Footprint Network Blog
The United Nations launches global goals to achieve humanity’s collective dream: sustainable development
This week marks an extraordinary moment for humanity. Representatives of 193 nations are convening in New York at the United Nations to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals lay out the conditions we need to secure great lives on this one planet for all, regardless of income level, gender or ethnicity.
At a time when global economic uncertainty and human tragedy dominate the news cycle, this unique opportunity to bring the universal dream of sustainable development to the forefront of public attention worldwide is definitely worth celebrating.
We are pleased that the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre has proposed the Ecological Footprint as an SDG metric for Goal 12.2: "by 2030 achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources."
And we can't help but ask the following question: How do we know whether all the SDG activities generate sustainable development? With the United Nations on the verge of adopting sustainable development as its central agenda, how do we know whether all the potential activities on the 169 goals are adding up to sustainable development?
Resource security as the foundation for sustainability
"Development" is shorthand for committing to well-being for all. "Sustainable" implies that such development must come at no cost to future generations. In other words, development is required to occur within what the planet’s ecosystems are able to provide season after season, year after year. It needs to be enabled within the means of nature.
This principle was put forward by the possibly most tangible definition of sustainable development ever given: "improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems," in the 1991 report "Caring for the Earth" jointly issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and WWF.
The goal of "well-being for all" has its own UN-supported metric: the Human Development Index (HDI), which was created by Indian economist Amartha Sen, with his Pakistani colleague and former finance minister Mahbub ul Haq, to provide an alternative to national income as a standard of development. HDI is based on the life expectancy, education and income of a nation’s residents. On a scale of zero to one, UNDP defines 0.7 as the threshold for a high level of development (0.8 for very high development).
The requirement "within the means of nature" is tracked by the Ecological Footprint. At current population levels, our planet has only 1.7 global hectares (gha) of biologically productive surface area per person. Thus, the average Ecological Footprint per person worldwide needs to fall significantly below this threshold if we want to accommodate larger human populations and also provide space for wild species to thrive.
All of us want high HDIs for everybody AND we need to make sure we stay within the regenerative capacity of the planet. These two thresholds define two minimum criteria for global sustainable development—an average Footprint (significantly) lower than 1.7 gha per person and an HDI of at least 0.7. Each nation’s endowment and ability to trade vary enormously. However, to achieve global sustainable development, humanity’s demand, at current population levels, has to fall below an average of 1.7 gha per person.
Is it possible to provide high human development within our planet’s resource budget?
Eight countries have shown us it is possible, according to the latest data (2011). Algeria, Colombia, Ecuador, Georgia, Jamaica, Jordan and Sri Lanka show "high human development" (as calculated by the United Nations) with a resource demand (Ecological Footprint) that could be extended to every world citizen. One nation, Cuba, even achieves "very high human development" (its HDI ranks in the top 35 countries among 170 featured; see below) while keeping its resource demand per person lower than per-person global biocapacity.
Please see the table at the bottom of this blog post for the results for those 170 countries.
Resource risk is acute for 71 percent of the global population
Growing population and increasing consumption per capita continue adding pressure on ecological constraints and contributing to climate change, compounding resource risks for every country’s economy. Such risks are most evident in countries with ecological deficits—consuming more than their ecosystems can provide—and low income, making it more difficult for them to buy themselves out of resource scarcity. A staggering 71 percent of the world population now lives in countries with this double challenge: an ecological deficit AND lower-than-world-average income. That is up from less than 15 percent of countries in the early 1960s.
This reality leaves humanity with a pressing question: How can nations—both high and low income—make their development achievements last, if their development model depends on more than what the biosphere is able to renew?
History and Applications of HDI-Footprint Framework
French researcher Aurélien Boutaud first raised this issue in 2002. He introduced the HDI-Footprint relationship as an "embarrassing truth" of the sustainable development challenge. The current development model, in which development gains still come at the cost of increasing Ecological Footprints is one, he claims, in which "all lose."
UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013 echoed his concern exactly, stating that "progress in human development achieved sustainably is superior to gains made at the cost of future generations." It used the double-metric HDI-Ecological Footprint (Fig. 1.7) to back up this very point.
Other international and national decision-makers have turned to the HDI-Footprint framework to illustrate the challenge of sustainable development:
- The U.N. Environment Programme’s Green Economy Report 2011
- The 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP)
- Most recently, India's environment minister Prakash Javadekar criticized high-income countries’ lifestyles for being "unsustainable" while speaking at a global forum on climate change.
- Last but not least, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s cornerstone Vision 2050 report calls for a new agenda for business.
"Achieving Vision 2050 will require a radical but feasible transformation of global markets, governance and infrastructure, and a re-thinking of our ideas of growth and progress," states the report.
Bringing about sustainable development around the world is daunting but not impossible. While we still have far to go, measuring the basic conditions of sustainable development (well-being and living within nature’s means) can certainly help us navigate our path. We’re energized by the shared vision that the SDGs give us over the next 15 years and look forward to contributing our efforts so that the process unfolds within the means of our one planet.
From global to local: India villages apply HDI-Footprint framework
Just as the Sustainable Development Goals set targets for national governments around the world, many development organizations seek metrics to measure their sustainable development achievements. One such organization is IDE-India (IDEI), a nonprofit that works to eradicate poverty with small-holder farming communities. This year, IDEI and Global Footprint Network piloted a tool that measures the Human Development Index (HDI) and Ecological Footprint of villages in Odisha, India. By calculating HDI and Ecological Footprint for several villages where IDEI has projects, we can show a snapshot of each community’s development and natural resource conditions.
Though it is still early in the application of the tool, preliminary results indicate that IDEI treadle pumps—human-powered water pumps that provide additional irrigation water during dry seasons— increase income (a component of HDI) and biocapacity (biologically productive land surface) but also increase the Ecological Footprint, though only marginally. In other words, the pumps increased the villagers’ resource availability, ultimately enabling them to improve their living conditions.
The villagers use the information about their HDI and Footprint in a different way—by taking the knowledge they gain from workshops on natural resources to construct an image of their ideal village. In time, and by conducting pre- and post-assessments, we hope to demonstrate that sustainable development is more effective than conventional development in securing human well-being. With these tools we hope to inspire other communities and social entrepreneurs around the world to adopt a similar approach.
Human Development Index and Ecological Footprint of Nations: 1980-2011
In 2015 Earth Overshoot Day raised global public awareness of natural resource constraints to new heights. More than 30 organizations joined our efforts to spread the word about natural resource constraints on the new website overshootday.org, helping raise Earth Overshoot Day-related page views by 18 percent over last year.
This year’s message on the drastic impact of carbon on the Ecological Footprint afforded the campaign its biggest U.S. mainstream media coverage to date. It made its way into National Geographic, Newsweek, TIME and Discovery News, among others. For the first time ever, USA Today devoted its front cover’s daily snapshot to Earth Overshoot Day, while The Washington Post finally gave the campaign a nod. Rush Limbaugh couldn’t resist giving his signature outraged opinion in a long rant targeted at eco-conscious Millennials.
In India, leading daily The Hindu published a joint op-ed of Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network, and Dr. Balakrishna Pisupati, the former Chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).
Word traveled to Chile and Australia, and many places in between, including Brazil, Argentina, Africa and the United Arab Emirates (a nation who has had a long commitment to sustainable development, enjoying the support of the Global Footprint Network.)
Once again, Earth Overshoot Day found its most receptive audience in Europe. In the UK, The Guardian’s article was shared by some 35,000 people on social media and received more than 460 comments. Italy’s leading national newspapers La Repubblica and La Stampa joined the chorus. In France, where local media has been anticipating COP21, the U.N. Climate Summit scheduled to take place in Paris this December, the carbon focus of Earth Overshoot Day 2015 was widely received. Coverage in flagship national dailies Le Monde and Les Echos, as well as a dispatch by newswire Agence France Presse, helped create a flurry of more than 160 new items—including on a primetime national radio news program where Dr. Wackernagel was interviewed.
In Russia, Earth Overshoot Day caused a media buzz thanks to an original event that was conceived and executed by WWF-Russia. On August 13, readers of free daily Metro and patrons at various restaurants and shops in Moscow were handed a "bill from the planet Earth." The initiative drew camera crews and photographers.
Stay tuned as overshootday.org grows as the platform that nurtures and expands the global conversation about natural resource constraints leading up to COP21 and beyond. And please keep supporting our effort by sharing overshootday.org on your social media as much as you are able. Two other items also worth sharing:
1) This short Earth Overshoot Day animation video by Alex Magnin: At more than 28,000 views (and counting), it is by far the most viewed of all videos produced by Sustainability Illustrated, and we believe it holds the potential to reach a much bigger audience;
2) This wonderful online exhibit of artwork curated by partner Art Works for Change just for Earth Overshoot Day.
Finally, please check out our new Ecological Footprint infographics, which let you explore our data in many different, engaging ways.
"Celebrating" U.S. Ecological Deficit Day
The global Earth Overshoot Day campaign came on the heels of a similar initiative focused on just the United States in July, when we released our first-ever State of the States report detailing the Ecological Footprint of the 50 state and the District of Columbia. Overall, the population of the United States is using twice the renewable natural resources and services that can be regenerated within its borders. The carbon footprint of the average American is substantially higher than that of citizens in many other countries, including Germany, Russia and China.
As could be expected, however, resource consumption and availability varies dramatically state by state. For instance, the states with the largest per-person Ecological Footprints are Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Alaska, Texas and Michigan are the most resource-abundant states based on biocapacity, a measure of bioproductive land. California, Texas and Florida have the highest ecological deficits, while Alaska, South Dakota and Montana have the greatest ecological reserves. You may find these colorful maps by National Geographic helpful. More media coverage is here. Our full report is here.
In 2015, the Ecological Deficit Day of the United States landed on July 14, according to our report, “State of the States: A New Perspective on the Wealth of Our Nation,” co-authored by Earth Economics. The report details the Ecological Footprint and resource availability of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
A Twitter chat was hosted on July 14, 2015, at #USAfootprint to discuss the report findings, that resource consumption and availability varies dramatically state by state. View the discussion on Twitter below.
Our vision is that all people of the Earth live well and within the means of nature. We are delighted when this vision is shared by others around the world, and honored when we meet individuals equally passionate about sustainability. Last month, we had the pleasure to meet Freddy Ehlers, minister of the Buen Vivir program in Ecuador. "Buen vivir" translates roughly to good living in English. The program promotes finding a meaning to life that makes living it worthwhile, inspired by service to others and respect toward all beings in nature.
Over the course of his 40-year career, Freddy has worked as a journalist, documentary film producer, Andean community secretary general and Ecuadorian minister of tourism. He studied law at the Universidad Central del Ecuador, pursued graduate studies in political science at Davidson College in the United States and received media training at the Radio Netherlands Training Centre in Holland.
We asked Freddy a few questions about his work at the Ministry of Buen Vivir.
Can you tell us a little bit about how Ecuador values nature, which in turn, supports Buen Vivir?
FE: The Ecuadorian constitution was the first in the world to have a section about the rights of nature because we seem to solely focus on human rights. It’s a start since giving nature rights and making those rights practical is difficult. We have to be interested in that.
What are some public policies in Ecuador aimed at the practice of Buen Vivir?
FE: We support activities that help us disconnect from the craziness of modern life to enable more time connecting with nature and our own hearts. In Ecuador, we believe that a few minutes of stillness and calm breathing could be the greatest revolution in humanity. It’s free, cheap, only takes a few minutes each day and helps support a more conscious way of life. In fact, we make time for this meditation in our schools and children love it.
We’ve also helped change the way consumers receive information about what they’re eating with new, simple, color-coded labels on packaged food items. It uses a low-medium-high scale to label fat, sugar and salt and has been very effective to better inform consumers and change their behavior. As you might expect, companies were absolutely against this new labeling, but now even they are starting to use less sugar and fats in their products.
What other challenges or obstacles has Buen Vivir faced?
FE: We have two personalities. First we worry about what’s happening, and then we do everything that is going to make what’s happening worse. It’s like saying during the day cigarettes are bad for you and can cause cancer but at night celebrating the news that Marlboro’s sales increased which will, in turn provide more work opportunities and move the economy.
I also think there is a big problem between knowing how much is enough. According to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, “Nothing is enough for the person to whom enough is too little.” I think that’s more important than a book. What makes a human being satisfied? I think that’s a big question in the world.
What kind of reception are you getting from other countries?
FE: Fantastic. We were in the State of the Union in Florence [an annual conference organized by the European University Institute for high-level reflection on the European Union]. They were talking about the immigrants coming into the wealthy countries. Why do they come? Because it’s an unjust world. All the richness has been concentrated here and the poor people want to migrate because we’re not an organized society. Instead of thinking about the benefit of the world, countries are only thinking about the benefit of their own country. It doesn’t matter to them how it may harm the other countries. Statistics say 85 people own half of the wealth of the world. That’s impossible. Never, ever before could that have existed. There could be a new French Revolution or American Revolution, a Latin American revolution because now we have a group of people that because they own the technology they get more and more money.
Do you think a revolution is necessary to achieve the greatest level of happiness?
FE: A revolution is necessary, a conscious one, inside ourselves. I dream of a world with more nature than now and cleaner oceans. It is possible, but if we don’t change, nothing will change. It’s a personal decision.
The word in Ecuador is “Ecuador discovered the ‘r’ in evolution,” so a revolution becomes evolution. That evolution is in favor of nature and human beings and not in favor of just a few big companies. So we believe in universal citizenship. We think that we have not only to be thinking just in our mind “mine, mine, mine.”
Where can we stay updated with your work at the Ministry of Buen Vivir?
FE: We work with other ministries to create a weekly TV program on YouTube that provides examples on ways to change how you live and how you treat nature. We have a lot of documentaries on human beings and their communities.
The encyclical from Pope Francis this week marks yet another significant milestone in our planet’s march toward a global climate change agreement in Paris this December. The fact that the leader to more than 1 billion Catholics—roughly 14 percent of the world’s population—is urging action on climate change is undeniable evidence of growing support for an agreement that even global warming naysayers cannot refute.
In the 192-page draft circulating this week, Pope Francis openly blames global warming in part on “a model of development based on … fossil fuels” and calls for more renewable energy development instead, according to a Washington Post translation. Indeed, at 55 percent of the world’s Ecological Footprint, the carbon Footprint is the single largest driver of our planet’s ecological overshoot, which occurs when humanity’s demand on nature exceeds what nature can regenerate. Fortunately, many countries who already have submitted proposals for the climate talks in December are proposing major reductions in carbon emissions, though the International Energy Agency suggested this week they would not be enough to curb climate change.
In keeping with the name he took—St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment who dedicated his life to the poor—the pope also notes how modern development has hurt not only the environment but also the poor. “The poor and the Earth are shouting,” he eloquently writes.
It is heartening to see the Pope recognizes that ecological and social “approaches” must work together, the very premise of our latest work in rural communities in India that documents how greater resource security fuels lasting human development. This work confirms Pope Francis’ message: Development that undermines nature ultimately leaves the poor in a more vulnerable position. Pope Francis concludes: “Today we can’t avoid stating that a true ecological approach must always become a social approach, integrating justice in the debate around environment, so that we listen to the cry of Earth as much as we listen to the one of the poor.”
He further notes the “disproportionate effects of climate change on poor populations, whose ‘livelihoods depend heavily on nature reserves,’” according to a Huffington Post translation. We couldn’t agree with these points more, which is why we advocate development that improves the conditions of humans as well as enhancing the natural capital those communities depend on.
Even before its official release Thursday, Pope Francis’ historic encyclical—the the first of its kind dedicated to the environment—seems to be accomplishing his intended goal: “In this encyclical,” he writes, “I intend especially to engage in a dialogue with everyone about our common home.”
We applaud Pope Francis for helping to fuel this global dialogue and noting that protecting the Earth should “unite the whole human family.” To that we can only say, Amen.
Today is the International Day of Families, a day marked annually by the UN General Assembly on the 15th of May to “increase knowledge of the social, economic and demographic processes affecting families.” This year’s focus is gender equality, including education and income-generation opportunity.
As an organization with a vision of a world that works for everyone, we believe that empowering women is one of the most important things we can do in service of global sustainability because it yields huge benefits not only for children and families, but for the world as a whole.
“When women have the opportunity to participate as equals, lower reproductive rates invariably ensue,” says Global Footprint Network CEO Susan Burns. “The reason this is so important is that we cannot ignore population growth if we are truly committed to people having secure lives in a world of finite resources.”
A common notion is that high population growth rates among low-income people are not a problem for sustainability, because low-income people use fewer resources. However, our data show that low-income countries with high population growth typically have declining per person Ecological Footprints as a result of inadequate access to resources (see graph below). It is a sign of tragedy, not sustainability. These are often populations who need larger Footprints in order to secure decent lives for themselves. Without the financial means to secure the biocapacity required to meet the needs of a growing population, people are left with no options but sharing smaller and smaller portions of limited resources.
These graphs published in WWF’s Living Planet Report nearly 10 years ago display the trends that continue to this day:
“In the face of growing resource demands, ecological constraints and climate change now pose a greater risk to every country’s economy. This risk is most evident in countries that possess both a biocapacity deficit and low incomes,” explains Burns.
A staggering 71 percent of the world population now lives in countries with this double challenge: biocapacity deficits AND lower-than-world-average income, up from less than 15 percent in the early 1960s.
Everyone has the right to decent living conditions. Hence the crucial importance of investing in women’s education and family planning to stabilize or even gradually reduce world population, bringing sustainable solutions within reach.
The link between women’s increased access to education and professional opportunities, and declining fertility rate, has been demonstrated time and time again. A lower fertility rate is invariably associated with higher standards of living and better outcomes for her children, enabled by the improved ability of a woman to exert control over her childbearing.
Non-coercive approaches to lower birth rates have yielded impressive results. For example in Thailand, one farsighted doctor broke the taboo of the condom. Or consider Ethiopia, South Korea and Iran, with a decline of 35 percent, 39 percent and 50 percent of their respective birth rates between 1990 and 2010.
Birth rates are highly affected by social, cultural and economic factors, which public policies can radically shape. Between 1993 and 2006, for example, Iranian couples were required to take a family-planning class in order to receive their marriage license. The low-fertility revolution introduced by the new government in the late 1990s after the Iraq war was meant to address the issues of the country’s limited capacity to provide adequate food, education, housing and employment.
“It is more difficult for low-income populations around the world to deal with shrinking resources, even though they have a smaller Footprint. If we want a world that works for everyone, we need to make sure we have the appropriate resources to support that,” states Burns. “Healthy and smaller families are obviously core to the success of this approach, with a view to ensuring that each child born into this world is given opportunities in terms of education, employment and a decent quality of life.”
Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network, was in Florence, Italy, this week to receive the IAIA Global Environment Award for developing the Ecological Footprint. “The Global Environment Award is presented annually to a leading individual or institution that has made a substantial contribution to the practice of environmental assessment, management or policy at a global scale,” according to the International Association for Impact Assessment. This global network believes, in its own words, that “the assessment of the environmental, social, economic, cultural, and health implications for proposals is a critical contribution to sound decision-making processes, and to equitable and sustainable development.” IAIA is recognizing the Ecological Footprint for efficiently “translating the complexity of humanity’s impact on the environment into a compelling, understandable and actionable form.”
Previous recipients of the award include:
2014 John Ruggie, USA
2013 International Finance Corporation, USA
2012 Int’l Network for Enviro Compliance & Enforcement, USA
2011 Not awarded
2010 Nicholas Stern, UK
2009 The Carter Center’s River Blindness Program, USA
2008 Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Canada
2007 Lawrence E. Susskind, USA
2006 Wangari Maathai, Kenya
2005 James Gustave Speth, USA
2004 Margot Wallstrom, Sweden
2003 Mostafa Kamal Tolba, Egypt
2002 Jan Pronk, The Netherlands
2001 Maurice Strong, Canada
The text from Wackernagel’s acceptance speech is below:
Dear friends and esteemed colleagues,
Thank you for your kindness and generosity. It deeply touches me that you have selected our work for IAIA’s Global Environment Award.
Your organization has been in my conversations since the early 1990s. Members of IAIA have been my mentors. And some members have been intellectual lighthouses – like the late Robert Goodland.
The sheer optimism your organization exudes through its name, has tickled me, IAIA here we come! It is a battle cry for a better world. And indeed we badly need far more rigorous impact measures, because the financial rationales are not sufficient in guiding our decision-making. Calling everything that matters externalities does not cut it.
At Global Footprint Network, our mission is nearly the same as yours: To make ecological limits central to decision making. We need this for an equitable and sustainable world. Without embracing resource limits, it is unlikely that we will be able to move out of overshoot by design.
We will eventually move out of ecological overshoot, no doubt. Physics dictates this. The question is merely: Are we doing it by disaster or by design? I do not want the former to win this race.
Inspired by the discipline of impact assessment, Bill Rees and I developed the initial Footprint, an accounting system for measuring our ultimate environmental impact. We asked the question: How many planets does it take to support humanity? Answering this question could then also tell us: how many planets does it take if everybody lived like me or you?
The underlying principles are very simple: Life competes for biologically productive surfaces. You eat a potato, and this takes space. Add space for your tomatoes, the cotton, the milk, the rice, the wood fibers, the timber, the sequestration of your carbon emissions. The sum we call “your Ecological Footprint.” And a big part of humanity’s Footprint, currently, is the carbon Footprint. In fact there would currently still be sufficient space to absorb all our carbon emissions from fossil fuel, but then there would be far less space for food. We seem to choose food over carbon sequestration.
Once we add up all the surfaces we demand, then we can compare this Footprint with the biologically productive surfaces that exist on the planet – we call this the biocapacity.
I brought some wallet cards along with lots of Footprint data points. They are shaped like credit cards. Like credit cards, they are worth money. Because they help intrigue your friends, and then they will invite you to a free lunch. The cards contain a nauseating amount of data. And what is even cooler – once opened, you cannot fold them back.
Why would you need to know how much nature you have compared to how much you use? I asked this very question to a class of 11-year-olds. A girl immediately raised her hand and said, “If we use more than what we have, the only thing left to eat is imaginary cookies…
Now. She was not totally right, because we can overuse nature for some time, depleting the stock. For example, cut trees more rapidly than they regrow, deplete soils, overuse groundwater, accumulate CO2 in the atmosphere. But still, she got the idea far more clearly than most of the ministers I talk to.
How can we make this as clear as crystal for everybody?
This is why our goal with the Footprint is to make planetary limits relevant to decision-making. For cities, countries, investors – for all of us, because we all invest. We all make choices about longer term trajectories. Whether we choose well has huge social and environmental impacts.
We build the Footprint work on one simple premise: If we can measure, we will manage. I am sure you have heard this before. Measure and then manage.
Now, having gotten your fabulous award, I am free to be fully honest. Now I can tell you that this assumption, our foundational premise, on which we built our entire work, is unfortunately flawed. Measurement alone does not lead to management.
Let me explain.
Most, no all, countries continue to focus on income as their golden road to a better future. Few appreciate that income generated through liquidation, is not true income. Income through liquidation makes us poorer. (For example, we falsely call countries that extract oil from the ground “oil producing.” GDP continues to count oil revenues as true income.)
It is like transferring money from your savings account to your checking account and celebrating the transfer as income. The way we blindly focus on income has turned our economies into something that by any definition could be called a Ponzi scheme.
The faulty general belief that maximizing income should be the key criteria for decision-making and is the road to social equity has maintained itself incredibly well over the last decades. It unfortunately even gained momentum with the financial crisis.
At Global Footprint Network, we have tried many great strategies to produce even some tiniest cracks in this faulty edifice of GDP worship – and shift the focus on wealth.
This is how we started:
1) We have produced conservative Footprint accounts, using official data to document that human demand exceeds by far – at least by 50% - what Earth can renew. People say it is interesting – and I see a reference to our numbers in nearly every airline magazine. Has it made a crack in the edifice of GDP adoration? No.
2) We progressed and invited countries to verify the numbers themselves, with their researchers. They should test whether our numbers were out to lunch or sufficiently correct. They should use their own data, not just UN data sets as we do. Over 12 countries have done this. Has it produced a crack in the GDP worshipping? No.
3) On we go. So in one country, Switzerland, where I am from, our Footprint and biocapacity numbers have even made into the official statistics. Has it produced a crack in GDP glorification? No.
4) Then, in Switzerland, it became an official indicator – among the 150. Even the media has reported more about the Footprint than 148 of them (minus GDP of course). The Footprint is quite easy to understand and makes a good story. Has it produced a crack? No.
5) So then, one of the ministers of Switzerland (there are seven of them running the country by consensus), uses the information regularly in her speeches. For instance, she recognizes that from January to August humanity has used as much from nature as it takes our planet one entire year to regenerate. No crack in GDP worshipping either. She even recognizes that Switzerland uses four-fold what Swiss ecosystems can renew. No crack again.
6) Next level up. We were invited, together with an economic think tank, to produce a report on the potential implications of this ecological deficit for Switzerland’s long-term competitiveness. With them, we concluded that this deficit leads to an ever more significant systemic risk if not addressed. Again, no cracks.
How can the 11 year old understand the challenge so intuitively? Yet, very very few adults and professionals can wrap their head around it?
What is missing? What does it take?
If we want to increase our chances to end overshoot by design, rather than by disaster, we must produce cracks in this misconception. It is dangerous to maintain that “resources do not matter, because high incomes will save us.”
Trying to overcome ever larger ecological deficits with higher income and more liquidation is on average not a winnable strategy in a world of ecological overshoot.
I want to help reshape our common belief – I want to produce some cracks. This is why I am here. I am here to learn from you, to build partnerships, to gain ideas, to learn: what does it take to start producing a few cracks? We depend on your wisdom. As grateful as I am for your kindness to give us your prestigious award, as eager am I to learn from you what we need to do next.
I am here with my dear colleague Dr. Ale Galli. Please talk to us … and please give us your emails if you want to be on our newsletter distribution list.
Thank you for your generosity and your interest. I look forward to our first conversations.
Laetitia Mailhes, Global Footprint Network - 04/21/2015 11:42 PM
Earth Day’s 45th anniversary is being celebrated today around the world. On this day—less than one-third into the calendar year—humanity already has used about half of all renewable natural resources and services that the planet can generate this year, according to Global Footprint Network’s data. Despite this sobering fact, let’s not lose sight of the many signs that a perfect storm is brewing for 2015 to be the most exciting year to date for sustainability.
All eyes are on the Paris Climate Summit, a much-anticipated event which is already boasting the tag line "For a universal climate agreement." Some 23 years after the first Rio Summit and 18 years after the historic Kyoto Protocol was signed, the nations of the world are closer than ever before to making a binding commitment to act on climate change. If the negotiations are successful, that commitment would entail a clear, shared goal (maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range,) detailed action plans and a timeline.
The optimists among us will point out that the odds are looking good. Last October the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, China and the United States, made history with a surprise joint announcement of their commitment to reach an ambitious 2015 agreement in Paris lowering emissions, and to strengthen their bilateral cooperation in order to reach their goals. Last month the Obama Administration made good on the announcement when it formally pledged in its five-page submission to the United Nations that the U.S. will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 percent over the next decade.
Meanwhile, China’s coal imports in the first quarter of this year have dropped by nearly half compared to the same period last year—a significant feat for the world’s biggest consumer of coal. China’s economic slowdown is partially responsible for the trend. It is also no accident that China added 11GW of solar capacity last year (enough to power 6 million homes) and led the world in terms of investments into renewable energy—up 32 percent from 2013, according to the market research firm Business Monitor International. BMI expects China to keep up the pace this year in terms of both added renewable capacity and investment growth.
Greening of energy sector accelerates
Governments never act as quickly as activists, consumers and scientists want them to. This being said, they have been investing huge efforts and resources, reaching significant momentum leading up to the Climate Summit in Paris.
Various countries around the world have worked tirelessly towards lowering the carbon Footprint of their economy–the largest component of many countries’ Ecological Footprints. In Europe, Germany, a pioneer in solar energy, now produces more than 27 percent of its electricity from renewables. Spain has been investing heavily in wind farms and, more controversially, nuclear, with stark results: last month it generated 69 percent of its electricity from plants that did not emit carbon dioxide, and it has realistic prospects to reach 87 percent next year.
In Latin America, Costa Rica has reached a carbon-free power grid. After decades of expanding its reliance on hydropower, the small tropical nation has been able so far this year to generate 100 percent of its electricity from hydro, geothermal and wind.
It is widely expected that the dramatic drop in the cost of solar energy will support and even boost the current momentum towards cleaner energy.
The transportation sector, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, has also been yielding good news of late. Just last week we learned that electric cars and combustion engine vehicles reached cost parity 6 years earlier than expected. A good reason to expect that the recent surge of the EV market (up 72 percent last year in the 10 largest markets) will be sustained.
Everywhere you look, investors and initiatives of all stripes are coming up with low-carbon or carbon-free alternatives to current carbon-intensive infrastructures, equipment or processes that our economies are so dependent upon: carbon-negative cement, zero-carbon buildings, aviation biofuel, methane sequestration and biogas generation, you name it. The finance industry is even getting on to the game, as the international fossil fuel divestment movement grows.
Citizens take the judiciary to task
Last but not least, citizens themselves haven’t been sitting idle. The courtroom is an especially interesting space to watch. Various lawsuits that were filed in the United States and abroad a couple of years ago to hold governments accountable for insufficient action on climate change are ready for primetime. Earlier this month oral arguments were heard by a judge in Oregon. The plaintiffs are teenagers supported by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust. Its goal is to have the courts acknowledge that the atmosphere is part of the commons and, as such, should be protected by governments as mandated by the principle of common law known as Public Trust Doctrine. The judge is expected to render a decision later this year.
Also this month public arguments began in the Netherlands, where nearly 900 Dutch citizens have filed a class action lawsuit against their government for failing to effectively cut greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change. The prosecution is basing the case on existing human rights laws. And more than 10,000 Belgian citizens—and counting—have pledged to support a similar lawsuit in their country.
Plaintiffs in all above-mentioned cases were given a clear victory last month when an international working group of current and former judges, advocates, and professors adopted the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations. The legal experts aim to publicly send governments and enterprises back to their legal responsibilities and obligations on climate change as defined by well-established laws—human rights law, international law, environmental law, and tort law. And they argue, to quote The Guardian, that any new international agreement will just be a coda to obligations already present, pressing and unavoidable in existing law.
Obviously, a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. Carbon is only one part of the story. The plight of forests and oceans, ecosystems degradation, access to water, growing social inequities—to name but a few—are giving no rest to countless activists, government officials, research organizations, consumers and businesses around the world. Let’s acknowledge all the good news, however, and celebrate them, so we can confidently hold onto the vision of all people living well, within the means of nature.
"I’ve always been driven by opportunities where analysis and knowledge generation can impact policies."
Derek joined Global Footprint Network this month to lead analytics on resource accounting and the implications for policy and sustainability solutions. An economist with a Ph.D. from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, he brings more than 20 years of experience in undertaking research that informs and drives decision makers.
Prior to joining Global Footprint Network, Derek was Executive Director of the Centre for International Environmental Studies at the Graduate Institute of Geneva. Before that, Derek served as a core member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, where he managed the integrated modeling assessment in UNEP’s 2011 flagship report, "Towards a Green Economy." He also has worked for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). See his full bio here.
In the following Q&A, Derek talks to us about his professional journey, the importance of behavior change in achieving sustainability, the first project for the United Nations that he is leading on our team.
What motivated you to embark on a career in sustainability?
Derek: It goes back to my youth, which was spent in Canada. I was fortunate enough to be able to appreciate the natural world from a young age. I learned how dependent we are on nature through canoe camping trips and backpacking trips. You have to be really careful about your resources, and leave as little a Footprint as possible on that beautiful wilderness that you enjoy. Dealing with all sorts of threats like bears also brings you back to reality as far as being one species among other species.
Then I spent a big part of my studies looking at how to alleviate poverty and promote development. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission Report on the environment and development, which was commissioned by the United Nations, came out. It coined and defined the meaning of the term “sustainable development” and introduced the concept in the international policy discussion. I was still a student, at a time when the awareness of the scientific community about global climate change was growing. The two came together for me—on the one hand my interest in contributing to understand how more people could enjoy a better standard of living, and on the other hand the growing recognition that resources are finite. I chose my path at that intersection between economics and sustainability.
What are the main challenges you have encountered in the field of sustainability?
Derek: The one challenge that I’ve come to appreciate more and more is the need to bring to discussions about sustainability the understanding that social scientists and economists have about human behavior. At the end of the day, we’re talking about the need for changes in behavior both in production and consumption patterns. Yet we can’t just decree those things. We need to understand how people’s behavior is resistant to change, and how we go about guiding the necessary evolution to support a sustainability agenda. Even 25 years ago, that was the appeal of that field to me as an economist. I could see that there was so much potential for contribution. It’s been a long path, and I can see some improvements. Nevertheless, it remains at the core of the challenge of how we can devise a transition to more sustainable pathways. It is about fully appreciating and bringing in the human element at the center.
What progress have you witnessed over the span of your career?
Derek: There has been substantial progress, even though we’re not moving fast enough on some key issues. If we look at some of the big global issues, to see how far we’ve come and how much resources we have invested in understanding the science and identifying the set of solutions to keep temperatures within the acceptable threshold—that’s a fantastic array of human resources!
Also, I find there’s been an incredible growth in awareness. The knowledge that my two teenage daughters are acquiring already through the formal education system about challenges that we’re facing with regard to sustainability, both at the global and local level, together with many opportunities for them to be inspired to take action, is phenomenal. Sustainability has become very much embedded in the values of youth today in the richer countries. That’s also a tremendous achievement.
We keep seeing incremental improvements at the local level. One example that astounds me is cycling. When I was living in London 20 years ago, I was looked down upon by my colleagues as crazy because I used to ride my bicycle to work. Now, I can’t believe the number of cycle paths and lanes that have been deployed in that city over the past decade, and how many people have taken up cycling as a mode of transport. In Geneva and in Paris, you see something similar. To me, it is really indicative that people can change behavior at an incredible scale within less than a generation.
How did Global Footprint Network show up as the next step in your career?
Derek: I’ve always been driven by opportunities where analysis and knowledge generation can impact policies whether in governments or other stakeholders—what is called the science-policy interface. I have worked in organizations on both sides of that interface, either undertaking research at the demand of specific groups of stakeholders, or understanding from within national governments or international agencies how constraints and opportunities work internally within those organizations and for the constituencies they serve.
In my previous role at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, I was working at the frontier of academic knowledge but also getting antsy to be close to that science-policy interface again in a way that truly drives the agenda. Global Footprint Network has a fantastic track record and reputation for helping frame the agenda with crucial questions for the transition to a more sustainable world.
Also, I started my career as an economist in sustainability in the area of natural resources accounting. I find that the accounting tools provide an essential component of how we can link sustainability and economics. Global Footprint Network has recently added to the natural resource accounting some innovative economic and policy analysis that is based on, and building on, the Footprint Accounts. It is a very appealing fit to my background.
What is the first big project that you’re working on?
Derek: Advancing Natural Capital Accounting (ANCA) is an initiative put forward by a group of organizations that includes the United Nations Environment Programme, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Natural Capital Declaration, the Natural Capital Coalition, and others. All these organizations are working together to see how natural capital accounting can be advanced in terms of methodology and of an enabling environment, including for the private sector and financial institutions as well as for government.
One achievement of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 was the creation of the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) to assess economic and environmental interactions. It is now a standard that is being implemented by all governments with the support of the World Bank in developing countries. As natural accounting initiatives are emerging in the private sector and in the financial institutions, it is important to promote a better understanding of each other’s frameworks, and possibly improve the alignment between the three worlds.
In this context, we’ve been requested by UNEP TEEB to undertake a scoping analysis of those initiatives, with a particular focus on interaction points with national public initiatives. We will identify how those dots can be connected from the point of view of data exchange and aggregation, and what opportunities are emerging for those connections to be realized. We will be presenting our report late June at the United Nations Statistics Division in New York.
Did you know that China reversed its deforestation trend in 1989 (PDF: especially pp. 13,14) and has expanded its forests by close to 47 million hectares, according to national data collected by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This translates to a 33 percent increase in forest biocapacity, based on Global Footprint Network’s calculations.
Or did you know that Costa Rica brought the destruction of its forests to a halt in the mid-1980s after a 47 percent drop in its forest land biocapacity since 1961, then climbing again by 9.2 percent since 2000?
Or that the top net exporters of forest products are middle- and upper-income countries that are rich in forest biocapacity, with the largest ones being Canada, Russia and Sweden? And that the top net importers are China, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan? This refutes the hypothesis that forest overharvesting linked to biodiversity loss is mainly driven by high-income countries liquidating assets of low-income, tropical countries, although unreported illegal logging may be skewing the underlying data.
This is not to say that the overall global scorecard of forests’ health is a good one, however. Our planet lost 183.8 million hectares of forested area between 1961 and 2011, according to the U.N. FAO. And the dilapidation of forests marches on, as forest ecosystems are being sacrificed to primarily agriculture but also logging, mining and economic development.
According to Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint accounting framework, our planet lost more than 365.5 million global hectares (gha) of forest biocapacity over the same five decades. What does this mean? That the capacity of our planet to generate additional forest material year over year has been greatly diminished.
Meanwhile, the demand for forest products (paper, timber etc.) has increased by 41 percent over those 50 years, and the need for carbon capture, an ecological service that forests provide, has surged by more than 260 percent. Assuming that carbon emissions stop increasing now and that we quit consuming forests products, it would take twice the current global forest biocapacity to absorb all the carbon emissions that are generated around the world. A crazy feat if you consider this would be equivalent to virtually the entire biocapacity of cropland and grazing lands on the planet combined.
Last but not least, the loss of biodiversity is one of the most significant negative impacts of the destructive human activities that forests are subjected to. Tropical rainforests, which cover 7 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, provide habitat for at least two-thirds of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, still accounts for 3 percent of the world’s forest biocapacity despite a 15.1 percent drop in its forest land biocapacity since 1961. In this period, it destroyed 23 million hectares with an intensification of the deforestation between the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Judging by our most recent data, overharvesting of forest products primarily in forest ecosystems in Asia (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan) and Africa (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania) seems to be the result of local demand rather than consumption outside the nations’ borders. But there also may be additional timber trade that is not recorded on the official books.
Experts agree, and available data seems to confirm it: Global deforestation has been slowing down, especially in the Brazilian Amazon, which contains a whopping 27 percent of the world’s forest land biocapacity.
However, illegal and unreported logging activities happening under the cover of legal permits adds a degree of uncertainty to this picture. The development and enforcement of international agreements such as the U.N. Forum on Forests, national policies such as China’s Forest Law and corporate actions by companies such as Asia Pulp and Paper Group are obviously still a work in progress.
Tomorrow, on March 21, the world observes the International Day of the Forests for the third year in a row, as established by a 2012 United Nations General Assembly resolution to focus on the critical role of forests for our sustainable development and that of future generations.