Footprint Network Blog - Ecological Limits

How Switzerland made history with green economy vote

Mathis Wackernagel, Global Footprint Network - 09/26/2016 01:47 PM

This weekend, Switzerland made world history, even though not as much as we would have liked.

Switzerland was the first country to vote on whether to implement a green economy. The green economy ballot initiative encouraged resource efficiency and implementation of a circular economy. On top of that, it set a specific goal – to reduce Switzerland’s resource consumption to a level that could be replicated worldwide. Currently we would need three Earths if everybody lived like the Swiss. The goal in the ballot initiative was to get to one Earth by 2050.

The Swiss constitution already recognizes the need to live within the means of nature. Article 73 states that the “Confederation and the Cantons shall endeavour to achieve a balanced and sustainable relationship between nature and its capacity to renew itself and the demands placed on it by the population.” But it does not set a deadline to achieve this goal.

The initiative created debate, some of which is documented on our new website (mostly German), (watch out, Switzerland). However, the biggest confusion in the debate was the following: is it in the self-interest of Switzerland to act aggressively?

A positive starting point was that most parties recognized the need to manage our resources carefully and that we have to live, ultimately, within the means of the planet – particularly if the “we” is humanity. Proponents claimed that to reach the 2-degrees Celsius goal adopted in the Paris climate agreement, Footprint reductions were required. They also argued that most innovations are spurred by ambitious goals, and that Switzerland’s environmental achievements in clean water and air were accelerated by aggressive political targets.

The green economy campaign was careful to not push fear, but to make it a positive, friendly, fun proposition. The opponents played the fear card, calling the initiative “expensive green coercion.” They said it would lead to cold showers ( and an import stop for cocoa. Opponents argued that 2050 is too soon, and that the transformation would be too harsh for the Swiss economy.

Interestingly enough, economic actors were divided. Some vigorously opposed while others, such as IKEA, favored a one-planet economy.

How did the vote turn out?

Early on, polling showed substantial positive interest, but as voters got closer to casting their ballot, the fear of change eroded the early advantage. Still, 36% of voters cast a “yes” for living within the means of one planet. Geneva was the only canton in Switzerland with a majority in favor of the initiative.

The fact that a country would hold such a vote, and that so many recognize the need for a significant shift in the way we use resources is a global historical precedent. We regret how little this significant debate was covered in world news. It is these topics we need to discuss when exploring how to build a future that works for all within the means of our one and only planet (until Elon Musk brings us to Mars…).

Big Ideas: Footprint calculator sparks provocative discussions at universities worldwide

Vivian Bi, Global Footprint Network - 08/24/2016 07:42 PM

Jessica Piekielek of Southern Oregon University asks sociology and anthropology students to calculate Footprints based in other countries to compare and discuss results.

Kirsten Balding at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, is a huge advocate of using Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint calculator to teach students about sustainability. “It is a really engaging way for students to measure their consumption of resources,” says Balding. “It’s a very clear and simple way of communicating a complex concept—that also presents solutions too!”

And she doesn’t just refer to the calculator in a single class session of her sustainability course, but refers to the results over the entirety of the course.

From Australia to the United States, university students and teachers across the world have contacted Global Footprint Network over the years to praise and offer ideas for improving the Ecological Footprint calculator.

It’s not only in environmental science courses that the Footprint calculator is proving a thought-provoking instructional tool. Jessica Piekielek, who teaches sociology and anthropology at Southern Oregon University, has taken advantage of the calculator in her Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class to talk about global population growth, development, and social inequality. “I especially appreciate that students can experiment with calculating Footprints based in other countries, so that we can compare results and discuss,” she notes.

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One-planet living: Switzerland’s next commitment?

08/24/2016 02:17 AM

On September 25, Swiss voters will head to the polls to decide on a bold initiative to put Switzerland on the path of a green economy. Initiated by members of the Green Party and the Social Democrats, this ballot initiative builds on the Ecological Footprint: If passed, it will incorporate the sustainable use of natural resources into the country’s constitution, and becoming the first country in the world to commit to one-planet living by 2050.

Switzerland currently consumes four times what Swiss ecosystems can regenerate. And if everyone in the world lived like the Swiss, we would need 3.3 planets.

To reach one-planet living by 2050, the Swiss would have to reduce their average per-person Ecological Footprint by more than two thirds, to at most 1.7 global hectares. This is the current capacity of the world’s renewable resources on a per-person basis. (The target would actually fall even further if populations globally continue to rise.)

The Swiss initiative also calls for a “circular economy strategy,” including measures to adopt new product regulations, encourage recycling, and promote research and innovation.

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How do we measure sustainable development? Two new indexes, two very different views

07/20/2016 11:54 PM

It’s been a busy day for launching new country rankings. Today (July 20), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) released a 427-page report ranking countries by 77 indicators tied to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals approved last year. The SDG index averages countries’ performance on those goals. Each goal is assessed by a mélange of indicators, including poverty and obesity rate, traffic deaths, literacy rate, seats held by women in national parliament, access to water and electricity, unemployment, mobile broadband subscriptions, wastewater treatment, and carbon emissions.

How does compliance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals SDGs square with achieving development that can be sustained within the means of our planet? Ultimately, to be sustainable, development need to fit within our planet's resource budget. Therefore sustainable development can be mapped as development achievement, on the on hand, and resource demand, on the other.

The graph below summarizes the results. It shows the position of the top and bottom 10 countries on the SDG index in terms of their Human Development Index scores and their Ecological Footprints.

(Click image to enlarge)

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Global Footprint Network’s Footprint Calculator Scores High Marks in High Schools

Vivian Bi, Global Footprint Network - 07/20/2016 09:58 PM

Reports card’s out! High schools around the world are starting to integrate the Footprint calculators into their curriculums. Governments and organizations, including the United Nations and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are also catching on to the importance of environmental education in meeting long-term sustainability goals.

So how did today’s students do on the quiz? Teachers found that students were often times surprised at how large their Footprint was compared to others, leaving even the most eco-conscious students wondering what more they can do to protect Earth. By putting into perspective their own footprints, students can understand their personal impact on the world’s resources and begin to make choices that will collectively change the course of our future.

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Can China transform into an ecological civilization?

07/05/2016 10:31 PM

Creating an economy that operates in harmony with nature is the centerpiece of China President Xi Jinpig’s vision of transforming the country into an ecological civilization.

Can China become such a civilization?

To find out, we engaged with the Province of Guizhou. We are launching the results of our close collaboration with the province on Wednesday, July 6, at the EcoForum Global conference with a report titled "The Guizhou Footprint Report: Metrics for an Ecological Civilization."

Without a doubt, China is facing steep challenges: growing resource demand far beyond its own ecological resources and services; heavy dependence on fossil fuels; and growing expectations among citizens, with many people, particularly in rural areas, still needing to be lifted out of harsh economic conditions.

The Guizhou Footprint Report was created with financial support from the Swiss government. With mountainous ecosystems, rich biodiversity, and diverse people, Guizhou Province is a unique region of China that shares geographic similarities with Switzerland. So the report also includes a comparison of the two countries, China and Switzerland.

Here are some findings that highlight the challenges that Guizhou is facing:

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Can the UK survive on its own?

06/24/2016 11:11 AM

In the wake of the stunning Brexit vote results, we ask, what does it take to the support the UK’s demand for natural resources? Consider this:

The UK’s forest land only covers 3% of UK resident’s demand for forest products and carbon emissions sequestration. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel use make up 63 percent of the UK’s overall demand for nature, or its Ecological Footprint.

If the UK used all of its forests for forest products only (and nothing for carbon sequestration), they would meet only 27% of UK residents’ demand for forest products, including timber for building and paper. This means that nearly three-quarter of the UK’s demand for forest products is met by other countries.

The UK’s grazing lands meet only 42% of UK residents’ demand for grazing products – primarily meat and dairy. More than half of the demand is met by resources beyond its borders.

The UK covers 72% of its demand for crops with resources within its borders. In other words, it is relying on the resources of other countries to meet more than one quarter (28%) of its citizens demands for crops.

Overall, the UK requires 3.8 times more than what the UK’s ecosystems can renew including the sequestration of carbon from fossil fuel use. If all fossil carbon was magically sequestered, the UK would still require 1.4 UKs to meet its citizens’ remaining demand, leaving no space for wild species inhabiting the UK.

Even after the vote, the UK is far from independent. It seems that the Brits may be underestimating their reliance on the rest of the world to meet their demand for natural resources.

Making conservation everybody’s business through Verified Conservation Areas

05/22/2016 09:12 AM

To mark International Day for Biological Diversity, Global Footprint Network is proud to support its partner Earthmind’s innovative program to boost ecosystems’ restoration and biodiversity conservation around the world, mitigating the Ecological Footprint.

What if conserving biodiversity wasn’t just the prerogative of national parks and protected areas? What if conserving biodiversity and restoring ecosystems could also be the responsibility of every local government, every business, every community and every individual with stewardship over a productive piece of land? And what if we could recognize and encourage communities, companies and others who conserve nature?

This vision is no pie in the sky. It has been guiding the Verified Conservation Areas (VCA) Approach launched two years ago by Francis Vorhies, the former CEO of Earthwatch Institute Europe and Chief Economist of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“To protect our planet, we need to conserve through management, not just legislation. The VCA approach is about supporting and promoting the sustainable management of productive landscapes, including farms, forests, and even golf courses—not just national parks,” explains Dr. Vorhies, a conservation veteran.

Global Footprint Network and Earthmind, the organization founded by Dr. Vorhies, are partnering in order to implement and promote the VCA approach as an inclusive measure for area-based conservation.

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Celebrating Trees on Earth Day

04/22/2016 12:03 AM


Together with our partner Earth Day Network, we’re happy to give trees a special nod today.

At Global Footprint Network, we have a soft spot for trees and forests. They are an essential pool of biodiversity. And they are one of our most important ecological assets: A whopping 70 percent of humanity’s Ecological Footprint is comprised of demand for forest products (paper, timber, etc.) and carbon capture, an ecological service that forests provide.

In fact, even if the whole Earth were covered with forests, we still wouldn’t have enough to meet our current demand for their products and services…Besides, we obviously need to leave some productive land available for crops to feed us.

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Imagine happiness treading lightly on the Earth

03/25/2016 11:10 AM

How did you celebrate UN World Happiness Day last Sunday? All of us had plenty to chew on with the release of the World Happiness Report 2016—the fourth edition since 2012. Prepared by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an international panel of economists, psychologists and public health experts convened by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the happiness ranking of 156 countries was based on individual responses to a global poll conducted by Gallup.

The scholars found that three-quarters of the variation across countries could be explained by six variables: gross domestic product per capita (the rawest measure of a nation’s wealth); healthy years of life expectancy; social support; trust (as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business); perceived freedom to make life choices; and generosity (as measured by donations).

The glaring omission on this list is the significance of resource consumption. Yet combining the Happiness Index and Ecological Footprint data on one graph reveals interesting patterns.

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