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Our mission is to promote a sustainable economy by advancing the Ecological Footprint, a measurement tool that makes the reality of planetary limits relevant to decision-makers.

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New Data Shows Humanity’s Ecological Debt Compounding

At the current rate humanity is using natural resources and producing waste, by the mid-2030s we will require the resources of two planets to meet our demands, according to figures released today by Global Footprint Network. The data comes at a critical time, as the economic crisis felt around the globe has made it painstakingly clear: Debt and overspending can continue for a while but ultimately have dire consequences.

Our demand on nature, just as the economy, is reaching a critical tipping point. Two years ago, Global Footprint Network data showed humanity on track to reach the two-planet mark by 2050. Now it appears we are set to this critical threshold much earlier, at around the time children born today are entering the workforce. Meeting this level of demand is likely to be physically impossible, and would likely cause ecosystem failures that would threaten the economic underpinnings of our society.

“Continued ecological deficit spending will have severe economic consequences,” said Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, executive director of Global Footprint Network. “Resource limitations and ecosystem collapses would cause food and energy costs to skyrocket, while the value of long-term investments would plummet.”

The information is part of comprehensive new data from Global Footprint Network exploring the changing state of human pressure on the planet and how it compares across 200 nations. A summary of the findings are presented in the Living Planet Report 2008, produced with WWF and the Zoological Society of London. Complete country-by-country graphs, data tables, sources and methodology are available in The Ecological Footprint Atlas 2008.

Living Beyond our Means
The Living Planet Report 2008 reports that in 2005, humanity's Ecological Footprint was 31 per cent larger than the planet's capacity to produce these resources. This ecological 'overshoot' means that it now takes about one year and three months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in a single year. Overshoot has increased by 5 per cent since the last Living Planet Report, which was based on 2001 data. The carbon dioxide Footprint, which accounts for the use of fossil fuels, is almost half the total global Footprint, and is its fastest growing component, increasing more than eleven fold from 1961 to 2005."Humanity is living off its ecological credit card," said Dr. Wackernagel. "While this can be done for a short while, overshoot ultimately leads to liquidation of the planet's ecological assets, and the depletion of resources, such as the forests, oceans and agricultural land upon which our economy depends."

How Countries Compare
Three quarters of the human population today live in countries that are “ecological debtors,” demanding more biocapacity than they have within their borders.

Comparing Ecological Footprints across countries and cultures offers some revealing insights. The average person’s Ecological Footprint in the United States is 9.4 global hectares (23.3 acres) – the equivalent of about 10 soccer fields. The country with the largest Footprint per capita, slightly surpassing the U.S., is the United Arab Emirates, with a per-capita Footprint of 9.5 global hectares (23.4 acres). The average per capita footprint among European Union countries is 4.7 global hectares, exactly half that of the average American. But it is still well above the 2.1 global hectares Global Footprint Network calculates to be available per person.

Conversely, Haiti, Afghanistan and Malawi are the countries with the smallest Ecological Footprints, under 0.5 global hectares (1¼ acres) and, in most cases, too small to meet basic requirements for food, shelter, infrastructure and sanitation. In many poor, low-Footprint countries, increasing population is contributing to high overall resource consumption, posing clear risks to those countries’ ability to pull their citizens out of poverty.

China is now on parity with the U.S. in terms of its pressure on the world’s resources. China and the U.S. each require 21 percent of global biocapacity – together almost half of all human demand on nature’s services. China’s resource use is rising at a much faster rate due to population growth, suggesting it will soon surpass the U.S. in total consumption, although the U.S. remains much higher per person.

Balancing Our Budget with Nature
The effects of ecological overshoot are already being keenly felt in a way that is beginning to cause economic shifts. Climate change, deforestation, water and food shortages are all results of our ecological overspending.

But despite these challenges, there are key opportunities to reverse these trends: creating resource-efficient cities and infrastructure, fostering best-practice green technology and innovation, and making resource limits central to decision making – of which ecological accounting plays a crucial role. In just three years, Global Footprint Network has initiated projects in 23 nations, including Switzerland, Japan, Belgium, and France to evaluate the ecological bottom line. And the government of the country with the largest per capita Footprint, the United Arab Emirates, has launched a national initiative to understand and reduce its resource consumption.

“As we look toward an increasingly resource constrained future,” Wackernagel said, “the societies that fare the best will be those that invest in the green economy – like renewable energy and compact urban development. Investing in women is another strategy to slow down or even reverse population growth while increasing the health and educational outcome of our children. Such efforts can not only help the nations that adopt them, but can begin the pivotal process of reducing our global Footprint and securing human well-being and the natural resources on which this depends.”

Download the Living Planet Report 2008
Download The Ecological Footprint Atlas 2008