Footprint Network Blog

The Growing Reach of Beijing’s Food Ecological Footprint

02/05/2015 05:15 PM

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.

Because of challenges collecting data, the researchers chose to focus on food resources (vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, fish, grain and oil) produced within China. And they exclusively used geographic data from Beijing's giant food wholesale market Xinfadi, which makes up more than two-thirds of Beijing's overall food market—hence deemed representative by the researchers.

That partial lens led them to conclude that Beijing's Def grew from 567 kilometers in 2008 to 677 kilometers in 2012, with an average annual increase of about 25 kilometers. Beijing’s Ecological Footprint distance in winter and spring was much higher than in summer and fall. This was to due to the seasonal variations that increased food production capacity in the warmer months of the year in areas closer to the capital.

Lead author Xie Gaodi, from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, kindly agreed to an interview about the recent article. He answered our questions via email.

How did you start working with the Ecological Footprint?

Xie Gaodi: In 1997 I began focusing my research on natural resources and sustainable development in China. We started looking for indicators which could effectively show us the actual sustainability status of local development. Several papers written by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees et al. came to our attention, such as "Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth" (1996) and "Perceptual and structural barriers to investing in natural capital: Economics from an Ecological Footprint perspective" (1997).

These papers spurred my interest in the Ecological Footprint. I made up my mind early on that the EF is a good tool to analyze sustainability. Every other year or so, my team, together with Global Footprint Network and WWF, compile China's Ecological Footprint Report. The Ecological Footprint is now a well-known tool not only in Chinese academia but also throughout China.

Your research paper seeks to evaluate the geographic reach that is required for Beijing to access the biocapacity it needs to feed its population. What was your ultimate goal?

XG: In the last 30 years, China has been pushing through a fast urbanization process. In just the most recent years, several mega-cities have sprouted as more and more people have been moving away from rural areas to find work. Some cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, with over 20 million residents, are getting so huge that I worry about their sustainability. Their Ecological Footprint clearly extends way beyond their own biocapacity.

My goal with this research has been to show how far a big city’s EF or biocapacity extends, starting with Beijing. The conclusion from our findings is clear: China ought to favor the development of small or medium-sized cities because they are more sustainable.

What does Def actually indicate/infer with regard to sustainability?

XG: The further Def climbs up and away from biocapacity, the less safe it is. Food safety is compromised when food travels from far away, becoming vulnerable to such factors as weather events. Long travel distances also affect the quality of food, including its nutritional value. Besides, a food ecosystem that depends on so much transportation is the source of a whole set of environmental issues — including carbon emissions.

Typically Global Footprint Network refers to "imports" as resources from other countries. Your paper defines them as coming from outside the boundaries of Beijing but from Chinese sources of production. What about true foreign imports from outside China?

XG: Beijing's "imported" biocapacity should include both food imports from China and from abroad. The challenge we're facing is the difficulty to get enough reliable data about foreign food imports in such a huge city as Beijing. My guess is that they make up between 10 and 20 percent of the biocapacity consumed in Beijing — but that's just a guess at this stage.

So we just calculated the Def of "imported" biocapacity within China, but we will calculate the Def of imported biocapacity from foreign sources as soon as we are able to.

Based on your research, what does "sustainable development in metropolitan areas" look like to you? What policies do you suggest would pave the way in that direction?

XG: In my view, "sustainable development in metropolitan areas" is attained when the population can access the necessary resources to support its Ecological Footprint and need for ecosystem services, thanks to biocapacity that originates close enough so as to spare residents undue environmental pollution and worry about their food safety.

This can be achieved through such policies as:
1. Careful land use that rationally plans population density and natural assets' availability across that land.
2. Ensuring the closest possible proximity of available biocapacity.
3. Reducing the transportation of resources.

The governments of some big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have truly realized that their city has grown too large. They have even begun to take some measures to limit or control urban growth. But at the national level, debates are still ongoing as to whether urban planning should favor small- and medium-sized cities.

Cloughjordan Ecovillage Leads the Way Toward Sustainable Living in Ireland

02/05/2015 05:17 AM

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.

The original methodology developed by Wackernagel and Rees calculates the Ecological Footprint based on national economic data on consumption and land use, then divides it by the number of residents to obtain the Ecological Footprint per capita. According to this approach implemented by Global Footprint Network, the average Ecological Footprint of an Irish resident is 5.5 gha – more than double that of the average Cloughjordan ecovillager as calculated with a bottom-up methodology.

"There is strong merit in the top-down approach developed by Mathis, and my major adaptation to that was to develop a locally-based, bottom-up method which sampled and reflected consumption differences at the local level," Carragher explained.

"The huge advantage of the bottom-up approach is that it points to individual responsibility," he told Global Footprint Network. "As such it is a tool for educating local communities and individual households, since they feel fully responsible for their Ecological Footprint and can see the impact of modifying their behavior to live more sustainably," he added.

In this respect, Carragher and Cloughjordan Ecovillage are only getting started. "What I have released so far are the results for the average ecovillager. But it is of note that there is massive divergence within consumption categories, so [CO2] waste emissions of one person might be 10 times those of another, and this goes for all consumption categories," Carragher said.

The Ecovillage residents are truly engaged with the process. The Ecological Footprint survey scored a response rate of 94 percent (47 of the 50 households living in the village last spring participated). And at the request of many residents, Carragher is now working on establishing the specific Ecological Footprint of each household.

Identifying individual consumption patterns will help each household focus on a tailored plan to reduce their Ecological Footprint through collaborative support and shared best practices.

"[The Footprint survey] provided an opportunity to quantify other areas of our daily lives which we hadn’t measured before—namely transport, waste and food," resident Deirdre O'Brolchain told Global Footprint Network in an email. "Whilst our household liked to think that we were 'eco-nscientious’ in these three areas, the survey reminded us that we’ve loads of room to improve – and that is our challenge over the coming year, and before we complete the next Ecological Footprint survey," she continued.

The concept of Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Ireland was first sown in the 1990s. The site was acquired in 2005. Outline planning permission was granted two years later for 114 homes and 16 live/work units on 67 acres to the north of historical Cloughjordan in County Tipperary. The first residents moved into their homes in December 2009.

"People were looking especially at a more sustainable approach to food production than they could find or develop in a city," says Carragher.

His approach to calculating the Ecological Footprint of food relies heavily on the energy used in food production ("embodied energy") and methane emissions caused by animal farming. As such, the survey asked households to provide data related to their diet in order to evaluate their consumption of plant-based foods and animal-based foods (the latter being more resource and energy intensive). Incorporating the Ecological Footprint of non-local food consumed in the village, on the other hand, remains one of the stickiest methodology challenges, mostly due to the difficulty of tracking such data from households.

Although incomplete, the current food Ecological Footprint approach still provides reliable metrics, Carragher said. For all its recent popularity, "local food does not significantly lower the carbon and energy intensity of food," he pointed out.

Carragher remains optimistic about further progress. He was successful in helping Ballina reduce its carbon footprint by 28 percent over four years. And he's hopeful that the methodology that he's been applying in Cloughjordan Ecovillage can benefit many other communities across Ireland and beyond.

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.

On the policy front, we are happy to report that efforts to incorporate the Ecological Footprint into decision-making progressed in various parts of the world, including the Philippines, the province of Ontario and the state of Maryland. We are also grateful we were invited to hold Ecological Footprint workshops by the governments of Turkey, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Stay tuned for more developments in Morocco and the UAE in the new year.

WWF was a great partner again this year, with the publication of Russia's Ecological Footprint Report and the Living Planet Report, to which we were honored to contribute our Ecological Footprint accounting methodology. Media around the world publicized LPR's sobering findings regarding mankind's Ecological Footprint and shrinking biodiversity.

Our research team has been working ceaselessly to further refine our methodology and develop tools that are evermore relevant to policy makers. We had articles published in scientific journals Biological Conservation and Resources. Our work was also incorporated into various research reports, including the UN Development Programme's latest National Human Development Report on Montenegro.

This review would hardly be complete without a mention of our annual Earth Overshoot Day campaign. From a front-page headline in Italy's La Stampa to a French primetime TV report, we're grateful that millions of people were given the opportunity to learn about humanity’s growing ecological deficit.

Finally, thank you to all of you who helped us raise more than $34,000 to fund our Footprint calculator smartphone app, qualifying us to receive more than $60,000 in matching funds from the Skoll Foundation.

We are looking forward to reaching deeper and further in 2015, with your help, so that the Ecological Footprint influences more policy processes and investment strategies—always with a view to ensuring that mankind thrives, within the means of our one and only planet.

From all of us at Global Footprint Network, we wish you and your loved ones all the health and happiness in this new year.


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.


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.

Earlier during the trip I was saddened to see displaced populations in the cities, both Phulbani and Delhi, possibly the result of recent urbanization in India, and I was expecting to see the more rural areas in worse shape. When I arrived, I was surprised to see what seemed to me a higher level of happiness—which I, of course, precisely and scientifically calculated by the smiles and other expressions on the peoples’ faces.  As we drove, we passed multiple groups of farmers, uniformed students going to and from school, and herds of water buffalos, cattle and lamb. Surrounded by lush vegetation, I wasn’t sure why the cows were so thin and bony, but I soon learned the answer to this.

When we arrived at the village center, I immediately noticed a large painted mural that covered the entire side of a building. The mural was a relic of previous government interventions to empower the village and a reminder to maintain those empowering values moving forward. For instance, we were told by the villagers that the government has incentivized girls to continue education by giving them bicycles after graduating from a certain grade. The high level of government support for tribal communities was consistent in the communities that we visited and confirmed in conversation with our NGO partners.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in our initial encounter in the village, but the community members were accustomed to outsiders through government and NGO involvement, which have aimed to empower them socially and economically. Our partners at IDEI had developed a trusting relationship with them through recent work to improve agricultural practices.

We sat down with the heads of a household, and Pragyan asked them a whole list of questions related to harvests, visits to the local market, consumption, etc. This was a first attempt to see if the questions were appropriate for people to answer easily, and if they could be translated into usable data. We learned, for example, that a farmer could describe the crop harvest by how much storage space it filled but not by volume. This was among the simpler challenges we had to address for our assessments.

After we compile information on the production and consumption patterns of the village, we will determine the ratio of village Ecological Footprint (consumption) to its biocapacity (ability of the land to produce and regenerate what is consumed). By monitoring sets of villages, each with different levels and types of government and NGO development, we will be able to (1) assess the sustainable development return on investment of the different approaches and (2) educate and empower the villages to take control of their future development.

Earlier during an orientation, we met with staff from Gram Vikas and IDEI, as well as others active in the local NGO community. Their excitement about creating lasting impact on these villages was evident. One of the major improvements we learned about was the treadle pump. Without the pumps, crops can only be grown in many areas during monsoon season because they rely on surface water and precipitation. The lush, green environment I saw was the direct result of the recent rainy season. The cows, however, hadn’t yet had time to fatten up.

One major benefit of the pumps is that they get around this seasonality problem, enabling these communities to grow several crops throughout the year, actually increasing the land’s productivity. These pumps were produced and distributed through a social entrepreneurship program intended to benefit and empower local communities.

Witnessing the multi-disciplinary efforts of our partners in creating lasting impact was a most interesting part of the trip. Artists and videographers attended our orientation to lend their experience in engaging communities through various forms of art whether in the form of a mural, village-hosted play or symbolic structure built in collaboration with the community.

The government programs and support toward creating better lives in India was clear on this trip, and we hope our involvement and partnerships can empower people to choose sustainable paths moving forward.

For more information about our project in India, see our interview with Pragyan Bharati.


Drilling Down on the Oil Price Slide

Chris Nelder, Policy Officer, @nelderini - 12/11/2014 03:50 PM

The spectacular 40 percent crash in oil prices that began in July and accelerated in October has focused the world’s attention once again on the "master commodity" and its far-reaching effects on the global economy. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage has revolved around nationalistic narratives that have little bearing on the facts.

Given oil’s significant role in today’s economies and its interplay with both biocapacity and Ecological Footprint pressures, we wanted to share our view on:

• why oil prices are down;
• when and why might they go back up; and
• who gets hurt and who wins.

The Runaway Fracking Train  

As ever, oil prices are a function of three main factors: supply, demand, and the outlook of traders. Oil is always a forward-looking trade, and a leading indicator of the health of the global economy. 

On the supply side, U.S. “tight oil” production (from fracking) has been a runaway train, adding around 1 million barrels a day (mb/d) of new supply each year. Its output is up 3.8 mb/d since 2007, a significant addition to a global market that consumes around 91 mb/d. With no constraints upon their production other than profitability, U.S. tight oil producers have continued drilling frenetically without any apparent regard for the effect of that new supply on the global market balance. 


OPEC’s production, in contrast, has remained fairly flat over the same period. According to OPEC’s own figures, the cartel’s output in November 2014 was just over 30 mb/d, roughly the same as it was one year ago (as was Saudi Arabia’s production), and 0.5 mb/d lower than it was in September when the price crash accelerated. 

While Saudi Arabia and a few other OPEC producers have offered modest price discounts to select customers in the current battle for market share, the steep fall in global prices to 2009 levels cannot be attributed to OPEC. If we must point a finger at a supply-side culprit, then it must be pointed at U.S. tight oil producers. If U.S. producers assumed that OPEC members would cut their own production to accommodate U.S. output, that was simply a strategic error on their part. Speaking at the climate summit in Peru this week, Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi was blunt, saying “Why should we cut production? Why?” 

Since U.S. output has been growing steadily for several years, accounting for all of the growth in non-OPEC supply, and OPEC output has been flat, traders priced the supply growth into their outlooks long ago. 

Waning Demand 

What changed is the outlook for demand, which has been weakening since mid-2014, according to the International Energy Agency. In addition to stagnant economies in Europe and anemic growth in the U.S., China’s blistering growth rate in recent years has finally begun to moderate a bit, as have the growth rates in other parts of the developing world. That is the new factor that traders began to price in around July. Indeed, the decline in prices matches the decline in global GDP estimates nicely. 

But in late September, as oil prices continued to fall, it became a momentum trade as traders rushed to one side of the boat. Now, as the end of the year approaches, the falling price of oil seems to have become a purely financial event as fund managers liquidate their positions to capture year-end gains and raise cash to settle wrong-footed positions. U.S. oil trading around $61/bbl as of this writing cannot be justified by supply and demand fundamentals. It is also well below the breakeven price of some tight oil operations, and far below the $100-plus price range that oil exporters such as Iran, Venezuela and Iraq need to balance their budgets. 

If prices remain at their current depressed levels for another three months or more, we should expect a marked slowdown in U.S. production growth. Some slowing is already indicated, as new drilling permits fell by 40 percent from October to November. 

Crystal Ball Gazing 

When prices will rise again is difficult to say. If the short-sellers exhaust themselves by the end of the year as fund managers make their final tallies, prices should stage a slow recovery. And if prices remain low for six months or more, causing U.S. output to flatten or even fall, it will set the stage for prices to rise again until it is profitable to resume a frenetic pace of drilling. And frenetic it must be, for the rapid production decline rates of fracked wells require rapid drilling just to keep overall output flat. 

It is also certainly possible that OPEC producers could decide to cut their own production to support prices at some indeterminate time in the future. However, the tenor of recent OPEC talks suggests that the cartel is having a difficult time achieving consensus, and comments like al-Naimi’s suggest that Saudi Arabia and other deep-pocketed OPEC members might rather wait until low prices force U.S. producers to cut back. With substantial financial reserves to fall back on, they can afford to wait. 

Winners and Losers 

According to data compiled by Trevor Houser  of the Rhodium Group, the winners and losers in all this might not be the ones you’d expect. Those with the most to lose are small economies who depend heavily on oil exports, like the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Kuwait. Those with the most to gain are small economies who are heavily dependent on oil imports, like Djibouti, Seychelles and Kyrgyzstan. The global heavyweight producers like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States seem content for now to keep pumping all-out until somebody blinks, but all will suffer a loss of revenues. 

The real winners in the short term are consumers, who are suddenly finding it a lot cheaper to fill up their tanks. But that has a downside too: U.S. consumers are already back to driving full-sized SUVs and pickups off the new car lots, and demand could rebound in many parts of the world that struggled when oil was over $100/bbl. Should prices remain low and demand surge back, it would delay the already-slow deployment of more efficient modes of transportation. And in that event—as climate hawks at the Peru conference right now are certainly aware—the real loser would be the planet.

Categories: Carbon Footprint

How Big Is Your Footprint? A 10-Year-Old in Japan Responds

11/26/2014 02:41 PM

Meet 10 year-old Daigo Toubaru of Okinawa, Japan, who recently calculated his Ecological Footprint for the first time. This short Q&A is part of our CrowdRise Campaign to raise funds for a Footprint calculator mobile application and help preserve our natural resources for future generations!

The average Japanese Footprint is 2.26 Earths – If everyone in the world lived like the average person in Japan, we would need 2.6 Earths. How do you feel about your Footprint results?
I think 1.9 Earths is too big, so I want to rethink my lifestyle!

How can you reduce your Footprint?
I want to choose more local food and more natural food. I want to eat less processed and packaged food items too. Oh, sometimes I have leftover food that goes to waste, I can reduce that!

Do you have any messages to your friends in the world?
Let’s work together, friends. Let’s try not to use Earth-san too much because we only have one Earth. Okinawan culture has an animism point of view where everything including inanimate objects has soul. Here Daigo refers to Earth-san as a living thing.

Below are Daigo’s Footprint results.

How big is your footprint? Start by using our Ecological Footprint Calculator to measure your impact on our planet’s resources and receive simple lifestyle changes to reduce your Footprint. Support our crowdfunding campaign and overarching goal: that all people live well, within the means of one planet! Watch our new video to learn more about how a new smartphone calculator app will help educate millions more about sustainability.

How Big Is Your Footprint? Watch Our Video Series

11/26/2014 12:00 PM

This is a series of videos in Global Footprint Network’s crowdfunding campaign for a Footprint calculator mobile app. Learn more at

Meet Rob Gotto of Oakland, California and learn how he harnesses the sun to reduce his Footprint – and the Footprint of Kaiser Permanente!

Meet Resh Almadi of Oakland, California who finds that taking transit not only reduces his Ecological Footprint but also helps him get to know his neighborhood a little better.

Meet Amanda, one of Global Footprint Network’s staff members in our Oakland office. In this short video, she explains her strategy for reducing her Ecological Footprint.

Meet Ingrid, one of Global Footprint Network's staff members in our Geneva office. See how she measured her Ecological Footprint and took an impressive step to decrease her demand on the planet's resources.

Statement on U.S.-China Climate Agreement

Global Footprint Network - 11/15/2014 01:35 PM

Statement by Mathis Wackernagel, President, Global Footprint Network

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 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. 


Seeking Sustainable Solutions: CEO Susan Burns Reflects on Her Professional Journey

11/13/2014 07:00 AM

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 was the biggest "aha" moment of your career?

When I first heard Karl-Henrik Robèrt speak—he had just come to the United States to introduce the Natural Step principles—a light bulb went off in my mind, just as it did for many people at the time. It was the first time that the human relationship to nature was presented through a solid systems perspective. Before that, environmentalism had been approached as a collection of isolated symptoms—some people were working on ozone, some people were working on climate change, some people were working on pollution.

When I discovered that framework, I made a commitment to myself that I would be as involved as I could. So I became one of the first 20 trainers in the United States who were certified to teach the Natural Step in the United States.

At Natural Strategies, we were excited to translate what was a great framework into terms that business people could understand. We were working hard inside companies to turn this concept of sustainability into ways that made sense from the product development side, but also for the people in marketing, manufacturing and employee engagement. One of our first clients was Mitsubishi Electric, one of the early adopters of the Natural Step Framework.

What accomplishments are you the most proud of?

One dates back to my Natural Strategies days, when we worked with Lowe's to help them phase out of wood sourced from the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. It's an amazing place in the world; these trees are ancient. Lowe's is a fairly conservative company based out of South Carolina. They were faced with a possible campaign by the Rainforest Action Network, who had launched a boycott against Home Depot, causing significant business disruption. Lowe's wanted to take a different tack and be in a dialogue with environmental organizations.

To help Lowe’s understand the issue, we organized a trip to the Great Bear Rainforest, gathering together a team of Lowe’s executives and environmentalists, all flying to British Columbia on the corporate jet to meet with Lowe’s vendors on the ground in the forests where they sourced their wood. I'll never forget standing in the pristine forest with the senior VP of merchandising. He had tears in his eyes and said, "There's no way we're going to have any of these trees on our shelves; I don't care what it takes."

Being involved in the sustainability movement in the early days was incredibly gratifying because we were almost always doing things for the very first time. One example was Portfolio 21, the first sustainability mutual fund in the nation that I helped create 15 years ago with Progressive Investment Management. There were no models for corporate sustainability at the time, so we used the Natural Step Framework to ask what transformation would be needed in each industrial sector to create a sustainable global economy. Each screened company was measured against these expectations. Portfolio 21 now has over $400 million of assets under management and has been fossil fuel free from the beginning—definitely ahead of its time!

Another accomplishment I am very proud of, of course, is the creation of Global Footprint Network. I could never have imagined we would grow to this size and exert so much influence. It's been an incredible challenge, and also very rewarding.

Something I never expected was what a journey of personal growth it would be. It’s a long and winding road from an entrepreneur to a CEO of an international organization with 30 employees. It has been a privilege to be able to lead the organization and to grow as a person in this way. It has been very rich and fascinating.

Tell us about the genesis of Global Footprint Network.

I met Mathis Wackernagel in 2001 when he was working at Redefining Progress. The Ecological Footprint, that he had created with William Rees, had been popular at the grassroots level and in academic circles. It was also starting to get the attention of heads of state. Tony Blair was using Ecological Footprint data in his speeches. On Bastille Day 2002, French President Jacques Chirac talked about ecological overshoot on prime-time television. As the idea that humanity was using much more than what the planet could regenerate was becoming well known, we decided that the National Footprint Accounts, which form the basis of the Ecological Footprint, are such an important body of research that they needed their own home. There were hundreds of organizations using the Footprint but there was no one place where people could collaborate on research and set standards. I had seen what had happened with the carbon Footprint—there was no central place where people could agree on what it even meant, which slows things down until the best methods win and people finally coalesce around it. We had an opportunity to skip that time-consuming step because of Mathis’s relationships with all the leading practitioners and the fact that we began from the start as a network.

What can you share about the organization's first steps?

We started Global Footprint Network as a project of Natural Strategies, incubating it until it was able to walk on its own. Our first contract was with the City of London. Right away we asked some of the most reputable scientists on the planet to join our advisory board. They all immediately said "yes," with the exception of Al Gore, who was running for president at the time. We had some 20 founding partners—all the leading Footprint practitioners in the world. We started our standards committee and our National Accounts committee, which reviews the Ecological Footprint methodology annually. And of course, we enjoyed a great relationship with WWF, a founding partner, who publishes our data in their Living Planet Report every other year.

How was the partnership with WWF born?

The leaders of WWF realized that humanity couldn't deal with conservation challenges without addressing human pressure. Loss of habitat due to converting nature into human uses is the No. 1 reason for loss of biodiversity. The Footprint is the perfect way to address that side of the equation. And so WWF's two meta goals are No. 1 stop the loss of species and No. 2 live within the means of one planet by 2030 as measured by the Ecological Footprint. These organizing principles guide this great organization of close to 5 million members.

Sustainability conversations have become mainstream in the business world. How would do you describe the evolutions you have observed over the course of your career?

When I started my career, "pollution prevention" was a radical idea: If you stopped dumping your raw materials down the drain, you could save the company money. But because this was also good for the environment, the whole business community automatically assumed that it must be bad for business. The allergic reaction of the business community to anything environment-related has been a battle that environmental professionals have fought for decades. And there has been huge progress: By and large, businesses are getting the argument, seeing the evidence, embracing sustainability strategies and reaping the rewards. Sustainability has become a source of competitive advantage. The best-run companies in the world happen to be the same ones that address climate change and embrace sustainability in their business models and operations. They understand the world is changing very rapidly. So yes, the business world has adapted, which is not to say there isn't still a lot of work to be done.

How about governments and the finance industry?

It's still early days with governments, as it is with the finance industry. Technocrats and economists still operate according to the models they learned at university, where natural resources are there to be exploited and environmental issues are merely externalities. In the finance industry especially, climate change and resource constraints are considered "fringe"—a Sunday-school type of topic. In that respect, they're lagging the rest of the private sector. The prevailing logic in the finance industry is that even if you're doing something stupid, provided everyone else is doing that same stupid thing, it’s OK as long as you are still making money. Look at the housing bubble: Many finance industry professionals knew it was crazy but went ahead with it because of this herd mentality. There’s also a huge problem with short-termism. Investors don't care about ecological risks associated with investments because they can still sell the security before the risk is realized. That mentality is going to be challenging to shift.

How do you propose to address that challenge?

We first have to demonstrate the material link between resource constraints and risk. But we also need to change mindsets and help people break out of their habitual patterns. Humans are social animals; we look at what our colleagues and peers are doing. If they're not embracing sustainability, our reflex is to think that we shouldn't either. That is why it is very important to make it easy for people to do the right thing and to put it in their language. We also need to have the patience to wait for people to implement change, beyond the early adopters. I recently heard someone say "don’t confuse the fringe with the frontier." Just because the mainstream hasn’t embraced it, doesn’t mean you aren’t succeeding.

Global Footprint Network is 100 percent focused on demonstrating material risk in a way that's irrefutable. And we're hoping that by having large institutions adopt our methodology, we'll eventually be able to influence the rest of the industry. That's our strategy right now.

What gets you going in the morning?

I'm obsessed with innovating and tackling systemic issues in the most practical ways possible. That's always what occupies my brain professionally—always pushing the envelope, asking the bigger questions. For instance, even though the Lowe's engagement was a success, it made me realize that if you press one end of a balloon, the other end pops out. As Lowe's shifted out of the Great Bear Rainforest, where else were they going to go? They turned to pine plantations in the United States, with a big impact on our ecosystems; they turned to Indonesia woods, that they also needed to phase out of. We need to look at the whole system, and try to innovate at that level because a million different innovations, if they don't add up, still leave us in ecological overshoot.

Similarly, when I look at the sustainability community, I see there are so many good things happening, including the explosion of green tech, corporate sustainability, socially responsible investing, green bonds. And yet, the trends are still marching along the way they always have. Resource flows keep growing larger—they are not even slowing down! That's because we're innovating inside of a system that is hardwired. It’s the rebound effect: The moment we create more efficiency and capacity, humanity expands to fill that new capacity. Hunter and Amory Lovins were famous for the idea of "Factor 4," which was supposed to be "twice as much stuff for half the impact." But that very rarely happens. We instead just create capacity for four times more stuff.

And so I'm fascinated with, and focused on, asking the deeper questions about the structure of the economy, the ways our markets work—and capitalism itself. We need to come up with an economy that can operate without liquidating natural capital. At the same time, in our current economy, if we don't create growth, we have human suffering, which is not acceptable either.

There are very few economists working on this problem. Herman Daly came up with the idea of the steady state economy. Tim Jackson and Peter Victor have been working to model a national economy that is a steady state economy and still delivers all the benefits we want like jobs and well-being. But this work has not left the research lab.

If I could clone myself, I would tackle this problem.

—Interview by Laetitia Mailhes

© 2003-2007 Global Footprint Network

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