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?
This is why our goal with the Footprint is to make planetary limits relevant to decision-making. For cities, countries, investors – for all of us, because we all invest. We all make choices about longer term trajectories. Whether we choose well has huge social and environmental impacts.
We build the Footprint work on one simple premise: If we can measure, we will manage. I am sure you have heard this before. Measure and then manage.
Now, having gotten your fabulous award, I am free to be fully honest. Now I can tell you that this assumption, our foundational premise, on which we built our entire work, is unfortunately flawed. Measurement alone does not lead to management.
Let me explain.
Most, no all, countries continue to focus on income as their golden road to a better future. Few appreciate that income generated through liquidation, is not true income. Income through liquidation makes us poorer. (For example, we falsely call countries that extract oil from the ground “oil producing.” GDP continues to count oil revenues as true income.)
It is like transferring money from your savings account to your checking account and celebrating the transfer as income. The way we blindly focus on income has turned our economies into something that by any definition could be called a Ponzi scheme.
The faulty general belief that maximizing income should be the key criteria for decision-making and is the road to social equity has maintained itself incredibly well over the last decades. It unfortunately even gained momentum with the financial crisis.
At Global Footprint Network, we have tried many great strategies to produce even some tiniest cracks in this faulty edifice of GDP worship – and shift the focus on wealth.
This is how we started:
1) We have produced conservative Footprint accounts, using official data to document that human demand exceeds by far – at least by 50% - what Earth can renew. People say it is interesting – and I see a reference to our numbers in nearly every airline magazine. Has it made a crack in the edifice of GDP adoration? No.
2) We progressed and invited countries to verify the numbers themselves, with their researchers. They should test whether our numbers were out to lunch or sufficiently correct. They should use their own data, not just UN data sets as we do. Over 12 countries have done this. Has it produced a crack in the GDP worshipping? No.
3) On we go. So in one country, Switzerland, where I am from, our Footprint and biocapacity numbers have even made into the official statistics. Has it produced a crack in GDP glorification? No.
4) Then, in Switzerland, it became an official indicator – among the 150. Even the media has reported more about the Footprint than 148 of them (minus GDP of course). The Footprint is quite easy to understand and makes a good story. Has it produced a crack? No.
5) So then, one of the ministers of Switzerland (there are seven of them running the country by consensus), uses the information regularly in her speeches. For instance, she recognizes that from January to August humanity has used as much from nature as it takes our planet one entire year to regenerate. No crack in GDP worshipping either. She even recognizes that Switzerland uses four-fold what Swiss ecosystems can renew. No crack again.
6) Next level up. We were invited, together with an economic think tank, to produce a report on the potential implications of this ecological deficit for Switzerland’s long-term competitiveness. With them, we concluded that this deficit leads to an ever more significant systemic risk if not addressed. Again, no cracks.
How can the 11 year old understand the challenge so intuitively? Yet, very very few adults and professionals can wrap their head around it?
What is missing? What does it take?
If we want to increase our chances to end overshoot by design, rather than by disaster, we must produce cracks in this misconception. It is dangerous to maintain that “resources do not matter, because high incomes will save us.”
Trying to overcome ever larger ecological deficits with higher income and more liquidation is on average not a winnable strategy in a world of ecological overshoot.
I want to help reshape our common belief – I want to produce some cracks. This is why I am here. I am here to learn from you, to build partnerships, to gain ideas, to learn: what does it take to start producing a few cracks? We depend on your wisdom. As grateful as I am for your kindness to give us your prestigious award, as eager am I to learn from you what we need to do next.
I am here with my dear colleague Dr. Ale Galli. Please talk to us … and please give us your emails if you want to be on our newsletter distribution list.
Thank you for your generosity and your interest. I look forward to our first conversations.
Laetitia Mailhes, Global Footprint Network - 04/21/2015 11:42 PM
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.
This is not to say that the overall global scorecard of forests’ health is a good one, however. Our planet lost 183.8 million hectares of forested area between 1961 and 2011, according to the U.N. FAO. And the dilapidation of forests marches on, as forest ecosystems are being sacrificed to primarily agriculture but also logging, mining and economic development.
According to Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint accounting framework, our planet lost more than 365.5 million global hectares (gha) of forest biocapacity over the same five decades. What does this mean? That the capacity of our planet to generate additional forest material year over year has been greatly diminished.
Meanwhile, the demand for forest products (paper, timber etc.) has increased by 41 percent over those 50 years, and the need for carbon capture, an ecological service that forests provide, has surged by more than 260 percent. Assuming that carbon emissions stop increasing now and that we quit consuming forests products, it would take twice the current global forest biocapacity to absorb all the carbon emissions that are generated around the world. A crazy feat if you consider this would be equivalent to virtually the entire biocapacity of cropland and grazing lands on the planet combined.
Last but not least, the loss of biodiversity is one of the most significant negative impacts of the destructive human activities that forests are subjected to. Tropical rainforests, which cover 7 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial surface, provide habitat for at least two-thirds of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, still accounts for 3 percent of the world’s forest biocapacity despite a 15.1 percent drop in its forest land biocapacity since 1961. In this period, it destroyed 23 million hectares with an intensification of the deforestation between the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Judging by our most recent data, overharvesting of forest products primarily in forest ecosystems in Asia (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan) and Africa (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania) seems to be the result of local demand rather than consumption outside the nations’ borders. But there also may be additional timber trade that is not recorded on the official books.
Experts agree, and available data seems to confirm it: Global deforestation has been slowing down, especially in the Brazilian Amazon, which contains a whopping 27 percent of the world’s forest land biocapacity.
However, illegal and unreported logging activities happening under the cover of legal permits adds a degree of uncertainty to this picture. The development and enforcement of international agreements such as the U.N. Forum on Forests, national policies such as China’s Forest Law and corporate actions by companies such as Asia Pulp and Paper Group are obviously still a work in progress.
Tomorrow, on March 21, the world observes the International Day of the Forests for the third year in a row, as established by a 2012 United Nations General Assembly resolution to focus on the critical role of forests for our sustainable development and that of future generations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.