Footprint Network Blog - Human Development

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:

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

Categories: Ecological Limits, Footprint for Government, Human Development, Our Partners’ Work

Ecuador’s Vision of “Good Living”

07/02/2015 02:29 PM

Our vision is that all people of the Earth live well and within the means of nature. We are delighted when this vision is shared by others around the world, and honored when we meet individuals equally passionate about sustainability. Last month, we had the pleasure to meet Freddy Ehlers, minister of the Buen Vivir program in Ecuador. "Buen vivir" translates roughly to good living in English. The program promotes finding a meaning to life that makes living it worthwhile, inspired by service to others and respect toward all beings in nature.

Over the course of his 40-year career, Freddy has worked as a journalist, documentary film producer, Andean community secretary general and Ecuadorian minister of tourism. He studied law at the Universidad Central del Ecuador, pursued graduate studies in political science at Davidson College in the United States and received media training at the Radio Netherlands Training Centre in Holland.

We asked Freddy a few questions about his work at the Ministry of Buen Vivir.

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Categories: Footprint for Government, Human Development, Personal Footprint

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.”

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Categories: Ecological Limits, Human Development

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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Categories: Ecological Limits, Footprint for Finance, Footprint for Government, Footprint Standards, Human Development, Personal Footprint

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.


Categories: Ecological Limits, Footprint for Business, Footprint for Finance, Footprint for Government, Footprint Standards, Human Development

A Scientist’s Passage to India

David Lin, Research Scientist - 12/15/2014 11:38 AM

Last month, David Lin, a lead scientist at Global Footprint Network, traveled to India to provide support to Pragyan Bharati, our India director, on our new pilot project there called Sustainable Development Return on Investment. The project aims to empower local villagers to have a more informed voice in shaping development in their communities. Here is a short travelogue by David on his experience meeting villagers with our partners International Development Enterprises-India (IDEI) and Gram Vikas (of India).

When my plane from Delhi landed in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, I immediately noticed the change in environment. Odisha, located in East India, is a region covered by a dry tropical and deciduous forest, evident even in the most urban areas of the town. The tribal communities we visited were located near the town of Phulbani, about 5 hours by car from Bhubaneswar. The trip was a beautiful one, passing through oceans of green rice fields and tall forests, punctuated by many small towns and villages.

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Categories: Ecological Limits, Human Development

New Pilot Project to Empower Villagers in India

09/29/2014 05:13 PM

For the first time, Global Footprint Network is partnering with other NGOs to support both sustainable and human development at the community level in India. While Global Footprint Network projects often target decision-makers at the national, sub-national, and city levels, this new pilot in India aims to give local villagers a more informed voice in shaping development in their communities. The project, titled "Sustainable Development Return on Investment: Empowering Communities and Measuring Investment Effectiveness," or SDRoI, is a partnership with International Development Enterprises-India, Gram Vikas (of India) and Fundación Escuela Nueva (of Colombia).

Pragyan Bharati (right), Global Footprint Network’s India director, is leading the 18-month project. She holds a doctorate in sociology and is a social development specialist with experience in leading various water and sanitation projects with ONE DROP, UNICEF, and the government of Odisha’s Ministry of Rural Development.

We asked Pragyan a few questions about the new project.

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Categories: Human Development

Spreading the Word on Earth Overshoot Day 2014

Ronna Kelly, Communications Director, Global Footprint Network - 08/26/2014 12:30 PM

Media outlets around the world helped share the news of Earth Overshoot Day this year, and thanks to countless partners and supporters, a conversation about our planet’s ecological deficit also took off on social media.

Earth Overshoot Day is an annual observance meant to bring attention to the risks of humanity’s growing ecological deficit. This year, August 19 marked the date when humanity exhausted nature’s budget for the entire year.

Highlights of Earth Overshoot Day 2014 media coverage included articles in Le Monde in France, El Mundo in Spain, and the Brasil Post in Brazil. Earth Overshoot Day also made the front page of La Stampa in Italy for the second year in a row. An online article in The Guardian in the UK generated 92 comments. In Switzerland, a Q&A with Bruno Oberle, director of the Swiss Ministry of Environment, was featured on the ministry’s website.

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Categories: Carbon Footprint, Ecological Limits, Footprint for Government, Human Development, Our Partners’ Work, Personal Footprint

Human Development and the Ecological Footprint

Global Footprint Network - 04/03/2013 06:57 PM

Despite over $150 billion being spent annually in development globally, virtually nobody is tracking whether the achieved progress can last, or whether it is becoming increasingly fragile without the necessary access to nature’s resources.

But this is changing. The United Nations Development Programme’s latest flagship publication, its Human Development Report 2013, prominently features countries’ performance as proposed by Global Footprint Network: how much human well-being do countries generate (as measured by the UNDP’s Human Development Index) at what level of resource demand (as measured by the Ecological Footprint).

The Report reads:

“To sustain progress in human development, far more attention needs to be paid to the impact human beings are having on the environment. The goal is high human development and a low ecological footprint per capita. Only a few countries come close to creating such a globally reproducible high level of human development without exerting unsustainable pressure on the planet’s ecological resources.”

It is a significant step for a leading UN agency to question business-as-usual models of development and explore alternatives. In the past, the report included Ecological Footprint results in its background data table, but this year UNDP used our HDI-Footprint graph to prominently show how far away the world is from meeting the sustainable development challenge, using simple metrics.

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Categories: Ecological Limits, Human Development

Dr. Wackernagel Wins Prestigious Kenneth E. Boulding Award

06/05/2012 02:29 AM

Dear Supporters,

Global Footprint Network is thrilled to announce that Co-Founder and President Dr. Mathis Wackernagel and Dr. William Rees, co-creators of the Ecological Footprint, have been named the winners of the 2012 Kenneth E. Boulding Award, the world’s top honor in the field of ecological economics.

The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), made the announcement leading up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), in Rio de Janeiro, where the awards will be presented.

The biennial award is given to “outstanding individuals who have contributed original and seminal approaches that have furthered our understanding of the interfaces between the social, ecological, ethical, economic and political dimensions of our world,” said the ISEE in announcing the award.

Building on Rees’ earlier work on human carrying capacity, Wackernagel and Rees in the early 1990s developed the Ecological Footprint, the world’s premier resource accounting system, to track humanity’s demands on nature. The Ecological Footprint measures the area of productive land and water, or “biocapacity,” required to produce the resources a human population consumes and to absorb its carbon waste.

For the last 10 years, Global Footprint Network has contributed to WWF’s bi-annual flagship publication “The Living Planet Report,” which has become a key publication for Ecological Footprint results. The 2012 edition was released in May from the International Space Station, generating the largest media response of any Living Planet Report so far. The latest Global Footprint Network calculations show that humanity’s demand for bio-resources exceeds the long-term regenerative capacity of Earth by over 50 percent.

“Ever more countries continue to use more resources than they can renew within their own boundaries,” Drs. Wackernagel and Rees said. “Until countries begin tracking and managing their biocapacity deficits, they put not only themselves at risk but, more importantly, the entire planet.”

The award will be presented at the ISEE Conference 2012 in Rio de Janeiro on June 19, where Wackernagel and Rees will deliver the keynote Boulding Award lectures.

Dr. Wackernagel has promoted sustainability on six continents and lectured at more than 100 universities. Dr. Rees is an ecologist, ecological economist, Founding Director of the One Earth Initiative, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning.

Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993) was President of the American Economics Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science. Past notable recipients include Herman Daly (American economist, considered the father of Ecological Economics) and Manfred Max-Neef, author of Real-Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation.

We thank you, our valued partners and supporters, for helping to promote our work around the world, and making awards such as these possible as we continue to make ecological limits central to decision-making.

Categories: Carbon Footprint, Ecological Limits, Footprint for Business, Footprint for Government, Human Development, Our Partners’ Work, Personal Footprint