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New Footprint and Biocapacity Data Released from Space: Trends Reveal a ‘Global Auction’

Astronaut Launches Living Planet Report 2012

Humanity is now using nature’s services 52 percent faster than what Earth can renew, according to Global Footprint Network’s latest data, published in the 2012 edition of the Living Planet Report. The biennial report, produced by WWF in collaboration with Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London, was launched today by ESA astronaut André Kuipers from the International Space Station.


Released just weeks before world leaders come together in Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the report shows rising competition among countries for resources and land use.

“We’ve entered the era of the global auction,” said Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel, Ph.D., “where nations are now forced to compete fiercely for more expensive and less abundant resources. It’s in their own self-interest to preserve and restore the natural assets they have within their borders and avoid ecological deficit spending. In a resource constrained world, such spending will become an ever more challenging economic burden.”

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Figure 1: Pathways into the future. How long can ecological overshoot be sustained? What are the cost and benefit of each path? Using more than Earth can renew is only possible temporarily – while there are sufficient assets to be liquidated and waste sinks to be filled up. Eventually, overshoot will be eliminated – the question is whether it is eliminated by design or by disaster.

The new figures released for humanity’s Ecological Footprint and biocapacity (Earth’s capacity to regenerate resources) show that now, more than ever, countries must manage natural capital as part of their strategy to secure ecological, economic and social success. This holds also true when deploying development strategies that aim at producing lasting progress, for instance for efforts to eliminate hunger and alleviate poverty.

As population and consumption increases, the pressure on the planet continues to grow. Global Footprint Network calculations show that in the past five decades, humanity’s Ecological Footprint has more than doubled. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, humanity used the equivalent of slightly more than 1.5 planets to support its activities. In other words, nearly 40 years after Earth went into ecological overshoot, it now takes more than a year and six months for Earth to absorb the CO2 emissions and regenerate the renewable resources that people use in one year.

While humanity’s cropland and fishing Footprints have increased, carbon continues to be the largest driver behind humanity’s ecological overshoot. Carbon now accounts for more than half the global Ecological Footprint, at 54 percent. Land used for food production is another major factor in humanity’s increasing Footprint.

While carbon is a major challenge, it must not be addressed in isolation. Moving from fossil fuel due to climate concerns to alternative sources will reduce the carbon portion of the Footprint, but may also significantly increase pressure on other ecosystems. The lack of biocapacity to accommodate the carbon Footprint also indicates that there may not be sufficient biomass available to substitute the current level of fossil fuel use, should that become necessary.


Though the numbers are stark, countries can still reverse trends. Using a Global Footprint Network Scenario Calculator, the 2012 edition of the Living Planet Report offers potential outcomes based on different choices related to resource consumption, demographic trends, land use and productivity.

Comparing the Ecological Footprint of Countries

Examining the Ecological Footprint at the per-person level shows that people living in different countries vary greatly in their demand on Earth’s ecosystems. For example, if everyone in the world lived like the average resident of Qatar, which presently has the world’s highest per capita Footprint, we would need the equivalent of 6.5 planets to regenerate our resources and absorb the CO2 emissions. If everyone lived like a resident of the United States, we would need the resources of 4 planets.

A few countries are now on the verge of turning from ecological creditors to ecological debtors, including Indonesia, Senegal and Ecuador.

Countries that maintain high levels of resource dependence are putting their own economies at risk,” Wackernagel said. “These countries will expose themselves dangerously to the global auction. But those countries that are able to work within both their financial and their ecological budget will not only serve the global interest, they will have the most resilient economies in a resource-constrained world. If our goal is to make progress last and secure well-being for all, then we can no longer afford to ignore biocapacity deficits in the new era of resource constraints.”

You can download the latest results here, or check out your country’s trend on our website, as in the case for Switzerland (Click here to see your country’s Ecological Footprint.)

The top 10 countries with the largest Ecological Footprint per person are Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, the United States, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, and Ireland. Countries on the other end of the spectrum such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh have per capita Footprints that, in many cases, are too small to provide for basic needs. These countries may well need to increase their access to resources if they are to bring large segments of the population out of poverty.

Who has the greatest natural capital?

Analysis of biocapacity also reveals vast differences between countries. More than 60 percent of the world’s biocapacity is found within the borders of just 10 countries: Brazil, China, the United States, Russia, India, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Argentina and Congo. Biocapacity per person, calculated by dividing national biocapacity by a country’s population, is also not equivalent around the world. In 2008, the country with the highest biocapacity per person in this report was Gabon, followed in decreasing order by Bolivia, Mongolia, Canada and Australia. With pressure on ecological resources escalating, access to biocapacity will be increasingly important to countries’ competitiveness and to their ability to provide a good quality of life for their citizens.

“For lasting competitiveness, countries need a break with the past,” said Wackernagel. “The good news is that addressing resource risks can open up economic opportunities and advance social equity. The solutions lay in better understanding the choices before us. For this, governments need the knowledge and tools to manage their ecological assets as well as their resource demand.”

How to Participate

As Global Footprint Network approaches its 10th anniversary, we remain committed to reversing these trends by working with governments and maintaining and improving our National Footprint Accounts, the gold standard for measuring key aspects of a country’s ecological wealth and vulnerabilities. You can be part of this global effort by promoting our work, becoming a partner or giving a donation.