Footprint Network Blog - Ecological Limits

Committing to a New Future

09/22/2015 09:10 PM

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

Earth Overshoot Day 2015

09/02/2015 06:16 PM

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, 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 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 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.

International Day of Families: Empowering women for a world that works for everyone

05/15/2015 07:12 AM

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.”

Read Complete Article >

Mathis’ IAIA Award Acceptance Speech

04/22/2015 05:30 PM

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:

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Could Earth Day 2015 be the tipping point?

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.

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International Day of Forests: Signs of hope but not out of the woods

03/20/2015 08:01 PM

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.

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The Growing Reach of Beijing’s Food Ecological Footprint

02/05/2015 05:15 PM

Xie Gaodi from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research (IGSNRR) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is the lead author of a recent research paper published in the journal Sustainability. He recently talked with Global Footprint Network about the unsustainability of giant cities.

Between 2008 and 2012, the population of Beijing climbed from 23 million to more than 30 million—a whopping 30 percent in just four years. One direct impact of this rapid demographic surge, which includes permanent residents and "floating" population such as tourists, was the drastic increase in Beijing's reliance on food produced in areas located outside of, and increasingly further out from, the city's boundaries, stresses a new article in the journal Sustainability authored by several researchers in China. The challenge caused by Beijing's insufficient agricultural resources was compounded by high land prices, the researchers pointed out.

Over those five years, Beijing's dependence on non-local food supplies grew from 48 percent to 64 percent of total food consumption in the metropolitan area, according to the article, "The Outward Extension of an Ecological Footprint in City Expansion: The Case of Beijing."

The authors introduce the notion of Ecological Footprint distance (abbreviated as Def) to reveal the average distance that natural resources required to support a population's Ecological Footprint travel to reach that population.

Researchers stressed that food accounts for the significantly biggest part of Beijing's consumed biocapacity in terms of weight.

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Cloughjordan Ecovillage Leads the Way Toward Sustainable Living in Ireland

02/05/2015 05:17 AM

If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage, we would be remarkably close to living within the budget of our planet’s ecological resources. Researcher Vince Carragher’s bottom-up Ecological Footprint accounting methodology helps residents stay on track.

Seven years after construction started in the middle of Ireland, Cloughjordan Ecovillage counts 54 homes. Its solar- and wood-powered community heating system is up and running, as are the wood-oven bakery and the eco-hostel for visitors. The organic, bio-dynamic community farm, one of the largest community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes in Ireland, caters to over 60 families; it can serve 80 when operating at full capacity.

Cloughjordan Ecovillage residents have an average Ecological Footprint per capita of only 2 global hectares (gha), according to the first Ecological Footprint survey of residents that was carried out last spring and presented to the community in November. By way of comparison, Global Footprint Network estimates that the average amount of biocapacity that is available per person on the planet is 1.7 gha.

The survey was conducted by Vincent Carragher, energy manager and research coordinator at Tipperary Energy Agency and an expert on local scale material and resource flow analysis and decarbonisation. His bottom-up approach, which he developed during his doctorate research on Ballina, an Irish community of 700 households, focuses on data collected directly from each household. It is based on the original Ecological Footprint accounting methodology developed by Mathis Wackernagel, now president of Global Footprint Network, and William Rees at the University of British Columbia, and other subsequent works.

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2014: Year in Review

01/07/2015 11:25 AM

As we are greeting the New Year, we want to take a moment to pause, thank our generous supporters and celebrate what we accomplished over the past 12 months. Here are the highlights.

A major milestone for us was the launch, last June in London, of Phase II of ERISC with our partners in the finance industry. Environmental Risk Integration in Sovereign Credit, a research project that seeks to quantify how environmental risk can impact the balance sheet of nations, is a joint program with the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative. We are grateful to participating institutions Caisse des Dépôts, the European Investment Bank, First State Investments, HSBC, Kempen Capital Management, KfW and Standard & Poor’s, who embarked on that journey with us. We are looking forward to announcing first research results and findings in 2015.

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Footprint Conversations Around the World

12/17/2014 02:42 PM

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.


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