Footprint Network Blog - Ecological Limits

International Day of Forests: Signs of hope but not out of the woods

03/20/2015 08:01 PM

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.


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.

Read Complete Article >


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.

Read Complete Article >


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.

Read Complete Article >


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 www.bit.ly/ecofootprintapp.

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


Read Complete Article >


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. 

Read Complete Article >


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.

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