Footprint Network Blog 2009

Preparing for a Post-Copenhagen

12/19/2009 12:20 AM

After Copenhagen: What’s Next?
By Mathis Wackernagel

I have just come back from Copenhagen COP15. While it was a thrill and privilege to participate, it also made evident how far we still have to go to meaningfully address climate change and resource degradation.
I was touched to see the buzz and interest of 40,000 participants engaging at the official conference, and of many more participating in side events and demonstrations. Most paid their own way to Copenhagen, showing incredible commitment to making this world work for all, now and later. There is tremendous public will to make a difference, beyond the 193 country delegations and possibly over 130 heads of state who attended.

But much about the climate talks was quite puzzling as well:
• The negotiations reflected a blindness to the link between climate change and resource constraints overall.  The fact is, without a strong Copenhagen regime, the pressure on ecological services will intensify more rapidly, and the world will get more volatile more quickly. If leaders were to recognize this, their approach would be the opposite of what it is now. They would arrive to Copenhagen with the mind-frame of: “We have a big incentive to make this deal work, because without it we will have to work harder to prepare our economies for an ecologically-constrained future.”
• The obvious was missing: Keeping climate change within two degrees Celcius means reducing carbon emissions at least 80 percent from 1990 levels, according to the IPCC. This essentially requires moving out of fossil fuel. But hardly anybody admits this mathematical truth.

• Further, if we accept the G-20s intentions (which was confirmed in even more strict parameters by the Copenhagen Accord of December 18) and its mathematical consequences of moving out of fossil fuel, then consider this: Why is it that we haggle so much about access rights to emissions? What we are talking about is close to zero emissions (after 2050). Why would anyone spend efforts and time on negotiating access rights to zero?

• We are still addicted to outmoded concepts like that of “developing” and “developed” countries. These terms embody the linear development model that is not only becoming physically impossible, but is also the one that got us into the climate problem in the first place. Essentially, this model is based on accepting the unintended consequence of liquidating our resource base. In its essence, it is becoming a negative sum game where individual success is only possible at the cost of the collective demise. What we need is green prosperity, or green development, that works with, rather than against, the budget of nature. And what we need even more badly is the recognition that such green prosperity serves each country much better than the current liquidation game.
• Perhaps most striking is that the great majority of leaders ignore their nation’s self-interest in acting boldly and quickly. After all, it takes decades to prepare countries, cities and economies for a resource-constrained future. Those countries that can retool their economies and make them healthy and robust while staying within ecological limits will be best positioned to meet the future. On the other hand, waiting for a global climate consensus will limit, if not jeopardize, countries’ ability to retool their societies in time, and succeed in the face of ecological constraints.

But there were also quite a few achievements:
• Many local initiatives – cities, pro-active businesses, regions - are already moving ahead even without global agreements. The United Arab Emirates’ Masdar City is a prominent example.
• REDD+ (United Nations’ collaborative programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) represents a solid recognition that land-use and biocapacity are keys to the global carbon cycle. REDD+ may still be too limited in scope, and difficult to operationalize, but it points in the right direction acknowledging the biosphere as the source of any activity. Ultimately, we run out of biosphere, not climate. Therefore, many solutions to climate change will come from carefully managing our use of ecosystem services.
• Delegations showed their level of commitment, negotiating through the night and working tirelessly towards solutions – all encouraging signs that we are at a historical crossroads. Sustainability is certainly no longer a sideshow.
In the coming weeks, we will be reporting to you with further details on how we will help shape climate action, and how this can go hand in hand with securing well-being for all.
With growing interest in resource degradation and climate change, Global Footprint Network will play an even more significant role in 2010. We are both excited about this prospect, and immensely thankful. We are grateful to you, our partners, and for your ongoing trust and interest.

Humanity Now Demanding 1.4 Earths

11/30/2009 02:28 AM

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.

Click here for a bar graph of Ecological Footprints by Nation

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 (

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.


Factbook Charts Africa’s Footprint, Human Development Trends

10/09/2009 05:12 PM

If current population and consumption trends continue, Africa’s Ecological Footprint will exceed its biocapacity within the next twenty years, while a number of countries, including Senegal, Kenya and Tanzania, are set to reach that threshold in less than five years, according to a report issued today by Global Footprint Network and key partners.

The Africa Factbook 2009 reveals that while Africa’s population grew from 287 million to 902 million people between 1961 and 2005, the amount of biocapacity (food, fiber and timber resources that are renewably available) per person decreased by 67 percent during this same time period.

Read Complete Article >


Today is Earth Overshoot Day

09/24/2009 11:10 PM

September 25 marked this year’s Earth Overshoot Day: the day global demand on ecological services – from filtering CO2 to producing food, fiber and timber– outstripped what than nature can produce in this year, according to Global Footprint Network calculations. From now until the end of the year, we will meet our demand for ecological services by depleting resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“It’s a simple case of income versus expenditures,” said Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel. “For years, our demand on nature has exceeded, by an increasingly greater margin, the budget of what nature can produce. The urgent threats we are seeing now – most notably climate change, but also biodiversity loss, shrinking forests, declining fisheries, soil erosion and freshwater stress – are all clear signs: Nature is running out of credit to extend.”

Read Complete Article >


Future-proof Your Business: Understanding Business Strategy in the Face of Ecological Limits

05/11/2009 08:07 PM

Global Footprint Network is pleased to announce two sessions it will lead at the Sustainable Brands 2009 Conference in Monterey, Calif., May 31-June 4.

On June 4th, Global Footprint Network CEO Susan Burns will lead a special workshop on the topic Future-proof Your Business: Understanding Business Strategy in the Face of Ecological Limits. The workshop will help business leaders prepare for the key resource challenges humanity will face in the coming years, and uncover ideas and opportunities for pioneering the way toward a resource-efficient future. The discussion marks the first of our Global Footprint Dialogues, which will bring together leading thinkers and change-makers to foster the innovation we will need to end ecological overshoot.

On Monday, June 1st, 12:15 - 12:30 pm, Global Footprint Network Executive Director Mathis Wackernagel will speak on the subject:  Thinking Beyond Carbon; Understanding Carrying Capacity and the Full Ecological Footprint of Business.

The Sustainable Brands Conference is the premier place for business strategists, product designers and brand executives to stay on the cutting edge of the discussion about sustainability as a driver of business opportunity and brand value.  Both the program and the faculty serving this year’s conference are simply outstanding. I urge you and your team to consider joining me in Monterey to fuel your strategic thinking as well as strengthen your company’s sustainable design and brand communications skills. Click here to check out the stellar list of speakers. Click here to see the Conference Program. Click here to see who will be attending.


The Ecological Footprint: Achieving Systems Change

05/08/2009 11:18 PM

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is pleased to invite you to a lecture on the Ecological Footprint by Mathis Wackernagel, Executive Director of Global Footprint Network, on Monday, May 18 at the IUCN headquarters in Geneva.

Dr. Wackernagel will speak about the Ecological Footprint, what it tells us and why it is more important now than ever. The current economic downturn has brought home the consequences of living beyond our financial means. But we are also living beyond our ecological means, and the time is upon us to take stock of our ecological balance sheet and right the books on our use of nature. Learn how the Ecological Footprint is helping to spark the systemic shifts and breakthrough thinking we will need for a sustainable human future.

The lecture is free to attend. Details are as follows.

Monday, 18 May 2009

17:30 Welcome by Christophe Bouvier, Director, UNEP Reigonal Office for Europe

17:35 Lecture by Mathis Wackernagel, Co-Creator of the Ecological Footprint and Executive Director, Global Footprint Network

18:30 Questions and Discussion

19:00 Reception

Where: International Environment House II
11-13 chemin des Anémones, CH-1210
Châtelaine, Geneva, Switzerland

Tel: [41-22] 917-8326


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