The United Nations launches global goals to achieve humanity’s collective dream: sustainable development
This week marks an extraordinary moment for humanity. Representatives of 193 nations are convening in New York at the United Nations to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals lay out the conditions we need to secure great lives on this one planet for all, regardless of income level, gender or ethnicity.
We are pleased that the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre has proposed the Ecological Footprint as an SDG metric for Goal 12.2: "by 2030 achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources."
And we can't help but ask the following question: How do we know whether all the SDG activities generate sustainable development? With the United Nations on the verge of adopting sustainable development as its central agenda, how do we know whether all the potential activities on the 169 goals are adding up to sustainable development?
Resource security as the foundation for sustainability
"Development" is shorthand for committing to well-being for all. "Sustainable" implies that such development must come at no cost to future generations. In other words, development is required to occur within what the planet’s ecosystems are able to provide season after season, year after year. It needs to be enabled within the means of nature.
This principle was put forward by the possibly most tangible definition of sustainable development ever given: "improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems," in the 1991 report "Caring for the Earth" jointly issued by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and WWF.
The goal of "well-being for all" has its own UN-supported metric: the Human Development Index (HDI), which was created by Indian economist Amartha Sen, with his Pakistani colleague and former finance minister Mahbub ul Haq, to provide an alternative to national income as a standard of development. HDI is based on the life expectancy, education and income of a nation’s residents. On a scale of zero to one, UNDP defines 0.7 as the threshold for a high level of development (0.8 for very high development).
The requirement "within the means of nature" is tracked by the Ecological Footprint. At current population levels, our planet has only 1.7 global hectares (gha) of biologically productive surface area per person. Thus, the average Ecological Footprint per person worldwide needs to fall significantly below this threshold if we want to accommodate larger human populations and also provide space for wild species to thrive.
All of us want high HDIs for everybody AND we need to make sure we stay within the regenerative capacity of the planet. These two thresholds define two minimum criteria for global sustainable development—an average Footprint (significantly) lower than 1.7 gha per person and an HDI of at least 0.7. Each nation’s endowment and ability to trade vary enormously. However, to achieve global sustainable development, humanity’s demand, at current population levels, has to fall below an average of 1.7 gha per person.
Is it possible to provide high human development within our planet’s resource budget?
Eight countries have shown us it is possible, according to the latest data (2011). Algeria, Colombia, Ecuador, Georgia, Jamaica, Jordan and Sri Lanka show "high human development" (as calculated by the United Nations) with a resource demand (Ecological Footprint) that could be extended to every world citizen. One nation, Cuba, even achieves "very high human development" (its HDI ranks in the top 35 countries among 170 featured; see below) while keeping its resource demand per person lower than per-person global biocapacity.
Resource risk is acute for 71 percent of the global population
Growing population and increasing consumption per capita continue adding pressure on ecological constraints and contributing to climate change, compounding resource risks for every country’s economy. Such risks are most evident in countries with ecological deficits—consuming more than their ecosystems can provide—and low income, making it more difficult for them to buy themselves out of resource scarcity. A staggering 71 percent of the world population now lives in countries with this double challenge: an ecological deficit AND lower-than-world-average income. That is up from less than 15 percent of countries in the early 1960s.
This reality leaves humanity with a pressing question: How can nations—both high and low income—make their development achievements last, if their development model depends on more than what the biosphere is able to renew?
History and Applications of HDI-Footprint Framework
French researcher Aurélien Boutaud first raised this issue in 2002. He introduced the HDI-Footprint relationship as an "embarrassing truth" of the sustainable development challenge. The current development model, in which development gains still come at the cost of increasing Ecological Footprints is one, he claims, in which "all lose."
UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013 echoed his concern exactly, stating that "progress in human development achieved sustainably is superior to gains made at the cost of future generations." It used the double-metric HDI-Ecological Footprint (Fig. 1.7) to back up this very point.
Other international and national decision-makers have turned to the HDI-Footprint framework to illustrate the challenge of sustainable development:
Last but not least, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s cornerstone Vision 2050 report calls for a new agenda for business.
"Achieving Vision 2050 will require a radical but feasible transformation of global markets, governance and infrastructure, and a re-thinking of our ideas of growth and progress," states the report.
Bringing about sustainable development around the world is daunting but not impossible. While we still have far to go, measuring the basic conditions of sustainable development (well-being and living within nature’s means) can certainly help us navigate our path. We’re energized by the shared vision that the SDGs give us over the next 15 years and look forward to contributing our efforts so that the process unfolds within the means of our one planet.
From global to local: India villages apply HDI-Footprint framework
Just as the Sustainable Development Goals set targets for national governments around the world, many development organizations seek metrics to measure their sustainable development achievements. One such organization is IDE-India (IDEI), a nonprofit that works to eradicate poverty with small-holder farming communities. This year, IDEI and Global Footprint Network piloted a tool that measures the Human Development Index (HDI) and Ecological Footprint of villages in Odisha, India. By calculating HDI and Ecological Footprint for several villages where IDEI has projects, we can show a snapshot of each community’s development and natural resource conditions.
Though it is still early in the application of the tool, preliminary results indicate that IDEI treadle pumps—human-powered water pumps that provide additional irrigation water during dry seasons— increase income (a component of HDI) and biocapacity (biologically productive land surface) but also increase the Ecological Footprint, though only marginally. In other words, the pumps increased the villagers’ resource availability, ultimately enabling them to improve their living conditions.
The villagers use the information about their HDI and Footprint in a different way—by taking the knowledge they gain from workshops on natural resources to construct an image of their ideal village. In time, and by conducting pre- and post-assessments, we hope to demonstrate that sustainable development is more effective than conventional development in securing human well-being. With these tools we hope to inspire other communities and social entrepreneurs around the world to adopt a similar approach.
Human Development Index and Ecological Footprint of Nations: 1980-2011
Dr. Jennie Moore,
Director, Sustainable Development and Environment Stewardship
British Columbia Institute of Technology
School of Construction and the Environment
In 2006, the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) became the first post-secondary educational institution to join Global Footprint Network’s partner network, which now numbers 76 institutions applying the Ecological Footprint methodology around the world. Dr. Jennie Moore, director of sustainable development and environmental stewardship at BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment, has led the charge, applying Footprint science to make real policy changes for the Vancouver city government.
Media outlets around the world helped share the news of Earth Overshoot Day this year, and thanks to countless partners and supporters, a conversation about our planet’s ecological deficit also took off on social media.
Earth Overshoot Day is an annual observance meant to bring attention to the risks of humanity’s growing ecological deficit. This year, August 19 marked the date when humanity exhausted nature’s budget for the entire year.
Highlights of Earth Overshoot Day 2014 media coverage included articles in Le Monde in France, El Mundo in Spain, and the Brasil Post in Brazil. Earth Overshoot Day also made the front page of La Stampa in Italy for the second year in a row. An online article in The Guardian in the UK generated 92 comments. In Switzerland, a Q&A with Bruno Oberle, director of the Swiss Ministry of Environment, was featured on the ministry’s website.
As of this week, we are in overshoot. Humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year.
August 20 was Earth Overshoot Day 2013, the approximate date humanity’s ecological resource consumption exceeded what Earth can renew this year. A mere 34 weeks into 2013, we demanded a level of ecological resources and services — from food and raw materials to sequestering carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions — equivalent to what Earth can regenerate for all of 2013.
For the rest of the year, we are operating in ecological overshoot. We will maintain our ecological deficit by depleting stocks of fish, trees and other resources, and accumulating waste such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans. As our level of consumption, or “spending,” grows, the interest we are paying on this mounting ecological debt — shrinking forests, biodiversity loss, fisheries collapse, food shortages, degraded land productivity and the build-up of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and oceans — not only burdens the environment but also undermines our economies. Climate change — a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans — is the most widespread impact of ecological overspending.
Earth Overshoot Day is an annual observance meant to bring attention to the risks of humanity’s growing ecological deficit. Making better choices will better ensure that we can reverse trends and move toward a sustainable future; measuring how much nature we have, how much we use and how much we need will help us make those choices. This year, due in no small part to the critical support of our partners and supporters, that message resonated around the world.
Major world media reported on Earth Overshoot Day 2013. The front page of the print version of the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa featured our infographic of ecological debtor countries as its Page 1 centerpiece. France’s Le Monde and Brazil’s Folha de S. Paulo ran articles explaining Overshoot Day calculations and the implications of humanity’s increasing Ecological Footprint. Mexico’s El Universal, the UK’s Daily Mail, Switzerland’s Tages-Anzeiger, the U.S. magazine Popular Science and the Brazilian science journal Galileu, among many others, also had their own stories, while Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported the story for Liberation and Le Figaro newspapers (both France), FOX News, the Japan Times, Manila Times, Voice Russia and other media outlets. Television and radio — such as the multilingual Euronews television network, CBS radio, Swiss radio, and broadcasters in Ireland, Uruguay, Mexico, Quebec, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere — carried either live interviews or taped stories on Earth Overshoot Day.
As media reportage provided the context, op-ed and commentary addressed strategies for living in a resource constrained world. Andrew Simms, originator of the Earth Overshoot Day concept and chief analyst at Global Witness, made the case for living within our means in The Guardian (UK). Carter Roberts, President and CEO of WWF-US, urged businesses to “begin producing more with less” in Foreign Affairs. “We have only a 15 to 20-year window in which to turn the tide,” Alessandro Galli, Global Footprint Network Mediterranean-MENA Regional Director, wrote in the Edinburgh Evening News.
This year’s print, airtime and online media and blog space devoted to Earth Overshoot Day were the best yet. And social media was ablaze. Facebook comments and reposts and Twitter #OvershootDay and #EcologicalOvershoot tweets and retweets climbed steadily. WWF’s concurrent #oshoot Vine and Thunderclap campaigns rolled across Twitter to create a collective shout about humanity already exceeding this year’s ecological resource limits.
Other partners such as INKOTA in Berlin, Germany and Swiss Clean Tech in Bern, Switzerland held events to commemorate the day. We heard from many followers as well, including a community college teacher who used Global Footprint Network’s individual Ecological Footprint calculator as a way to introduce her students to ecological resource limits on the semester’s first day of her “Humans and the Environment” course.
Thank you all for your dedication to raise awareness about this annual mark of humanity’s ecological overspending. We look forward to the day when we can celebrate our success together in reversing current trends and moving toward a world that works for everyone.
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.