Footprint Network Blog - Footprint for Finance

What do Switzerland and China Have in Common?

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.

Just like Switzerland, Guizhou is landlocked and boasts a mountainous landscape. It is one of two provinces in China that President Xi Jinping declared to be testing grounds for China’s new focus on "eco-civilization" and the "China dream."

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.

The Guizhou-Switzerland agreement builds on a larger bilateral free trade agreement between China and Switzerland that was signed last year and just took effect in July.

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.


Climate Change and Default Risk: S&P’s Latest Report Connects the Dots

Susan Burns, CEO, Global Footprint Network - 05/19/2014 07:08 PM

Credit to CGP Grey, CC BY 2.0

“Climate Change Is A Global Mega-Trend For Sovereign Risk.” That's not me talking. It’s the title of the latest report published by credit rating agency Standard & Poor's. While climate risk is not yet officially included in the agency’s credit rating model, it's the first time that a major rating agency has specifically recognized an environmental issue in its forecast of countries' economic health and their ability to honor their sovereign debt.

This report is a huge development as far as the financial sector is concerned. It is a clear signal that the message about the critical need for countries to incorporate environmental risk into their development strategies, economic plans and public policies is finally beginning to hit home. As such, it is great news.

S&P’s climate risk report is just the starting point of a much bigger conversation. The sovereign bond market has been a long overlooked portion of the financial system, even though it represents 41 trillion USD of total capital flows. Because a government's cost of borrowing is strongly related to its credit rating by agencies such as S&P, governments are powerfully motivated to manage issues that could harm their credit rating. Recent analysis has shown that environmental risks do impact national economic health, and by extension default risk, but are not currently incorporated into most country risk models. Incorporating environmental risks across the finance industry would undoubtedly cause nations to pay attention to ecological risk like never before, especially due to the potential for some governments to be downgraded (and others upgraded), thereby affecting their borrowing costs.

The S&P report looks at the economic impacts of climate change, such as changing rainfall patterns that could affect agricultural yields. But climate change isn’t the whole story. Our research has shown that resource constraints (limited supply of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, food and fiber) coupled with rising global demand also have a profound effect on the balance sheets of nations.

Taken together, the conclusion is clear: For countries to protect themselves from the erosion of economic performance due to climate change and growing resource scarcity they will need to redesign their economies in order to be ‘fit for the future.’ They will need to minimize their liabilities and optimize their opportunities. They will need to be resilient in the face of climate change but will also be compelled to view their natural resources as a source of wealth for their nations, rather than assets to liquidate on their way to economic growth.

Approximately 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that are in ecological deficit. In other words, their populations demand more resources and ecological services than can be supplied on a net basis by their own ecosystems. Deficit risks play out in three ways. Here goes, briefly:

1. Trade-related risks: countries that compensate for ecological deficits through imports are exposed to trade related risks such as commodity-price volatility and possible supply disruption.

2. Degradation of natural capital: soil, fisheries and forests that are overused or mismanaged can suffer from reduced yield, affecting production and possibly increasing countries’ reliance on imports.

3. Stranded assets risks: Many nations have invested in carbon-intensive infrastructure and industrial processes. Countries are unequally exposed in terms of the scale and impact of needed reforms as governments around the world respond to climate change.

Now, the good news is that governments do have options. The management of resources and fossil fuel dependence, to name but two aspects, belong in the realm of political choice.

We believe we're providing a very important lens for credit risk perspective. And so we're about to launch the second round of E-RISC (Environmental Risk Integration in Sovereign Risk Credit) research with seven partners from the financial industry: S&P, HSBC, European Investment Bank, Caisse des Dépôts in France, Colonial First State in Australia, KFW in Germany and Kempen in the Netherlands. Some 18 months after we launched the initiative, our focus is now on testing and refining the methodology to make it robust and useable in investment decisions.

Why is this important? Because getting the finance industry to incorporate environmental risks is one of the best ways to help governments pay attention. Ultimately, our goal is to see the implementation of policies at the national and regional level that address those risks.

The challenge is on.


The Financial Risks of Ecological Limits

Global Footprint Network - 11/19/2012 12:40 AM

Some of the economic implications of resource constraints were introduced to the world of international finance this week in London, when Global Footprint Network and the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), in collaboration with leading financial institutions, launched the E-RISC (Environmental Risk Integration in Sovereign Credit) report at Bloomberg, a leader in global financial data.

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)
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Global Footprint Network Supports the Natural Capital Declaration

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Global Footprint Network - 08/01/2012 11:11 PM

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.

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The Ecological Footprint at Rio+20

07/02/2012 10:27 PM

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

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Competitiveness 2.0: A Q&A with Robert Rapier

06/28/2012 06:02 PM

Energy expert Robert Rapier, the Chief Technology Officer at Merica International, writes and speaks about issues involving energy and the environment. Merica , a privately held energy company, is involved in a wide variety of projects, with a core focus on the localized use of biomass to energy for the benefit of local populations.
In this second of a two-part series on Competitiveness 2.0, one of Global Footprint Network’s strategic programs, the Consumer Energy Report columnist and author of “Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil” explains below how energy constraints are becoming so central to a nation’s competitiveness.

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