Footprint Network Blog - Carbon Footprint
Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network, was in Florence, Italy, this week to receive the IAIA Global Environment Award for developing the Ecological Footprint. “The Global Environment Award is presented annually to a leading individual or institution that has made a substantial contribution to the practice of environmental assessment, management or policy at a global scale,” according to the International Association for Impact Assessment. This global network believes, in its own words, that “the assessment of the environmental, social, economic, cultural, and health implications for proposals is a critical contribution to sound decision-making processes, and to equitable and sustainable development.” IAIA is recognizing the Ecological Footprint for efficiently “translating the complexity of humanity’s impact on the environment into a compelling, understandable and actionable form.”
Previous recipients of the award include:
2014 John Ruggie, USA
2013 International Finance Corporation, USA
2012 Int’l Network for Enviro Compliance & Enforcement, USA
2011 Not awarded
2010 Nicholas Stern, UK
2009 The Carter Center’s River Blindness Program, USA
2008 Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Canada
2007 Lawrence E. Susskind, USA
2006 Wangari Maathai, Kenya
2005 James Gustave Speth, USA
2004 Margot Wallstrom, Sweden
2003 Mostafa Kamal Tolba, Egypt
2002 Jan Pronk, The Netherlands
2001 Maurice Strong, Canada
The text from Wackernagel’s acceptance speech is below:
Dear friends and esteemed colleagues,
Thank you for your kindness and generosity. It deeply touches me that you have selected our work for IAIA’s Global Environment Award.
Your organization has been in my conversations since the early 1990s. Members of IAIA have been my mentors. And some members have been intellectual lighthouses – like the late Robert Goodland.
The sheer optimism your organization exudes through its name, has tickled me, IAIA here we come! It is a battle cry for a better world. And indeed we badly need far more rigorous impact measures, because the financial rationales are not sufficient in guiding our decision-making. Calling everything that matters externalities does not cut it.
At Global Footprint Network, our mission is nearly the same as yours: To make ecological limits central to decision making. We need this for an equitable and sustainable world. Without embracing resource limits, it is unlikely that we will be able to move out of overshoot by design.
We will eventually move out of ecological overshoot, no doubt. Physics dictates this. The question is merely: Are we doing it by disaster or by design? I do not want the former to win this race.
Inspired by the discipline of impact assessment, Bill Rees and I developed the initial Footprint, an accounting system for measuring our ultimate environmental impact. We asked the question: How many planets does it take to support humanity? Answering this question could then also tell us: how many planets does it take if everybody lived like me or you?
The underlying principles are very simple: Life competes for biologically productive surfaces. You eat a potato, and this takes space. Add space for your tomatoes, the cotton, the milk, the rice, the wood fibers, the timber, the sequestration of your carbon emissions. The sum we call “your Ecological Footprint.” And a big part of humanity’s Footprint, currently, is the carbon Footprint. In fact there would currently still be sufficient space to absorb all our carbon emissions from fossil fuel, but then there would be far less space for food. We seem to choose food over carbon sequestration.
Once we add up all the surfaces we demand, then we can compare this Footprint with the biologically productive surfaces that exist on the planet – we call this the biocapacity.
I brought some wallet cards along with lots of Footprint data points. They are shaped like credit cards. Like credit cards, they are worth money. Because they help intrigue your friends, and then they will invite you to a free lunch. The cards contain a nauseating amount of data. And what is even cooler – once opened, you cannot fold them back.
Why would you need to know how much nature you have compared to how much you use? I asked this very question to a class of 11-year-olds. A girl immediately raised her hand and said, “If we use more than what we have, the only thing left to eat is imaginary cookies…
Now. She was not totally right, because we can overuse nature for some time, depleting the stock. For example, cut trees more rapidly than they regrow, deplete soils, overuse groundwater, accumulate CO2 in the atmosphere. But still, she got the idea far more clearly than most of the ministers I talk to.
How can we make this as clear as crystal for everybody?
Earth Day’s 45th anniversary is being celebrated today around the world. On this day—less than one-third into the calendar year—humanity already has used about half of all renewable natural resources and services that the planet can generate this year, according to Global Footprint Network’s data. Despite this sobering fact, let’s not lose sight of the many signs that a perfect storm is brewing for 2015 to be the most exciting year to date for sustainability.
All eyes are on the Paris Climate Summit, a much-anticipated event which is already boasting the tag line "For a universal climate agreement." Some 23 years after the first Rio Summit and 18 years after the historic Kyoto Protocol was signed, the nations of the world are closer than ever before to making a binding commitment to act on climate change. If the negotiations are successful, that commitment would entail a clear, shared goal (maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range,) detailed action plans and a timeline.
The optimists among us will point out that the odds are looking good. Last October the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, China and the United States, made history with a surprise joint announcement of their commitment to reach an ambitious 2015 agreement in Paris lowering emissions, and to strengthen their bilateral cooperation in order to reach their goals. Last month the Obama Administration made good on the announcement when it formally pledged in its five-page submission to the United Nations that the U.S. will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 percent over the next decade.
Meanwhile, China’s coal imports in the first quarter of this year have dropped by nearly half compared to the same period last year—a significant feat for the world’s biggest consumer of coal. China’s economic slowdown is partially responsible for the trend. It is also no accident that China added 11GW of solar capacity last year (enough to power 6 million homes) and led the world in terms of investments into renewable energy—up 32 percent from 2013, according to the market research firm Business Monitor International. BMI expects China to keep up the pace this year in terms of both added renewable capacity and investment growth.
Greening of energy sector accelerates
Governments never act as quickly as activists, consumers and scientists want them to. This being said, they have been investing huge efforts and resources, reaching significant momentum leading up to the Climate Summit in Paris.
Various countries around the world have worked tirelessly towards lowering the carbon Footprint of their economy–the largest component of many countries’ Ecological Footprints. In Europe, Germany, a pioneer in solar energy, now produces more than 27 percent of its electricity from renewables. Spain has been investing heavily in wind farms and, more controversially, nuclear, with stark results: last month it generated 69 percent of its electricity from plants that did not emit carbon dioxide, and it has realistic prospects to reach 87 percent next year.
In Latin America, Costa Rica has reached a carbon-free power grid. After decades of expanding its reliance on hydropower, the small tropical nation has been able so far this year to generate 100 percent of its electricity from hydro, geothermal and wind.
It is widely expected that the dramatic drop in the cost of solar energy will support and even boost the current momentum towards cleaner energy.
The transportation sector, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, has also been yielding good news of late. Just last week we learned that electric cars and combustion engine vehicles reached cost parity 6 years earlier than expected. A good reason to expect that the recent surge of the EV market (up 72 percent last year in the 10 largest markets) will be sustained.
Everywhere you look, investors and initiatives of all stripes are coming up with low-carbon or carbon-free alternatives to current carbon-intensive infrastructures, equipment or processes that our economies are so dependent upon: carbon-negative cement, zero-carbon buildings, aviation biofuel, methane sequestration and biogas generation, you name it. The finance industry is even getting on to the game, as the international fossil fuel divestment movement grows.
Citizens take the judiciary to task
Last but not least, citizens themselves haven’t been sitting idle. The courtroom is an especially interesting space to watch. Various lawsuits that were filed in the United States and abroad a couple of years ago to hold governments accountable for insufficient action on climate change are ready for primetime. Earlier this month oral arguments were heard by a judge in Oregon. The plaintiffs are teenagers supported by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust. Its goal is to have the courts acknowledge that the atmosphere is part of the commons and, as such, should be protected by governments as mandated by the principle of common law known as Public Trust Doctrine. The judge is expected to render a decision later this year.
Also this month public arguments began in the Netherlands, where nearly 900 Dutch citizens have filed a class action lawsuit against their government for failing to effectively cut greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change. The prosecution is basing the case on existing human rights laws. And more than 10,000 Belgian citizens—and counting—have pledged to support a similar lawsuit in their country.
Plaintiffs in all above-mentioned cases were given a clear victory last month when an international working group of current and former judges, advocates, and professors adopted the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations. The legal experts aim to publicly send governments and enterprises back to their legal responsibilities and obligations on climate change as defined by well-established laws—human rights law, international law, environmental law, and tort law. And they argue, to quote The Guardian, that any new international agreement will just be a coda to obligations already present, pressing and unavoidable in existing law.
Obviously, a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. Carbon is only one part of the story. The plight of forests and oceans, ecosystems degradation, access to water, growing social inequities—to name but a few—are giving no rest to countless activists, government officials, research organizations, consumers and businesses around the world. Let’s acknowledge all the good news, however, and celebrate them, so we can confidently hold onto the vision of all people living well, within the means of nature.
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.
The spectacular 40 percent crash in oil prices that began in July and accelerated in October has focused the world’s attention once again on the "master commodity" and its far-reaching effects on the global economy. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage has revolved around nationalistic narratives that have little bearing on the facts.
Given oil’s significant role in today’s economies and its interplay with both biocapacity and Ecological Footprint pressures, we wanted to share our view on:
• why oil prices are down;
• when and why might they go back up; and
• who gets hurt and who wins.
Charged up by activists mobilizing for the UN Climate Summit in New York next week, we delved into our carbon Footprint data to see if we could shed light on the very intractable debates swirling around nations’ responsibilities for reducing emissions. In the first graph below, our intrepid research analyst David Zimmerman found while EU countries toot their horns about declining emissions (as represented by the blue line below), the picture is not so simple.
Here’s what David discovered after creating an index starting at 1993: EU emissions are actually increasing (except for a 2009 recession dip) when you account for all emissions resulting from consumption by EU residents (as shown in the red line). The measurement includes goods produced outside the EU but ultimately consumed inside its borders, and excludes goods produced within the EU that are consumed outside its borders.
In a second graphic, David compared carbon emissions within a nation’s borders (domestic carbon emissions) to carbon emissions embodied in national consumption, which includes carbon associated with the production of goods outside the nation that were ultimately consumed inside the nation’s borders.
Given that Swiss residents consume four times more than Swiss ecosystems can regenerate, what should the nation do to stay competitive?
That was the question that Global Footprint Network and partner BAKBASEL was charged with addressing in a new report that launched Sept. 16.
The objective of the study, commissioned by Switzerland’s Federal Office for Spatial Development (ARE) and four other ministries, was to establish the impact on Swiss competitiveness of current resource trends.
The report's findings were unveiled Sept. 16 in Bern to spark debate at the fifth public town hall event of Dialog Nachhaltige Entwicklung Schweiz ("Dialogue on Sustainable Development in Switzerland"), a program sponsored by ARE.
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.
May and June this year were the hottest ever since record-keeping began in 1880, according to a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report. 2014 could go down as the warmest year yet, exceeding the previous records set in 2003 and 2013.
There’s no question that the Earth is warming, ancient ice is melting and sea levels are rising. Friends of Global Footprint Network are well aware of many of the risks that anthropogenic climate change poses, particularly to the world’s poorest regions.
A risk that remains under-appreciated, however, is the impact that water availability will have on energy, and that constrained energy supply will have on water.
After food production, electricity generation is the second-largest consumer of water globally. Thermal power plants – those powered by coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear – consume vast amounts of water in their cooling cycles. A single nuclear reactor can consume over 15 million gallons of water per day. Power generation accounts for 41 percent of freshwater withdrawals and about three percent of freshwater consumption (3.3 billion gallons of water per day) in the United States.
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.