Footprint Network Blog - Ecological Limits
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.
Les Echos in France published an article about Earth Overshoot Day as well as a lengthy Q&A with Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel. Thomson Reuters ran an op-ed by CEO Susan Burns on the link between resource restraints and national economics. Reuters TV also produced a segment about Earth Overshoot Day featuring our partner, Wendy Arenas, founder and executive director of ALISOS - Alianzas para la Sostenibilidad, in Columbia, which made Thomson Reuters’ list of top 100 stories for the day.
In Asia, Beijing News ran a feature on Earth Overshoot Day in its Sunday Earth Supplement. In Japan, Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the five national newspapers there, featured a short article, and Naoki Adachi, a leading voice in the corporate social responsibility field, wrote a blog post on Earth Overshoot Day.
A TV news station in France took a lighter approach to the Earth Overshoot Day news, with clips of a small inflatable globe rolling through the streets.
A coalition of German activists in Berlin led by INKOTA used an even larger inflatable Earth to draw attention to Earth Overshoot Day at a gathering in Alexanderplatz. Participants in the event symbolically sucked the resources from the Earth until it collapsed onto the ground as part of their call for a more sustainable use of resources to enable a good life for future generations.
In China, students participated in an Earth Overshoot Day activity that involved answering questions and performing tasks to reduce the planet’s Ecological Footprint. Our partners WWF-China helped coordinate that event in addition to getting the word out about Earth Overshoot Day throughout the country.
In the social media world, we were thrilled to see our first Facebook post announcing Earth Overshoot Day shared by more than 500 supporters. Our first Tweet on Earth Overshoot Day garnered nearly 42,000 impressions, according to Twitter.
Thank you for helping us raise awareness about Earth Overshoot Day and move a step closer toward ensuring our entire society lives well within the means of nature.
Click here for a list of media coverage of Earth Overshoot Day 2014.
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.
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.
Warmer temperatures have been taking a toll on these thirsty facilities. Every summer, a lack of water (or of water that is sufficiently cold) forces power plants to shut down. Inadequate and irregular rainfall has also forced hydropower facilities to shut down, such as the Shivanasamudra plant in southern India this month.
Just as producing power requires water, producing water requires power. In California, one-fifth of the state’s electrical power is used to pump, treat, transport, heat, cool and recycle water. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the water in the state, which produces one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts consumed in the United States.
This year is on track to be the driest in the history of recorded rainfall in the state, and has already forced cattle ranchers to pare down their herds and almond farmers to plow under their trees. Food prices across the nation have crept up due to the drought.
California is emblematic of the predicament that the world now faces. A growing population puts water, food, and energy supplies under even more pressure even as they are increasingly strained by climate change. But the most accessible solutions often lead to destructive feedback loops. For example, California’s current plan to replace the 2.2 gigawatts of power generation from the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station, which was shut down in 2012, is likely to rely substantially on new power generation from natural gas, which will pump even more CO2 into the atmosphere and increase the probability of future droughts.
As we anticipate the announcement of Earth Overshoot Day this year, which will arrive earlier than ever, it’s worth contemplating how we can find a way out of our predicament, and find real and enduring solutions to the knot of problems in the energy-water nexus. As many have observed, it is really an energy-water-food-economy-security-and-everything nexus, because energy and water are so fundamental to life. Eliminating waste, and using the precious resources we have as efficiently as possible, is the obvious place to start – and that’s a challenge we can all help to answer.
In a first for the Ecological Footprint and a native group in Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada supported the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s title over 1,900 square kilometers in British Columbia as part of a landmark decision announced in June.
The historic ruling came about a decade after Tsilhqot’in Nation’s lawyers called Global Footprint Network to provide an expert study for the case, which centered on clear-cut logging permits granted by the British Columbia government without consulting the native community living on the affected land.
The government defended the so-called terra-nullis ("nobody's land") hypothesis—the assumption that pre-European Canada was a vast and empty land—and argued that the First Nation's title claimed was "too large."
The challenge that the Tsilhqot'in Nation posed to Global Footprint Network: provide a scientifically sound evaluation of the capacity of the land to support the native group around 1800, prior to European influence and trade.
Global Footprint Network researchers approached the problem from several angles. One was to study the Ecological Footprint of the current population of bears living on the territory. The theory was that the findings about these omnivorous animals that compete for the same food niche as humans could be used to extrapolate the Ecological Footprint of a human group living off the same land.
A second angle involved studying the current local population of wild horses as a proxy for the hooved animals that would make up the main source of animal proteins for the people. And a third approach used anthropological accounts to study the general food habits of the aboriginal population to evaluate how much food they would gather, how much they would store, and what the impact of living on the edge was.
Global Footprint Network’s research findings converged to the conclusion that the claimed area had the capacity to support between 100 and 1,000 people – in other words, that this entire area was needed to meet the needs of the smallish nation – given their traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle. Their Footprint was both wide and light, meaning that it required a wide area given the small volume of natural resources harvested per hectare. Such a Footprint benefits biodiversity, ensuring that the natural capital can regenerate and thrive.
Global Footprint Network was able to show that, at best, terra nullis was an erroneous concept sustained over centuries, ignoring the physical reality of the resource flows supporting populations.
For the very first time, the legal pundits acknowledged this physical reality. "My argument was accepted by consensus by both sides of the case. In fact, I didn't even have to appear in court to testify since there was no need for cross-examination," said Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network and lead author of the research report.
After arguing the case in the Supreme Court in November, Jack Woodward, the lead lawyer representing the Tsilhqot’in Nations, wrote Wackernagel, "We simply stated that because of the climate and geography of the area, only a limited number of people could sustainably live in the area, citing the expert opinion report you prepared for us many years ago."
The historical ruling that followed on June 26 gives the Tsilhqot’in Nation "the right to use and control the land and to reap the benefits flowing from it."
As the final World Cup match quickly approaches, we couldn’t help but kick around some Ecological Footprint numbers describing the diverse nations competing in this year’s games.
The eight nations who made it to the quarter-finals represent vastly different lifestyles. If all people on Earth lived like residents of those countries, how many Earths would it take? If we all lived like the Argentineans, it would take us 1.6 Earths. In contrast, living like the Belgians would require us to juggle 4.3 planets – not a small feat. The Colombian lifestyle would lead us to juggle the fewest Earths – just slightly more than one.
Do Big Footprints Give Teams a Leg Up in Football?
Do big Footprints produce big World Cup wins? After all, big Footprints may mean big budgets. Big budgets can buy more expensive players. But are they really better? When comparing the number of goals scored before the round of 16 (which evens the playing field because all teams competed in three games), the number of goals does not seem to correlate with a country’s Footprint size, as revealed on our soccer field below:
The U.S. and Belgium, for instance, have the largest Footprints per person, but their teams racked up only four goals – the same as the country with the lowest Footprint, Côte d’Ivoire. And the two countries that nailed the most goals have vastly different Footprints: Colombia, with 9 goals, has a Footprint of less than 2 global hectares per person, while the Netherlands with 10 goals has a Footprint of more than 6 global hectares per person.
World Cup football is exciting – nearly as exciting as the global sustainability game. The rules are similar. In both, the players strive to play their best within a given field. For soccer, the field is roughly 1 hectare for 22 players. For sustainability we have about 1.7 global hectares for each citizen of the planet. Can we all live well within that field? Imagine the cheers if we can! The Colombians are closer to winning that game than the Belgians. And if the Germans played the U.S. team in terms of energy transition, it may look as ugly for the U.S. as it did for the Brazilians on the soccer field earlier this week.
If we had to choose our favorite of the two finalists who face off on Sunday based on how little demand they place on nature, we would have to root for Argentina over Germany. GOOOOOLLLLLL!
Curious about the Footprints of individual countries? Visit this page and select a country from the dropdown menu: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/countrytrends.
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.
Despite over $150 billion being spent annually in development globally, virtually nobody is tracking whether the achieved progress can last, or whether it is becoming increasingly fragile without the necessary access to nature’s resources.
But this is changing. The United Nations Development Programme’s latest flagship publication, its Human Development Report 2013, prominently features countries’ performance as proposed by Global Footprint Network: how much human well-being do countries generate (as measured by the UNDP’s Human Development Index) at what level of resource demand (as measured by the Ecological Footprint).
The Report reads:
“To sustain progress in human development, far more attention needs to be paid to the impact human beings are having on the environment. The goal is high human development and a low ecological footprint per capita. Only a few countries come close to creating such a globally reproducible high level of human development without exerting unsustainable pressure on the planet’s ecological resources.”
It is a significant step for a leading UN agency to question business-as-usual models of development and explore alternatives. In the past, the report included Ecological Footprint results in its background data table, but this year UNDP used our HDI-Footprint graph to prominently show how far away the world is from meeting the sustainable development challenge, using simple metrics.
Gastautor Mathis Wackernagel bloggt fur ETH-Klimablog
Flugzeuge ohne Treibstoffanzeige auf dem Armaturenbrett sind gefährlich. Fürs Starten geht’s. Aber sind wir mal in der Luft und fliegen ein paar Stunden, so ist es gut zu wissen, wie viel Kerosin noch im Tank ist, und wann wir landen sollten.Erstaunlicherweise aber hat das Armaturenbrett unserer Wirtschaft keine «Treibstoffanzeige».
Obwohl alle Ressourcen, die wir konsumieren, von der Natur kommen, finden wir im klassischen Instrumentarium der Politik keine Anzeige, die uns sagt, wie viel Natur uns zur Verfügung steht und wie viel wir brauchen. Einzelne Angaben kennen wir zwar – zum Beispel wie viel Elektrizität wir verbrauchen, oder wie viele Autos wir fahren. Aber die Nettobilanz? Wie sieht es, aus wenn wir alles zusammenzählen? Und ist das überhaupt möglich?
Around 600 guests from government, business, civil society and the arts gathered at a gala in Basel, Switzerland on Friday, March 1, to celebrate stewards of sustainability. The theme of this year’s celebration was “Nature and Culture – the Future We Want!” and the highlight of the evening was the announcement of the 2013 Prix NATURE Swisscanto Prize winners.
This Swiss Sustainability Award recognizes outstanding achievements advancing sustainable development in Switzerland and is presented in three categories: Grand Prize, Generation Future, and Beacons of Hope.
The Grand Prize was awarded to Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network, in recognition of co-developing Ecological Footprint accounting and helping to bring the tool to governments and institutions across the world.
In January, we learned that the Swiss-based Global Journal has named us one of the world’s best 100 NGOs for the second year in a row. The honor is in part a recognition of our accomplishments over the past year.
In 2012 alone, we engaged with 18 national governments and several international institutions, conducted numerous presentations and workshops and received multiple awards (the Blue Planet Prize, the Binding Prize for Nature and the Kenneth E. Boulding Memorial Award).
In October, we highlighted the increasingly worrisome ecological debt of the Mediterranean nations at a two-day international conference in Venice, participated in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting in Laos, presented to a working session on the environment in the Greek Parliament, launched a preliminary Ecological Footprint atlas of Francophone nations, conducted a workshop with the Turkish government on Competitiveness 2.0 and Ecological Footprint accounting, and met with government ministries in Colombia after a conference on sustainable tourism.