Susan Burns, CEO, Global Footprint Network - 08/11/2014 05:10 PM
Did you know the Chinese province of Guizhou in southwest China bears some striking resemblance to Switzerland? I confess I didn't, until I was invited to Guizhou last month to speak at Eco-Forum Global. Since 2009, this annual conference gathers participants from around the world to share knowledge about policies regarding green economic transformation and ecological security. This year I spoke on a finance panel led by the chief economist of Bank of China, Ma Jun, and a panel organized by the Sino-Swiss Dialogue.
Hoping to learn more from Switzerland to build that dream, Chinese officials announced the Guizhou-Switzerland Agreement on Establishing Mountainous Economy and Eco-Civilization at Eco-Forum Global this year. With its rich landscape, including spectacular lakes and waterfalls, Guizhou is believed to be an ideal location to apply the innovative cleantech, eco-tourism and sustainable development strategies that have enabled Switzerland to preserve its stunning natural environment.
My Sino-Swiss Dialogue keynote talk at Eco-Forum Global delved into the similarities between China and Switzerland, where Global Footprint has worked with four ministries to analyze the country’s resource dependence and make Footprint and biocapacity part of the Swiss statistical information data published annually.
Like many countries, both China and Switzerland are ecological debtor countries using more biocapacity than their own ecosystems can provide. They make up the difference through trade with trading partners who are also in ecological deficit.
Switzerland's Ecological Footprint is four times larger than what ecosystems within Switzerland can renew. Its biocapacity deficit per person hasn’t changed over the last half century, and its financial resources have allowed it to easily access resources from abroad. However, because the world as a whole is becoming more constrained, Switzerland's biocapacity deficit will become economically more significant in the future.
Switzerland: Stable Biocapacity Deficit
China's Ecological Footprint is two times larger than its ecosystems can renew. Its biocapacity deficit has grown substantially amid the country's rapid development of the past decade.
China: Rapid Footprint Growth
On the bright side, however, both Switzerland and China have worked to preserve their natural resources, particularly forests. In Switzerland, forests were under severe pressure of overexploitation at the onset of industrialization in the middle of the 19th century. Soil erosion and avalanches prompted reform in forestry management and Swiss forests now cover 30 percent of the country's territory. China's forests were also under pressure until the Natural Forest Protection Project was launched in 1998. By the end of 2003, the Chinese government had injected about 50 billion Yuan (about 6 billion USD) into the program, putting some 95 million hectares of natural forest in conservation nationwide. The government has recently committed an additional 220 billion Yuan (36 billion USD) to the project and aims to add an additional 7,800 hectares of forest area.
China has been acutely aware of resource constraints for decades, as has Switzerland. Many Swiss still remember World War II when the country only had enough domestic food to feed its population (then half the current size) for seven months per year. This sense of resource fragility has been an important factor spurring Switzerland’s focus on energy, material and water efficiency, high-performance buildings, effective public transportation, land protection, urban containment and forest conservation.
However, the global context within which China is developing today is markedly different to that of Switzerland in the past century. Since World War II, the entire planet has gone into ecological overshoot, with humanity now using one and a half times more from nature every year than the planet can renew in the same timeframe. Today we are living in a far more resource-constrained era, making it more important than ever for all countries to track and manage their natural assets.
With China’s Ecological Footprint continuing to grow, Guizhou Province is clearly a region at a crossroads. On the cusp of rapid development, it has enormous opportunities to seize the moment and build new economic momentum. The question is whether it will set policies that enable it to thrive while at the same time avoiding the pollution and congestion that has plagued other regions in China. Gleaning valuable lessons from Switzerland is certainly one important step. Of course, we also believe Guizhou Province will need data-driven decision-making tools like the Ecological Footprint to succeed as well.
The interactive event drew over 150 participants, including representatives from leading financial institutions, investors, asset management firms and rating agencies, including Caisse des Depots, SNS Asset Management, Standard & Poor’s, J.P. Morgan, KfW Bankengruppe, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Barclays.
To date, tightening resource constraints and their impacts on national economies have been largely absent from financial analyses. The E-RISC report fills this gap by exploring to what extent resource and ecological risks can impact a nation’s economy and how these factors affect a nation’s ability to pay its debts.
E-RISC Press Conference at Bloomberg, with Ivo Mulder (UNEP FI), Susan Burns (Global Footprint Network), and Nick Nuttall (UNEP)
Global Footprint Network supports the Natural Capital Declaration, a commitment made by CEOs from the finance sector to integrate natural capital accounting into their financial products and services.
Global Footprint Network is committed to creating a world where everyone can live well within the means of one planet. It is going to take all of us pulling together toward this common goal. We recognize the need to push the frontiers beyond business-as-usual and to explore more integrated approaches to finance. As financial institutions are an integral part of the economy and society, initiatives like the Natural Capital Declaration are important to help lead the way.
As people move on from the suspense, excitement, and sometimes disappointment that was Rio+20, at least one thing is clear to us—the Ecological Footprint is more important than ever in a world where international cooperation on sustainable development has not delivered everything the world hoped it would.
Global Footprint Network Science Coordinator Kyle Gracey (far right) at the Eye on Earth Panel
Global Footprint Network is thrilled to announce that Co-Founder and President Dr. Mathis Wackernagel and Dr. William Rees, co-creators of the Ecological Footprint, have been named the winners of the 2012 Kenneth E. Boulding Award, the world’s top honor in the field of ecological economics.
The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), made the announcement leading up to the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), in Rio de Janeiro, where the awards will be presented.
The biennial award is given to “outstanding individuals who have contributed original and seminal approaches that have furthered our understanding of the interfaces between the social, ecological, ethical, economic and political dimensions of our world,” said the ISEE in announcing the award.
Building on Rees’ earlier work on human carrying capacity, Wackernagel and Rees in the early 1990s developed the Ecological Footprint, the world’s premier resource accounting system, to track humanity’s demands on nature. The Ecological Footprint measures the area of productive land and water, or “biocapacity,” required to produce the resources a human population consumes and to absorb its carbon waste.
For the last 10 years, Global Footprint Network has contributed to WWF’s bi-annual flagship publication “The Living Planet Report,” which has become a key publication for Ecological Footprint results. The 2012 edition was released in May from the International Space Station, generating the largest media response of any Living Planet Report so far. The latest Global Footprint Network calculations show that humanity’s demand for bio-resources exceeds the long-term regenerative capacity of Earth by over 50 percent.
“Ever more countries continue to use more resources than they can renew within their own boundaries,” Drs. Wackernagel and Rees said. “Until countries begin tracking and managing their biocapacity deficits, they put not only themselves at risk but, more importantly, the entire planet.”
The award will be presented at the ISEE Conference 2012 in Rio de Janeiro on June 19, where Wackernagel and Rees will deliver the keynote Boulding Award lectures.
Dr. Wackernagel has promoted sustainability on six continents and lectured at more than 100 universities. Dr. Rees is an ecologist, ecological economist, Founding Director of the One Earth Initiative, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning.
Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993) was President of the American Economics Association and American Association for the Advancement of Science. Past notable recipients include Herman Daly (American economist, considered the father of Ecological Economics) and Manfred Max-Neef, author of Real-Life Economics: Understanding Wealth Creation.
We thank you, our valued partners and supporters, for helping to promote our work around the world, and making awards such as these possible as we continue to make ecological limits central to decision-making.
Given humanity’s increasing demands on Earth’s resources, it’s never too early to start teaching the next generation lessons about sustainability and our Ecological Footprint.
One of most effective ways to learn is through story. A brother and sister team, Cecilia and Gyula Simonyi, have created Children of the Elements, a series of illustrated interactive stories for the iPad. They envision the app as a tool for parents to tackle the complex subject with their children. Cecilia and Gyula have worked with their father, who is the founder and President of the BOCS Foundation in Hungary, a Global Footprint Network partner organization.
Children of the Element is an educational app, hand-painted on 40 screens and presented in English and Hungarian. The app provokes thinking systematically about sustainability by exploring food, transportation, energy, technology, consumption, population and related issues, and weaving them into stories that show their interconnectedness.
Cecilia and Gyula have launched a campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise funds to fully develop the series and reach a wider audience. While aimed for children ages 8 years and older, the stories are no doubt entertaining and edifying for adults as well. It follows four young children as they explore their world, giving readers an opportunity to make decisions for each character. Each episode addresses a different sustainability topic. Funds raised through the Kickstarter campaign will be used for a programmer, music, and special-effects.
“Our goal is to introduce the true face of sustainability, the complexity, the far-reaching impacts and reactions, and offer this in a format understandable and enjoyable by children,” says Gyula, the project manager. “With this series we hope to trigger real understanding, rather than oversimplifying (with) messages like ‘don’t litter.’ Our goal is to stimulate questions, generate discussion and inspire change in choices our readers make.
“Being a mother, I feel the most important knowledge I can give my child is how to live in harmony with our planet,” says Cecilia, author and illustrator of the stories, and mother of a 4-year-old. “Children growing up today are going to face all the challenges our generation have left behind for them to solve.”
Kickstarter allows backers to pledge various amounts to support the creative projects of their choice. If the project reaches its pledge goal by the end of the funding period, the pledges are collected and sent to the project team. However, if the full amount is not raised by the deadline, no money changes hands. On Kickstarter, backers are not only donating money to a project that inspires them, but their pledge is honored with special gifts the project creator offers.
To watch the campaign video and help make the full Children of the Elements series happen, visit their Kickstarter page. And stay up to date by visiting their Facebook page and Cecilia’s blog, which has new illustrations.
Editors update (July 3, 2012): The Kickstarter campaign is over, but the project is not. Follow the progress on the Children of the Elements blog.
Released just weeks before world leaders come together in Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the report shows rising competition among countries for resources and land use.
“We’ve entered the era of the global auction,” said Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel, Ph.D., “where nations are now forced to compete fiercely for more expensive and less abundant resources. It’s in their own self-interest to preserve and restore the natural assets they have within their borders and avoid ecological deficit spending. In a resource constrained world, such spending will become an ever more challenging economic burden.”
Figure 1: Pathways into the future. How long can ecological overshoot be sustained? What are the cost and benefit of each path? Using more than Earth can renew is only possible temporarily – while there are sufficient assets to be liquidated and waste sinks to be filled up. Eventually, overshoot will be eliminated – the question is whether it is eliminated by design or by disaster.
The new figures released for humanity’s Ecological Footprint and biocapacity (Earth’s capacity to regenerate resources) show that now, more than ever, countries must manage natural capital as part of their strategy to secure ecological, economic and social success. This holds also true when deploying development strategies that aim at producing lasting progress, for instance for efforts to eliminate hunger and alleviate poverty.
As population and consumption increases, the pressure on the planet continues to grow. Global Footprint Network calculations show that in the past five decades, humanity’s Ecological Footprint has more than doubled. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, humanity used the equivalent of slightly more than 1.5 planets to support its activities. In other words, nearly 40 years after Earth went into ecological overshoot, it now takes more than a year and six months for Earth to absorb the CO2 emissions and regenerate the renewable resources that people use in one year.
While humanity’s cropland and fishing Footprints have increased, carbon continues to be the largest driver behind humanity’s ecological overshoot. Carbon now accounts for more than half the global Ecological Footprint, at 54 percent. Land used for food production is another major factor in humanity’s increasing Footprint.
While carbon is a major challenge, it must not be addressed in isolation. Moving from fossil fuel due to climate concerns to alternative sources will reduce the carbon portion of the Footprint, but may also significantly increase pressure on other ecosystems. The lack of biocapacity to accommodate the carbon Footprint also indicates that there may not be sufficient biomass available to substitute the current level of fossil fuel use, should that become necessary.
Though the numbers are stark, countries can still reverse trends. Using a Global Footprint Network Scenario Calculator, the 2012 edition of the Living Planet Report offers potential outcomes based on different choices related to resource consumption, demographic trends, land use and productivity.
Examining the Ecological Footprint at the per-person level shows that people living in different countries vary greatly in their demand on Earth’s ecosystems. For example, if everyone in the world lived like the average resident of Qatar, which presently has the world’s highest per capita Footprint, we would need the equivalent of 6.5 planets to regenerate our resources and absorb the CO2 emissions. If everyone lived like a resident of the United States, we would need the resources of 4 planets.
A few countries are now on the verge of turning from ecological creditors to ecological debtors, including Indonesia, Senegal and Ecuador.
Countries that maintain high levels of resource dependence are putting their own economies at risk,” Wackernagel said. “These countries will expose themselves dangerously to the global auction. But those countries that are able to work within both their financial and their ecological budget will not only serve the global interest, they will have the most resilient economies in a resource-constrained world. If our goal is to make progress last and secure well-being for all, then we can no longer afford to ignore biocapacity deficits in the new era of resource constraints.”
The top 10 countries with the largest Ecological Footprint per person are Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Denmark, the United States, Belgium, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, and Ireland. Countries on the other end of the spectrum such as Afghanistan and Bangladesh have per capita Footprints that, in many cases, are too small to provide for basic needs. These countries may well need to increase their access to resources if they are to bring large segments of the population out of poverty.
Analysis of biocapacity also reveals vast differences between countries. More than 60 percent of the world’s biocapacity is found within the borders of just 10 countries: Brazil, China, the United States, Russia, India, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Argentina and Congo. Biocapacity per person, calculated by dividing national biocapacity by a country’s population, is also not equivalent around the world. In 2008, the country with the highest biocapacity per person in this report was Gabon, followed in decreasing order by Bolivia, Mongolia, Canada and Australia. With pressure on ecological resources escalating, access to biocapacity will be increasingly important to countries’ competitiveness and to their ability to provide a good quality of life for their citizens.
“For lasting competitiveness, countries need a break with the past,” said Wackernagel. “The good news is that addressing resource risks can open up economic opportunities and advance social equity. The solutions lay in better understanding the choices before us. For this, governments need the knowledge and tools to manage their ecological assets as well as their resource demand.”
How to Participate
As Global Footprint Network approaches its 10th anniversary, we remain committed to reversing these trends by working with governments and maintaining and improving our National Footprint Accounts, the gold standard for measuring key aspects of a country’s ecological wealth and vulnerabilities. You can be part of this global effort by promoting our work, becoming a partner or giving a donation.
The Global Journal, a Geneva-based publication that covers international politics and leadership, named Global Footprint Network as one of the world’s 100 Best NGOs this week. These leading 100 actors represent the changing dynamics and innovative approaches of the non-profit world, Global Journal said in its January/February 2012 issue.
“We are humbled to be in the company of the many innovative organizations named in the top 100 who are seeking to create systemic change, ” said Susan Burns, Global Footprint Network’s Senior Vice President and co-founder. “The world now finds itself at a defining moment where ecological constraints are ever more critical as we seek to secure people’s well-being.”
The Global Journal used a specific set of metrics (impact, transparency, accountability, innovation and efficiency) as a rough guideline to rank the NGOs.
“There is no science in the measuring,” Global Journal said. “How does one – after all – compare the fundamental societal impact of an organization like the Wikimedia Foundation, with the tangible outputs of a well oiled humanitarian machine?”
Global Journal said its Top 100 list was meant to inform, stimulate debate, inspire and show the incredible dedication that is displayed on a daily basis in and out of the spotlight on a daily basis.
“Recognizing the significant role of NGOs as influential agents of change on a global scale, The Global Journal has sought to move beyond outdated clichés and narrow conceptions about what an NGO is and does,” the Journal said as it announced the Top 100 list. “From humanitarian relief to the environment, public health to education, microfinance to intellectual property, NGOs are increasingly at the forefront of developments shaping the lives of millions of people around the world.”
Other ranking organizations included Wikimedia, Partners in Health, PATH, CARE International, Gram Vikas, Oxfam and TED.
Humanity has reached a new milestone as we hit 7 billion. Never before have there been 7 billion people on planet earth, all at the same time. As we welcome the 7th billion global inhabitant, we also acknowledge the challenges we will face due to a burgeoning population explosion, resource depletion, food and water scarcity and overcrowded cities. This is especially true at a time when humanity as a whole is already using the planets regenerative capacity 50 percent faster than it can renew.
Although humanity’s total demand is unsustainable, this consumption is very unevenly distributed among the 7 billion people. A large portion of humanity does not have enough resources to secure even their most basic subsistence needs. This suffering is intolerable. It affects the rest of humanity, too, most visibly through conflict and instability.
Therefore, Global Footprint Network is mapping how much nature we have, how much we use, and who uses what. In a crowded, resource constrained world this information helps decision makers understand our present resource situation and find options for avoiding unpleasant consequences.
UNEP FI project seeks framework for assessing government bonds
Could an abundance of natural wealth be a factor in positively influencing a country’s credit rating and the quality of its bonds? Could a resource-guzzling economy be cause for a downgrade?
The UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) in collaboration with Global Footprint Network and leading financial institutions will endeavor to shine a light on these questions with a groundbreaking project to explore the role of natural resource accounting in strengthening risk models for government bonds. The project seeks to incorporate how much natural wealth countries have – and how much they spend – into assessments of long-term credit risk.
Tightening constraints on resources and their potential impacts on national economies have been largely absent from financial analysis. Yet such factors are thought to have growing implications for the long-term credit risk of many government bonds, especially those with long-dated maturities.
“The global financial crisis has taught us more than anything that some of the core risks that affect the value of debt securities and derivatives can simply run ahead of our ability to understand them,” said Paul Clements-Hunt, Head of UNEP FI. “This is why we must deepen our understanding of the risks posed by climate change, water scarcity and the overuse of natural resources for securities. We should not be caught off-guard again. This project is one of the first that tries to quantitatively and systematically consider the linkages between the use of natural resources and its impact on a country’s core economic indicators that in turn influence the quality of its bonds.”
The bond project was launched yesterday at workshop at a side-event to the UNEP FI Global Roundtable, which is taking place in Washington D.C. this week. The Roundtable draws hundreds of leading financial experts along with high-level government officials seeking to address the link between financial stability and environmental sustainability.
The project has two aims: it will investigate the linkages between ecological risk and country-level risk in sovereign bonds, and develop a methodology to explore how credit rating agencies, investors and financial information providers can integrate ecological data into their respective models. In particular, the analysis will look at the risks to countries whose populations and/or industries require more resources than is domestically available and which are hence reliant on ecological services from abroad.
“As resource constraints tighten globally, countries that depend heavily on ecological services from other nations may find that their resource supply becomes insecure and unreliable. This has economic implications – in particular for countries that depend upon large amounts of ecological assets to power their key industries or to support their consumption patterns and lifestyles,” said Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel. “Meanwhile, those countries with reserves of valuable natural capital may find themselves in an advantageous position.”
The project will substantiate the business case for financial institutions and ratings agencies to include ecological criteria as a key component of financially material country credit risk analysis. Institutions will thus be enabled to work towards better inclusion of financially-material environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in financial products and services.