Footprint Network Blog - Ecological Limits
Today is the International Day of Families, a day marked annually by the UN General Assembly on the 15th of May to “increase knowledge of the social, economic and demographic processes affecting families.” This year’s focus is gender equality, including education and income-generation opportunity.
As an organization with a vision of a world that works for everyone, we believe that empowering women is one of the most important things we can do in service of global sustainability because it yields huge benefits not only for children and families, but for the world as a whole.
“When women have the opportunity to participate as equals, lower reproductive rates invariably ensue,” says Global Footprint Network CEO Susan Burns. “The reason this is so important is that we cannot ignore population growth if we are truly committed to people having secure lives in a world of finite resources.”
A common notion is that high population growth rates among low-income people are not a problem for sustainability, because low-income people use fewer resources. However, our data show that low-income countries with high population growth typically have declining per person Ecological Footprints as a result of inadequate access to resources (see graph below). It is a sign of tragedy, not sustainability. These are often populations who need larger Footprints in order to secure decent lives for themselves. Without the financial means to secure the biocapacity required to meet the needs of a growing population, people are left with no options but sharing smaller and smaller portions of limited resources.
These graphs published in WWF’s Living Planet Report nearly 10 years ago display the trends that continue to this day:
“In the face of growing resource demands, ecological constraints and climate change now pose a greater risk to every country’s economy. This risk is most evident in countries that possess both a biocapacity deficit and low incomes,” explains Burns.
A staggering 71 percent of the world population now lives in countries with this double challenge: biocapacity deficits AND lower-than-world-average income, up from less than 15 percent in the early 1960s.
Everyone has the right to decent living conditions. Hence the crucial importance of investing in women’s education and family planning to stabilize or even gradually reduce world population, bringing sustainable solutions within reach.
The link between women’s increased access to education and professional opportunities, and declining fertility rate, has been demonstrated time and time again. A lower fertility rate is invariably associated with higher standards of living and better outcomes for her children, enabled by the improved ability of a woman to exert control over her childbearing.
Non-coercive approaches to lower birth rates have yielded impressive results. For example in Thailand, one farsighted doctor broke the taboo of the condom. Or consider Ethiopia, South Korea and Iran, with a decline of 35 percent, 39 percent and 50 percent of their respective birth rates between 1990 and 2010.
Birth rates are highly affected by social, cultural and economic factors, which public policies can radically shape. Between 1993 and 2006, for example, Iranian couples were required to take a family-planning class in order to receive their marriage license. The low-fertility revolution introduced by the new government in the late 1990s after the Iraq war was meant to address the issues of the country’s limited capacity to provide adequate food, education, housing and employment.
“It is more difficult for low-income populations around the world to deal with shrinking resources, even though they have a smaller Footprint. If we want a world that works for everyone, we need to make sure we have the appropriate resources to support that,” states Burns. “Healthy and smaller families are obviously core to the success of this approach, with a view to ensuring that each child born into this world is given opportunities in terms of education, employment and a decent quality of life.”
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.
Xie Gaodi from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research (IGSNRR) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is the lead author of a recent research paper published in the journal Sustainability. He recently talked with Global Footprint Network about the unsustainability of giant cities.
Between 2008 and 2012, the population of Beijing climbed from 23 million to more than 30 million—a whopping 30 percent in just four years. One direct impact of this rapid demographic surge, which includes permanent residents and "floating" population such as tourists, was the drastic increase in Beijing's reliance on food produced in areas located outside of, and increasingly further out from, the city's boundaries, stresses a new article in the journal Sustainability authored by several researchers in China. The challenge caused by Beijing's insufficient agricultural resources was compounded by high land prices, the researchers pointed out.
Over those five years, Beijing's dependence on non-local food supplies grew from 48 percent to 64 percent of total food consumption in the metropolitan area, according to the article, "The Outward Extension of an Ecological Footprint in City Expansion: The Case of Beijing."
The authors introduce the notion of Ecological Footprint distance (abbreviated as Def) to reveal the average distance that natural resources required to support a population's Ecological Footprint travel to reach that population.
Researchers stressed that food accounts for the significantly biggest part of Beijing's consumed biocapacity in terms of weight.
If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of the Cloughjordan Ecovillage, we would be remarkably close to living within the budget of our planet’s ecological resources. Researcher Vince Carragher’s bottom-up Ecological Footprint accounting methodology helps residents stay on track.
Seven years after construction started in the middle of Ireland, Cloughjordan Ecovillage counts 54 homes. Its solar- and wood-powered community heating system is up and running, as are the wood-oven bakery and the eco-hostel for visitors. The organic, bio-dynamic community farm, one of the largest community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes in Ireland, caters to over 60 families; it can serve 80 when operating at full capacity.
Cloughjordan Ecovillage residents have an average Ecological Footprint per capita of only 2 global hectares (gha), according to the first Ecological Footprint survey of residents that was carried out last spring and presented to the community in November. By way of comparison, Global Footprint Network estimates that the average amount of biocapacity that is available per person on the planet is 1.7 gha.
The survey was conducted by Vincent Carragher, energy manager and research coordinator at Tipperary Energy Agency and an expert on local scale material and resource flow analysis and decarbonisation. His bottom-up approach, which he developed during his doctorate research on Ballina, an Irish community of 700 households, focuses on data collected directly from each household. It is based on the original Ecological Footprint accounting methodology developed by Mathis Wackernagel, now president of Global Footprint Network, and William Rees at the University of British Columbia, and other subsequent works.
As we are greeting the New Year, we want to take a moment to pause, thank our generous supporters and celebrate what we accomplished over the past 12 months. Here are the highlights.
A major milestone for us was the launch, last June in London, of Phase II of ERISC with our partners in the finance industry. Environmental Risk Integration in Sovereign Credit, a research project that seeks to quantify how environmental risk can impact the balance sheet of nations, is a joint program with the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative. We are grateful to participating institutions Caisse des Dépôts, the European Investment Bank, First State Investments, HSBC, Kempen Capital Management, KfW and Standard & Poor’s, who embarked on that journey with us. We are looking forward to announcing first research results and findings in 2015.
Our staff has been busy this past month spreading the word about the Ecological Footprint at conferences and engagements around the world. Click locations below to learn more about our work.
Last month, David Lin, a lead scientist at Global Footprint Network, traveled to India to provide support to Pragyan Bharati, our India director, on our new pilot project there called Sustainable Development Return on Investment. The project aims to empower local villagers to have a more informed voice in shaping development in their communities. Here is a short travelogue by David on his experience meeting villagers with our partners International Development Enterprises-India (IDEI) and Gram Vikas (of India).
When my plane from Delhi landed in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, I immediately noticed the change in environment. Odisha, located in East India, is a region covered by a dry tropical and deciduous forest, evident even in the most urban areas of the town. The tribal communities we visited were located near the town of Phulbani, about 5 hours by car from Bhubaneswar. The trip was a beautiful one, passing through oceans of green rice fields and tall forests, punctuated by many small towns and villages.
Meet 10 year-old Daigo Toubaru of Okinawa, Japan, who recently calculated his Ecological Footprint for the first time. This short Q&A is part of our CrowdRise Campaign to raise funds for a Footprint calculator mobile application and help preserve our natural resources for future generations!
The average Japanese Footprint is 2.26 Earths – If everyone in the world lived like the average person in Japan, we would need 2.6 Earths. How do you feel about your Footprint results?
I think 1.9 Earths is too big, so I want to rethink my lifestyle!
How can you reduce your Footprint? I want to choose more local food and more natural food. I want to eat less processed and packaged food items too. Oh, sometimes I have leftover food that goes to waste, I can reduce that!
Do you have any messages to your friends in the world? Let’s work together, friends. Let’s try not to use Earth-san too much because we only have one Earth. Okinawan culture has an animism point of view where everything including inanimate objects has soul. Here Daigo refers to Earth-san as a living thing.