Newly published Global Footprint Network data show that high-income countries’ average demands on nature dropped sharply at the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. In 2010 the per person Footprint started to grow again only in a few high-income countries as governments began spending billions of dollars to stimulate their economies.
Changes in the Ecological Footprint per person in high-, middle- and low-income countries between 1961 and 2010. China (a middle-income country) is shown separately. The green line represents world biocapacity per person. Biocapacity per person has been declining because the world population has grown more quickly than biocapacity productivity (Global Footprint Network, 2014 NFA edition).
Globally, humanity’s per person Ecological Footprint decreased 3 percent between 2008 and 2009, due mostly to a decline in demand for fossil fuel and hence a decreasing carbon Footprint. Low-income countries, typically characterized by less elasticity in their standard of living, contributed little to the decrease in humanity’s per person Footprint.
Every year, Global Footprint Network updates its National Footprint Accounts, which compare more than 220 nations’ demands for ecological resources and services (their Footprints) against the amount available within their borders (biocapacity). Each country’s performance varies year to year, but one overarching trend has persisted for decades: Global ecological overshoot continues to grow. Ecological overshoot now stands at 54 percent above the planet’s biocapacity. Humanity demands more than 1.5 times more biocapacity than what our planet can renew.
This year’s National Footprint Accounts cover five decades. They track nations’ Ecological Footprints and biocapacity from 1961 to 2010, the most recent year for which complete data sets are available. With the latest data, Global Footprint Network can now show the resource implications of the recent global financial crisis.
High-income countries’ per capita Ecological Footprints declined from 2008 to 2009. But their Footprints were still more than triple that of middle-income countries’ and about five times that of low-income countries’. Most middle- and low-income countries either maintained or increased their per capita demand on nature during the global financial crisis.
Ecological Footprint disparities between high-, middle- and low-income countries are most pronounced in the carbon component. This carbon component makes up a larger share of high-income countries’ Ecological Footprints than it does for middle- and low-income countries.The carbon component of the United States’ Ecological Footprint, for example, accounts for two-thirds of its total Footprint. Although the United States’ carbon Footprint decreased 13 percent from 2008 to 2009, the nation’s carbon emissions started to grow again in 2010.
Changes in the per person Ecological Footprint and biocapacity between 1961 and 2010 in the United States. The United States has been running a biocapacity deficit the entire time period (Global Footprint Network, 2014 NFA edition).
Changes in the per person Ecological Footprint, by component, between 1961 and 2010 in the United States. The carbon Footprint is the largest component of the average American’s Ecological Footprint (Global Footprint Network, 2014 NFA edition).
Similar trends occurred in other high-income countries. From 2008 to 2009, the carbon component of the Ecological Footprint declined 21 percent in Denmark, 20 percent in Spain, 10 percent in the United Kingdom and 9 percent in Japan. Denmark, the United Kingdom and Japan all increased fossil fuel burning and carbon emissions in 2010.
High-income nations’ trends during the recent global financial crisis are consistent with how their Footprints responded to earlier financial shocks and periods of economic growth. During the oil crises and ensuing recessions in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, high-income countries’ per person Footprints steeply declined; as economies started to expand, Footprint sizes grew.
Middle- and low-income nations’ Footprint trends, however, have scarcely changed during world economic crises. Residents of low-income countries are less integrated in the global economy. Their consumption is more local and primarily composed of biomass products, such as essential food and survival goods. See, for example, Madagascar’s per person Footprint below:Changes in Madagascar’s per person Ecological Footprint and biocapacity between 1961 and 2010. Madagascar has maintained a biocapacity reserve for the entire time period (Global Footprint Network, 2014 NFA edition).
Changes in Madagascar’s per person Ecological Footprint, by component, between 1961 and 2010 (Global Footprint Network, 2014 NFA edition).
In contrast, China’s per person Footprint has nearly doubled since the 1990s, which is particularly stunning considering the country’s population size.Changes in China’s per person Ecological Footprint and biocapacity between 1961 and 2010 (Global Footprint Network, 2014 NFA edition). Changes in China’s per person Ecological Footprint, by component, between 1961 and 2010 (Global Footprint Network, 2014 NFA edition).
“We expect next year’s data to show more high-income countries returning to a growing Footprint path,” said Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network. “Such a path is increasingly risky in a world of overshoot. We too often forget that healthier alternatives exist. We have plenty of opportunities for operating within nature’s budget through smart policies and investments that generate lasting human well-being.”