Bringing the Ecological Footprint to Asia

01/23/2013 11:33 PM

In an era of resource constraints, how can a nation support the long-term success of its economy and the well-being of its citizens, while living within ecological limits? How will leaders react to the fact that their nation, which is in ecological deficit (occurring when the Footprint of a population exceeds the biocapacity of the area available to that population), relies upon other nations that not only are also in ecological deficit themselves but that are also dependent upon other nations that are in ecological overshoot?

These are just two questions that emerge when one examines the combined findings of recent reports on the Ecological Footprint of three Asian nations—Japan, China and the Philippines. All three nations are in ecological deficit (like most others—83 percent of humanity now lives in countries where the demand on nature’s services exceeds what local ecosystems can provide).

In November, Global Footprint Network released “A Measure for Resilience: 2012 Report on the Ecological Footprint of the Philippines,” in collaboration with the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines and the French Agency for Development. It is the first such report for a Southeast Asian nation.

Global Footprint Network’s Asia Regional Director Pati Poblete and Vice President of Operations Geoff Trotter (both far right) presented the first Footprint study of a Southeast Asian nation with (from left) Elisea Gozum, the Philippines Presidential Adviser on Climate Change; Agence Francaise de Development Country Director Lucle Cabellec; France Ambassador to Philippines Gilles Garachon; Miss Earth 2011 Olga Alava; Climate Change Commission Vice Chairman Mary Ann L. Sering; and Climate Change Commissioner Naderev M. Sano. The launch took place at Malacanang Palace, the official residence of the President of the Philippines.(PNA photo Marvie A.Lloren)

The Philippines entered into ecological deficit by the 1960s, and the gap between demand and local biocapacity has been widening over time. In 2008 (the most recent year data is available), Philippine residents’ demand on nature was twice the country’s own capacity to provide biological resources and absorb its carbon emissions.

The report’s findings were presented before the Climate Change Commission, a cabinet-level stakeholder group within the Philippine national government, headed by the Office of the President and various ministries. The Commission enthusiastically and anonymously moved to adopt the findings of the report, which will be disseminated to other government agencies.

Shortly after the report launch, Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Saño represented the Philippines in Doha, Qatar, during the COP 18 climate negotiations. His impassioned plea for nations to act boldly went viral on YouTube. At the same time, his country was being hammered by Bopha/Pablo, a Category 5 super typhoon, making tens of thousands of his fellow citizens homeless and taking over a thousand lives.

“I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around…I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?” Saño said in his speech.

Mr. Saño has been a strong advocate for implementing the Ecological Footprint, understanding that it is in nations’ own interests to live within ecological limits, regardless of whether global actors take coordinated efforts.

How are the trends identified in these reports to be continued into the future, especially when combined with a growing population? There are three ways nations can run an ecological deficit: 1)by overharvesting local, domestic resources, 2)by depending on the imported biocapacity of other nations, and 3)by using the global commons for sequestering its carbon emissions.

But what does this mean if more and more nations are doing the same thing? At the very least, it means that carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere at an alarming rate and that local ecosystems are being degraded.  For example, the Philippines is experiencing deforestation, declining fish stocks, and moderately to severely eroded agriculture land (according to the Philippines’ Department of Agriculture).

It can also mean that nations are putting themselves as risk as they become overly reliant on external trade partners to provide basic commodities.

For example, Japan is highly dependent on biocapacity from other nations to support its population’s needs (over a third of its total resource demand). Our 2012 Japan Ecological Footprint Report, released with WWF Japan in December, reveals that the top three nations from which Japan imports food (China, the United States and Australia) are also in ecological deficit, putting Japan at risk to food price shocks or supply disruptions. Nearly 20 percent of Japan’s total Ecological Footprint is associated with food.

Like the world as a whole, the main driver behind increases in Japan’s Ecological Footprint is carbon emissions, which equaled 64 percent of its total Ecological Footprint in 2008. By the 1990s Japan’s carbon Footprint had grown to nearly three times higher than what it was in 1961. Japan has begun to address these long-term trends; for example, it has reduced its Ecological Footprint since the mid-1990s (though it still remains high) and it adopted the Ecological Footprint as a measurement tool in 2010. It can build on this progress through innovative policy shifts.

Japan’s trading partner, China, has the largest Ecological Footprint in the world, when the total is considered.  Its per capita Footprint, however, is 2.1 global hectares (gha), lower than the global average of 2.7 gha. The 2012 China Ecological Footprint Report, launched in December, reveals that this is over two times the available per capita biocapacity available within China’s borders. And it is above 1.8 gha, the biocapacity available per capita globally, which might be considered a necessary—though not sufficient—indicator of sustainability. Since the early 1970s, China’s demand on renewable resources has exceeded its ability to regenerate those resources within its own borders. China’s increasing individual consumption, largely due to a new affluent class in urban centers, has been one of the dominant drivers of higher Ecological Footprint since 2003.

Business-as-usual scenarios plus population growth projections necessarily mean these ecological deficit trends will only be exacerbated.

But by taking stock of their own resource use, nations can begin to reverse these trends. Leaders – and individuals – who understand their countries’ resources needs, limits and dependencies will be better positioned to support the long-term success of their economies and the well-being of their citizens. 


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