Footprint Network Blog - 07/2014
May and June this year were the hottest ever since record-keeping began in 1880, according to a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report. 2014 could go down as the warmest year yet, exceeding the previous records set in 2003 and 2013.
There’s no question that the Earth is warming, ancient ice is melting and sea levels are rising. Friends of Global Footprint Network are well aware of many of the risks that anthropogenic climate change poses, particularly to the world’s poorest regions.
A risk that remains under-appreciated, however, is the impact that water availability will have on energy, and that constrained energy supply will have on water.
After food production, electricity generation is the second-largest consumer of water globally. Thermal power plants – those powered by coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear – consume vast amounts of water in their cooling cycles. A single nuclear reactor can consume over 15 million gallons of water per day. Power generation accounts for 41 percent of freshwater withdrawals and about three percent of freshwater consumption (3.3 billion gallons of water per day) in the United States.
Warmer temperatures have been taking a toll on these thirsty facilities. Every summer, a lack of water (or of water that is sufficiently cold) forces power plants to shut down. Inadequate and irregular rainfall has also forced hydropower facilities to shut down, such as the Shivanasamudra plant in southern India this month.
Just as producing power requires water, producing water requires power. In California, one-fifth of the state’s electrical power is used to pump, treat, transport, heat, cool and recycle water. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the water in the state, which produces one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts consumed in the United States.
This year is on track to be the driest in the history of recorded rainfall in the state, and has already forced cattle ranchers to pare down their herds and almond farmers to plow under their trees. Food prices across the nation have crept up due to the drought.
California is emblematic of the predicament that the world now faces. A growing population puts water, food, and energy supplies under even more pressure even as they are increasingly strained by climate change. But the most accessible solutions often lead to destructive feedback loops. For example, California’s current plan to replace the 2.2 gigawatts of power generation from the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station, which was shut down in 2012, is likely to rely substantially on new power generation from natural gas, which will pump even more CO2 into the atmosphere and increase the probability of future droughts.
As we anticipate the announcement of Earth Overshoot Day this year, which will arrive earlier than ever, it’s worth contemplating how we can find a way out of our predicament, and find real and enduring solutions to the knot of problems in the energy-water nexus. As many have observed, it is really an energy-water-food-economy-security-and-everything nexus, because energy and water are so fundamental to life. Eliminating waste, and using the precious resources we have as efficiently as possible, is the obvious place to start – and that’s a challenge we can all help to answer.
In a first for the Ecological Footprint and a native group in Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada supported the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s title over 1,900 square kilometers in British Columbia as part of a landmark decision announced in June.
The historic ruling came about a decade after Tsilhqot’in Nation’s lawyers called Global Footprint Network to provide an expert study for the case, which centered on clear-cut logging permits granted by the British Columbia government without consulting the native community living on the affected land.
The government defended the so-called terra-nullis ("nobody's land") hypothesis—the assumption that pre-European Canada was a vast and empty land—and argued that the First Nation's title claimed was "too large."
The challenge that the Tsilhqot'in Nation posed to Global Footprint Network: provide a scientifically sound evaluation of the capacity of the land to support the native group around 1800, prior to European influence and trade.
Global Footprint Network researchers approached the problem from several angles. One was to study the Ecological Footprint of the current population of bears living on the territory. The theory was that the findings about these omnivorous animals that compete for the same food niche as humans could be used to extrapolate the Ecological Footprint of a human group living off the same land.
A second angle involved studying the current local population of wild horses as a proxy for the hooved animals that would make up the main source of animal proteins for the people. And a third approach used anthropological accounts to study the general food habits of the aboriginal population to evaluate how much food they would gather, how much they would store, and what the impact of living on the edge was.
Global Footprint Network’s research findings converged to the conclusion that the claimed area had the capacity to support between 100 and 1,000 people – in other words, that this entire area was needed to meet the needs of the smallish nation – given their traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle. Their Footprint was both wide and light, meaning that it required a wide area given the small volume of natural resources harvested per hectare. Such a Footprint benefits biodiversity, ensuring that the natural capital can regenerate and thrive.
Global Footprint Network was able to show that, at best, terra nullis was an erroneous concept sustained over centuries, ignoring the physical reality of the resource flows supporting populations.
For the very first time, the legal pundits acknowledged this physical reality. "My argument was accepted by consensus by both sides of the case. In fact, I didn't even have to appear in court to testify since there was no need for cross-examination," said Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network and lead author of the research report.
After arguing the case in the Supreme Court in November, Jack Woodward, the lead lawyer representing the Tsilhqot’in Nations, wrote Wackernagel, "We simply stated that because of the climate and geography of the area, only a limited number of people could sustainably live in the area, citing the expert opinion report you prepared for us many years ago."
The historical ruling that followed on June 26 gives the Tsilhqot’in Nation "the right to use and control the land and to reap the benefits flowing from it."
As the final World Cup match quickly approaches, we couldn’t help but kick around some Ecological Footprint numbers describing the diverse nations competing in this year’s games.
The eight nations who made it to the quarter-finals represent vastly different lifestyles. If all people on Earth lived like residents of those countries, how many Earths would it take? If we all lived like the Argentineans, it would take us 1.6 Earths. In contrast, living like the Belgians would require us to juggle 4.3 planets – not a small feat. The Colombian lifestyle would lead us to juggle the fewest Earths – just slightly more than one.
Do Big Footprints Give Teams a Leg Up in Football?
Do big Footprints produce big World Cup wins? After all, big Footprints may mean big budgets. Big budgets can buy more expensive players. But are they really better? When comparing the number of goals scored before the round of 16 (which evens the playing field because all teams competed in three games), the number of goals does not seem to correlate with a country’s Footprint size, as revealed on our soccer field below:
The U.S. and Belgium, for instance, have the largest Footprints per person, but their teams racked up only four goals – the same as the country with the lowest Footprint, Côte d’Ivoire. And the two countries that nailed the most goals have vastly different Footprints: Colombia, with 9 goals, has a Footprint of less than 2 global hectares per person, while the Netherlands with 10 goals has a Footprint of more than 6 global hectares per person.
World Cup football is exciting – nearly as exciting as the global sustainability game. The rules are similar. In both, the players strive to play their best within a given field. For soccer, the field is roughly 1 hectare for 22 players. For sustainability we have about 1.7 global hectares for each citizen of the planet. Can we all live well within that field? Imagine the cheers if we can! The Colombians are closer to winning that game than the Belgians. And if the Germans played the U.S. team in terms of energy transition, it may look as ugly for the U.S. as it did for the Brazilians on the soccer field earlier this week.
If we had to choose our favorite of the two finalists who face off on Sunday based on how little demand they place on nature, we would have to root for Argentina over Germany. GOOOOOLLLLLL!
Curious about the Footprints of individual countries? Visit this page and select a country from the dropdown menu: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/countrytrends.