brown signed three bills stipulating that the state will manage groundwater if local water agencies and irrigation districts don’t. The move officially put an end to the gold-digger mentality that had prevailed until now, allowing large landowners to deplete a vital natural resource at the expense of their neighbors. It took three years of exceptional drought for this awakening to take place.
The Golden State stipulated a long time ago that anything that belongs to your land, above or below, belongs to you. And so it is that anyone with a well on his or her property could pump groundwater unfettered.