One the eve of the Copenhagen climate conference, Global Footprint Network is releasing data today that reveals a growing gap between human demand on ecological services and the rate at which nature can supply those services. It would now take nearly one and a half Earths to generate all the resources humanity consumes and absorb all our CO2 emissions, according to the latest Ecological Footprint and biocapacity calculations. These figures are based upon source data from 2006, the most recent year for which such data are available.
The data show that humanity’s demand on the biosphere for providing natural resources and absorbing carbon dioxide emissions is 44 percent more than what nature can provide. This ecological overshoot means it now takes approximately 18 months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in one year. The urgent threats we are facing today - most notably climate change, but also biodiversity loss, shrinking forests, declining fisheries and freshwater stress - are symptoms of this trend.
“The future will be shaped by these resource limitations, so, it’s clearly in the self-interest of every country to transition quickly from carbon and resource-intensive economies to the economies of the future.” Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel said. “While international agreements are critical, many nations are not taking a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, rather they are investing now to take advantage of the world’s demand for renewable energy and clean technology.
Who Uses What
Every year, Global Footprint Network calculates the Ecological Footprint of the world’s nations and humanity as a whole, and compares that with biocapacity, the amount of resources nature is able to produce. The data show that in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, humanity’s Ecological Footprint grew almost 2 percent from the year before, and 22 percent from a decade before, due to both rising population and per capita consumption. At the same time, biocapacity has not increased, and may even have fallen slightly.
The average Ecological Footprint per person worldwide is 2.6 global hectares (6.5 global acres), while the average biocapacity available per person is 1.8 global hectares (4.5 global acres.) But some countries’ level of ecological demand per person is much higher than world average, and some is much lower.
The United Arab Emirates has the highest Ecological Footprint per capita, 10.3 global hectares (26 global acres). The Emirates adopted a national Ecological Footprint Initiative in 2007 and has been working to reduce its Footprint. Along with investing billions in renewable energy and other sustainability initiatives, UAE researchers and government agencies are working with Global Footprint Network to identify policies that could significantly cut the country’s per capita Footprint.
The average American has an Ecological Footprint of 9.0 global hectares (23 acres) – the size of 17½ American football fields. The average European has a Footprint of 4.5 global hectares, half that of the average American, but still well above both the world average and what is available per person.
On the other end of the scale are Malawi, Haiti, Nepal, and Bangladesh, with Footprints of about half a global hectare (1.25 acres), in most cases too small to provide for basic food, shelter and sanitation.
Population is another critical factor driving overshoot. The productivity of our ecosystems has not kept pace with increases in population. The result is that as our numbers expand, the amount of biocapacity available per person shrinks.
The U.S. now requires 23 percent of world biocapacity, while China – which has a much lower per capita Footprint but over four times greater total population – requires 21 percent. Together, China and the U.S. require almost half of all human demand on nature’s services. China’s resource use is rising at a much faster rate due to population growth, suggesting it will soon surpass the U.S. in total consumption, although the U.S. remains much higher per person.
The 2009 Account calculations are the most detailed ever performed, using about 6,000 data points from U.N. statistics per country per year. This year’s edition has limited the number of published countries to those that have robust data sets. To produce results for the remaining countries, Global Footprint Network welcomes additional research with those countries’ statistical offices to produce meaningful, consistent data sets. Such collaborations are already underway with a number of countries (www.footprintnetwork.org/reviews).
Changing the Curve
Despite these sobering findings, there are key opportunities to change our trajectory. “Even as world leaders have acknowledged that an agreement at Copenhagen is out of reach, governments we work with from Ecuador to the United Arab Emirates are seeing the importance of taking bold unilateral action.”
“Once city, country and business leaders realize that the best way to remain competitive and prepared for the future is to make the policy decisions and drive the technological innovations we need to live within nature’s means, we will begin to change these trends,” Wackernagel said. “The good news is that, many governments we work with are moving forward to reduce their Ecological Footprint, no matter what happens next month in Copenhagen. These leaders realize the longer they wait, the greater the risks to their economies and their citizen’s well-being.
• Download the National Footprint Accounts 2009 data tables (hectares)
• Download the National Footprint Accounts 2009 data tables (acres)
• Download the 2009 Ecological Footprint Atlas for full Ecological Footprint and biocapacity results for more than 100 nations.
• Visit our Data and Results for graphs by country, supporting resources and further information.
• Learn about licensing National Footprint Accounts data.
I note Australia is not included in the bar graph Ecological Footprints by Nation, not in the Excel workbook, Ecological Footprints & Biocapacity 2006. Please, could you tell me why not?
A small, personal action can make a difference because it acts as an encouragement to others - and I’m thinking here of potential policymakers, or those currently doing the deals in Copenhagen. For instance, installing a solar hot water system in your home might only help to reduce global carbon emissions in a very small way - and might seem to be cancelled out by a big polluting Chinese coal-fired power station - but it will prompt friends and neighbours to consider doing the same and will enable world leaders to say that there is popular demand for a greener world and challenge other countries to take the bigger measures that are needed in the long run.
Here in the UK grants are available to help with the cost of installing solar hot water systems (details can be found here: http://www.solaruk.com/grants.asp). Public sector organisations and charities are now eligible for grants as well as private households.