Footprint Network Blog - Ecological Limits
The landmark U.S.-China climate change agreement announced this week is a game changer for our energy future because it represents strong recognition of the need to wind down fossil fuel use. it recognizes the need to wind down fossil fuel use to zero within a few decades. What had been a physical necessity but a political taboo is now being acknowledged by the two countries with the largest CO2 emissions.
Other countries have been waiting on the sidelines for the United States and China to act on climate change. So President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable energy adoption by 2025 and 2030 respectively—just 10 and 15 years away—sends a promising signal to the world community on the path to the Paris climate summit at the end of next year.
The new goals would keep the United States on the trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide carbon emission reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050, according to the White House. China, meanwhile, has targeted total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources to around 20 percent by 2030. Both actions will happen well within the lifetimes of many people today.
These targets represent a significant shift in political momentum and suggest that moving out of fossil fuels may finally have won mainstream acceptance.
Of course, it will take significant investment for nations to transform their economies, and those costs are only likely to increase the longer nations delay in taking action. Consequently, it’s in the self-interest of every nation to act now to shift toward low-carbon policies as a way to “future proof” its economy.
Our analysis shows that countries are unequally exposed in terms of the scale and impact of reforms required to move to low-carbon economies. The longer countries wait, the more their carbon intensive assets will lose value in a low-carbon future. This inaction may lead both to a loss of competitiveness and potentially even a higher credit default risk. We are working with the U.N. Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) and leading finance institutions to develop tools for the finance industry to better measure these economic risks when evaluating sovereign bonds.
To succeed, government leaders at all levels need better tools to make economically effective long-term decisions on everything from infrastructure to energy provision to buildings. Consequently, we have worked with state leaders in the U.S. to enhance traditional net present value (NPV) tools that recognize the economic and resource context in which the investments will operate. Such assessments provide more realistic estimates of the future costs and benefits associated with particular investments and show that in many cases, the low-carbon options are already today the economically superior choice.
Indeed, the U.S.-China agreement announced Wednesday suggests we need an entirely new way to determine the value of fossil fuels and assets that could become stranded because of their overdependence on those fuels.
The details of how U.S. and China will achieve their ambitious goals remain to be seen, and the agreement may prove to be largely symbolic. But symbols can be powerful, and we believe the agreement portends a brighter outlook for action on climate change in 2015.
Susan Burns, co-founder and CEO of Global Footprint Network, will be honored today at the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) Conference in Denver, Colo., as both she and co-founder Mathis Wackernagel are inducted into the ISSP Sustainability Hall of Fame. She has taken this opportunity to share insights from her journey.
How did you "fall" into a career as a sustainability professional?
As a child I loved nature, and I somehow knew there was a problem with pollution and the extinction of species, even though during my suburban upbringing it wasn’t exactly kitchen table conversation.
After earning a degree in environmental engineering, I started working in the consulting industry. I like to joke with my younger colleagues that I was working in this field before “sustainability” was even a word! I started the pollution prevention practice at ERM West. Then I met Ernest Lowe and Gil Friend, some of the early thinkers around the idea of industrial ecology and how the waste of one industrial process can be used as the input for another industrial process. The idea is to mimic nature where production and “waste” are all incorporated into one closed loop, and everything is utilized. I ended up starting a small consulting firm, Natural Strategies, with Adam Davis and the late Charles McGlashan, two brilliant men. Our vision was to help global corporations adopt sustainability as a source of competitive advantage even though the business world was very skeptical at the time.
What if doing the « right » thing for the planet—like recycling or buying sustainably sourced items such as organic-cotton garments—earned you money? As an individual, would you be more inclined to take that extra step toward a more sustainable lifestyle, one behavior, one purchase at a time? As a business owner, would you adopt a more sustainable supply-chain strategy?
This is the big bet that environmentalist David French went for when he founded My Drop in the Oceans, a global currency platform designed to "empower people to value nature" through partnerships with businesses and local authorities. Launched last month in Switzerland, My Drop in the Oceans rewards participants for actions that improve sustainable living, including measuring their Ecological Footprint with Global Footprint Network’s Swiss online calculator.
Northern California’s Folsom Lake on January 16, 2014. The reservoir, 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, has shrunk from 97 percent capacity in 2011, to 17 percent capacity in this past January, according to a news release from the California Department of Water Resources.
California is waking up to the value of the Commons. State lawmakers have acknowledged the need for the responsible management of its natural capital.
This major cultural shift occurred last week when Governor Jerry Brown signed three bills stipulating that the state will manage groundwater if local water agencies and irrigation districts don’t. The move officially put an end to the gold-digger mentality that had prevailed until now, allowing large landowners to deplete a vital natural resource at the expense of their neighbors. It took three years of exceptional drought for this awakening to take place.
The Golden State stipulated a long time ago that anything that belongs to your land, above or below, belongs to you. And so it is that anyone with a well on his or her property could pump groundwater unfettered.
Given that Swiss residents consume four times more than Swiss ecosystems can regenerate, what should the nation do to stay competitive?
That was the question that Global Footprint Network and partner BAKBASEL was charged with addressing in a new report launching Sept. 16.
The objective of the study, commissioned by Switzerland’s Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE) and four other ministries, was to establish the impact on Swiss competitiveness of current resource trends.
The report's findings will be unveiled Sept. 16 in Bern to spark debate at the fifth public town hall event of Dialog Nachhaltige Entwicklung Schweiz ("Dialogue on Sustainable Development in Switzerland"), a program sponsored by ARE.
Dr. Jennie Moore,
Director, Sustainable Development and Environment Stewardship
British Columbia Institute of Technology
School of Construction and the Environment
In 2006, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) became the first post-secondary educational institution to join Global Footprint Network’s partner network, which now numbers 76 institutions applying the Ecological Footprint methodology around the world. Dr. Jennie Moore, director of sustainable development and environmental stewardship at BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment, has led the charge, applying Footprint science to make real policy changes for the Vancouver city government.
Japan Footprint Exposes Risks to Food Security
Global Footprint Network presentation in Tokyo focuses on ASEAN reliance
The ASEAN region is one of the fastest growing areas in the world, with a population of approximately 600 million people and a combined GDP that would make it the planet’s eighth largest economy. Despite these gains, the region faces myriad challenges: Large numbers of the population remain in poverty, while its member states are among the most vulnerable to climate change, deforestation, depletion of fisheries and other ecological pressures. These resource constraints pose threats to the region’s energy and food supplies.
But what does this mean for Japan?
That question was the focus of a recent presentation in Tokyo given by Global Footprint Network Research Economist Katsunori Iha, and Asia Regional Director Pati Poblete hosted by the Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund.
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.
Did you know the Chinese province of Guizhou in southwest China bears some striking resemblance to Switzerland? I confess I didn't, until I was invited to Guizhou last month to speak at Eco-Forum Global. Since 2009, this annual conference gathers participants from around the world to share knowledge about policies regarding green economic transformation and ecological security. This year I spoke on a finance panel led by the chief economist of Bank of China, Ma Jun, and a panel organized by the Sino-Swiss Dialogue.
Just like Switzerland, Guizhou is landlocked and boasts a mountainous landscape. It is one of two provinces in China that President Xi Jinping declared to be testing grounds for China’s new focus on "eco-civilization" and the "China dream."
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.