Footprint Network Blog
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.”
A common notion is that high population growth rates among low-income people are not a problem for sustainability, because low-income people use fewer resources. However, our data show that low-income countries with high population growth typically have declining per person Ecological Footprints as a result of inadequate access to resources (see graph below). It is a sign of tragedy, not sustainability. These are often populations who need larger Footprints in order to secure decent lives for themselves. Without the financial means to secure the biocapacity required to meet the needs of a growing population, people are left with no options but sharing smaller and smaller portions of limited resources.
These graphs published in WWF’s Living Planet Report nearly 10 years ago display the trends that continue to this day:
“In the face of growing resource demands, ecological constraints and climate change now pose a greater risk to every country’s economy. This risk is most evident in countries that possess both a biocapacity deficit and low incomes,” explains Burns.
A staggering 71 percent of the world population now lives in countries with this double challenge: biocapacity deficits AND lower-than-world-average income, up from less than 15 percent in the early 1960s.
Everyone has the right to decent living conditions. Hence the crucial importance of investing in women’s education and family planning to stabilize or even gradually reduce world population, bringing sustainable solutions within reach.
The link between women’s increased access to education and professional opportunities, and declining fertility rate, has been demonstrated time and time again. A lower fertility rate is invariably associated with higher standards of living and better outcomes for her children, enabled by the improved ability of a woman to exert control over her childbearing.
Non-coercive approaches to lower birth rates have yielded impressive results. For example in Thailand, one farsighted doctor broke the taboo of the condom. Or consider Ethiopia, South Korea and Iran, with a decline of 35 percent, 39 percent and 50 percent of their respective birth rates between 1990 and 2010.
Birth rates are highly affected by social, cultural and economic factors, which public policies can radically shape. Between 1993 and 2006, for example, Iranian couples were required to take a family-planning class in order to receive their marriage license. The low-fertility revolution introduced by the new government in the late 1990s after the Iraq war was meant to address the issues of the country’s limited capacity to provide adequate food, education, housing and employment.
“It is more difficult for low-income populations around the world to deal with shrinking resources, even though they have a smaller Footprint. If we want a world that works for everyone, we need to make sure we have the appropriate resources to support that,” states Burns. “Healthy and smaller families are obviously core to the success of this approach, with a view to ensuring that each child born into this world is given opportunities in terms of education, employment and a decent quality of life.”
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:
Dear friends and esteemed colleagues,
Thank you for your kindness and generosity. It deeply touches me that you have selected our work for IAIA’s Global Environment Award.
Your organization has been in my conversations since the early 1990s. Members of IAIA have been my mentors. And some members have been intellectual lighthouses – like the late Robert Goodland.
The sheer optimism your organization exudes through its name, has tickled me, IAIA here we come! It is a battle cry for a better world. And indeed we badly need far more rigorous impact measures, because the financial rationales are not sufficient in guiding our decision-making. Calling everything that matters externalities does not cut it.
At Global Footprint Network, our mission is nearly the same as yours: To make ecological limits central to decision making. We need this for an equitable and sustainable world. Without embracing resource limits, it is unlikely that we will be able to move out of overshoot by design.
We will eventually move out of ecological overshoot, no doubt. Physics dictates this. The question is merely: Are we doing it by disaster or by design? I do not want the former to win this race.
Inspired by the discipline of impact assessment, Bill Rees and I developed the initial Footprint, an accounting system for measuring our ultimate environmental impact. We asked the question: How many planets does it take to support humanity? Answering this question could then also tell us: how many planets does it take if everybody lived like me or you?
The underlying principles are very simple: Life competes for biologically productive surfaces. You eat a potato, and this takes space. Add space for your tomatoes, the cotton, the milk, the rice, the wood fibers, the timber, the sequestration of your carbon emissions. The sum we call “your Ecological Footprint.” And a big part of humanity’s Footprint, currently, is the carbon Footprint. In fact there would currently still be sufficient space to absorb all our carbon emissions from fossil fuel, but then there would be far less space for food. We seem to choose food over carbon sequestration.
Once we add up all the surfaces we demand, then we can compare this Footprint with the biologically productive surfaces that exist on the planet – we call this the biocapacity.
I brought some wallet cards along with lots of Footprint data points. They are shaped like credit cards. Like credit cards, they are worth money. Because they help intrigue your friends, and then they will invite you to a free lunch. The cards contain a nauseating amount of data. And what is even cooler – once opened, you cannot fold them back.
Why would you need to know how much nature you have compared to how much you use? I asked this very question to a class of 11-year-olds. A girl immediately raised her hand and said, “If we use more than what we have, the only thing left to eat is imaginary cookies…
Now. She was not totally right, because we can overuse nature for some time, depleting the stock. For example, cut trees more rapidly than they regrow, deplete soils, overuse groundwater, accumulate CO2 in the atmosphere. But still, she got the idea far more clearly than most of the ministers I talk to.
How can we make this as clear as crystal for everybody?
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.
The optimists among us will point out that the odds are looking good. Last October the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, China and the United States, made history with a surprise joint announcement of their commitment to reach an ambitious 2015 agreement in Paris lowering emissions, and to strengthen their bilateral cooperation in order to reach their goals. Last month the Obama Administration made good on the announcement when it formally pledged in its five-page submission to the United Nations that the U.S. will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 percent over the next decade.
Meanwhile, China’s coal imports in the first quarter of this year have dropped by nearly half compared to the same period last year—a significant feat for the world’s biggest consumer of coal. China’s economic slowdown is partially responsible for the trend. It is also no accident that China added 11GW of solar capacity last year (enough to power 6 million homes) and led the world in terms of investments into renewable energy—up 32 percent from 2013, according to the market research firm Business Monitor International. BMI expects China to keep up the pace this year in terms of both added renewable capacity and investment growth.
Greening of energy sector accelerates
Governments never act as quickly as activists, consumers and scientists want them to. This being said, they have been investing huge efforts and resources, reaching significant momentum leading up to the Climate Summit in Paris.
Various countries around the world have worked tirelessly towards lowering the carbon Footprint of their economy–the largest component of many countries’ Ecological Footprints. In Europe, Germany, a pioneer in solar energy, now produces more than 27 percent of its electricity from renewables. Spain has been investing heavily in wind farms and, more controversially, nuclear, with stark results: last month it generated 69 percent of its electricity from plants that did not emit carbon dioxide, and it has realistic prospects to reach 87 percent next year.
In Latin America, Costa Rica has reached a carbon-free power grid. After decades of expanding its reliance on hydropower, the small tropical nation has been able so far this year to generate 100 percent of its electricity from hydro, geothermal and wind.
It is widely expected that the dramatic drop in the cost of solar energy will support and even boost the current momentum towards cleaner energy.
The transportation sector, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, has also been yielding good news of late. Just last week we learned that electric cars and combustion engine vehicles reached cost parity 6 years earlier than expected. A good reason to expect that the recent surge of the EV market (up 72 percent last year in the 10 largest markets) will be sustained.
Everywhere you look, investors and initiatives of all stripes are coming up with low-carbon or carbon-free alternatives to current carbon-intensive infrastructures, equipment or processes that our economies are so dependent upon: carbon-negative cement, zero-carbon buildings, aviation biofuel, methane sequestration and biogas generation, you name it. The finance industry is even getting on to the game, as the international fossil fuel divestment movement grows.
Citizens take the judiciary to task
Last but not least, citizens themselves haven’t been sitting idle. The courtroom is an especially interesting space to watch. Various lawsuits that were filed in the United States and abroad a couple of years ago to hold governments accountable for insufficient action on climate change are ready for primetime. Earlier this month oral arguments were heard by a judge in Oregon. The plaintiffs are teenagers supported by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust. Its goal is to have the courts acknowledge that the atmosphere is part of the commons and, as such, should be protected by governments as mandated by the principle of common law known as Public Trust Doctrine. The judge is expected to render a decision later this year.
Also this month public arguments began in the Netherlands, where nearly 900 Dutch citizens have filed a class action lawsuit against their government for failing to effectively cut greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change. The prosecution is basing the case on existing human rights laws. And more than 10,000 Belgian citizens—and counting—have pledged to support a similar lawsuit in their country.
Plaintiffs in all above-mentioned cases were given a clear victory last month when an international working group of current and former judges, advocates, and professors adopted the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations. The legal experts aim to publicly send governments and enterprises back to their legal responsibilities and obligations on climate change as defined by well-established laws—human rights law, international law, environmental law, and tort law. And they argue, to quote The Guardian, that any new international agreement will just be a coda to obligations already present, pressing and unavoidable in existing law.
Obviously, a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. Carbon is only one part of the story. The plight of forests and oceans, ecosystems degradation, access to water, growing social inequities—to name but a few—are giving no rest to countless activists, government officials, research organizations, consumers and businesses around the world. Let’s acknowledge all the good news, however, and celebrate them, so we can confidently hold onto the vision of all people living well, within the means of nature.
"I’ve always been driven by opportunities where analysis and knowledge generation can impact policies."
Derek joined Global Footprint Network this month to lead analytics on resource accounting and the implications for policy and sustainability solutions. An economist with a Ph.D. from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, he brings more than 20 years of experience in undertaking research that informs and drives decision makers.
Prior to joining Global Footprint Network, Derek was Executive Director of the Centre for International Environmental Studies at the Graduate Institute of Geneva. Before that, Derek served as a core member of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, where he managed the integrated modeling assessment in UNEP’s 2011 flagship report, "Towards a Green Economy." He also has worked for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). See his full bio here.
In the following Q&A, Derek talks to us about his professional journey, the importance of behavior change in achieving sustainability, the first project for the United Nations that he is leading on our team.
What motivated you to embark on a career in sustainability?
Derek: It goes back to my youth, which was spent in Canada. I was fortunate enough to be able to appreciate the natural world from a young age. I learned how dependent we are on nature through canoe camping trips and backpacking trips. You have to be really careful about your resources, and leave as little a Footprint as possible on that beautiful wilderness that you enjoy. Dealing with all sorts of threats like bears also brings you back to reality as far as being one species among other species.
Then I spent a big part of my studies looking at how to alleviate poverty and promote development. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission Report on the environment and development, which was commissioned by the United Nations, came out. It coined and defined the meaning of the term "sustainable development" and introduced the concept in the international policy discussion. I was still a student, at a time when the awareness of the scientific community about global climate change was growing. The two came together for me—on the one hand my interest in contributing to understand how more people could enjoy a better standard of living, and on the other hand the growing recognition that resources are finite. I chose my path at that intersection between economics and sustainability.
What are the main challenges you have encountered in the field of sustainability?
Derek: The one challenge that I’ve come to appreciate more and more is the need to bring to discussions about sustainability the understanding that social scientists and economists have about human behavior. At the end of the day, we’re talking about the need for changes in behavior both in production and consumption patterns. Yet we can’t just decree those things. We need to understand how people’s behavior is resistant to change, and how we go about guiding the necessary evolution to support a sustainability agenda. Even 25 years ago, that was the appeal of that field to me as an economist. I could see that there was so much potential for contribution. It’s been a long path, and I can see some improvements. Nevertheless, it remains at the core of the challenge of how we can devise a transition to more sustainable pathways. It is about fully appreciating and bringing in the human element at the center.
What progress have you witnessed over the span of your career?
Derek: There has been substantial progress, even though we’re not moving fast enough on some key issues. If we look at some of the big global issues, to see how far we’ve come and how much resources we have invested in understanding the science and identifying the set of solutions to keep temperatures within the acceptable threshold—that’s a fantastic array of human resources!
Also, I find there’s been an incredible growth in awareness. The knowledge that my two teenage daughters are acquiring already through the formal education system about challenges that we’re facing with regard to sustainability, both at the global and local level, together with many opportunities for them to be inspired to take action, is phenomenal. Sustainability has become very much embedded in the values of youth today in the richer countries. That’s also a tremendous achievement.
We keep seeing incremental improvements at the local level. One example that astounds me is cycling. When I was living in London 20 years ago, I was looked down upon by my colleagues as crazy because I used to ride my bicycle to work. Now, I can’t believe the number of cycle paths and lanes that have been deployed in that city over the past decade, and how many people have taken up cycling as a mode of transport. In Geneva and in Paris, you see something similar. To me, it is really indicative that people can change behavior at an incredible scale within less than a generation.
How did Global Footprint Network show up as the next step in your career?
Derek: I’ve always been driven by opportunities where analysis and knowledge generation can impact policies whether in governments or other stakeholders—what is called the science-policy interface. I have worked in organizations on both sides of that interface, either undertaking research at the demand of specific groups of stakeholders, or understanding from within national governments or international agencies how constraints and opportunities work internally within those organizations and for the constituencies they serve.
In my previous role at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, I was working at the frontier of academic knowledge but also getting antsy to be close to that science-policy interface again in a way that truly drives the agenda. Global Footprint Network has a fantastic track record and reputation for helping frame the agenda with crucial questions for the transition to a more sustainable world.
Also, I started my career as an economist in sustainability in the area of natural resources accounting. I find that the accounting tools provide an essential component of how we can link sustainability and economics. Global Footprint Network has recently added to the natural resource accounting some innovative economic and policy analysis that is based on, and building on, the Footprint Accounts. It is a very appealing fit to my background.
What is the first big project that you’re working on?
Derek: Advancing Natural Capital Accounting (ANCA) is an initiative put forward by a group of organizations that includes the United Nations Environment Programme, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, the Natural Capital Declaration, the Natural Capital Coalition, and others. All these organizations are working together to see how natural capital accounting can be advanced in terms of methodology and of an enabling environment, including for the private sector and financial institutions as well as for government.
One achievement of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012 was the creation of the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) to assess economic and environmental interactions. It is now a standard that is being implemented by all governments with the support of the World Bank in developing countries. As natural accounting initiatives are emerging in the private sector and in the financial institutions, it is important to promote a better understanding of each other’s frameworks, and possibly improve the alignment between the three worlds.
In this context, we’ve been requested by UNEP TEEB to undertake a scoping analysis of those initiatives, with a particular focus on interaction points with national public initiatives. We will identify how those dots can be connected from the point of view of data exchange and aggregation, and what opportunities are emerging for those connections to be realized. We will be presenting our report late June at the United Nations Statistics Division in New York.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.