Footprint Network Blog - Footprint for Government
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.
Because of challenges collecting data, the researchers chose to focus on food resources (vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, fish, grain and oil) produced within China. And they exclusively used geographic data from Beijing's giant food wholesale market Xinfadi, which makes up more than two-thirds of Beijing's overall food market—hence deemed representative by the researchers.
That partial lens led them to conclude that Beijing's Def grew from 567 kilometers in 2008 to 677 kilometers in 2012, with an average annual increase of about 25 kilometers. Beijing’s Ecological Footprint distance in winter and spring was much higher than in summer and fall. This was to due to the seasonal variations that increased food production capacity in the warmer months of the year in areas closer to the capital.
Lead author Xie Gaodi, from the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, kindly agreed to an interview about the recent article. He answered our questions via email.
How did you start working with the Ecological Footprint?
Xie Gaodi: In 1997 I began focusing my research on natural resources and sustainable development in China. We started looking for indicators which could effectively show us the actual sustainability status of local development. Several papers written by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees et al. came to our attention, such as "Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth" (1996) and "Perceptual and structural barriers to investing in natural capital: Economics from an Ecological Footprint perspective" (1997).
These papers spurred my interest in the Ecological Footprint. I made up my mind early on that the EF is a good tool to analyze sustainability. Every other year or so, my team, together with Global Footprint Network and WWF, compile China's Ecological Footprint Report. The Ecological Footprint is now a well-known tool not only in Chinese academia but also throughout China.
Your research paper seeks to evaluate the geographic reach that is required for Beijing to access the biocapacity it needs to feed its population. What was your ultimate goal?
XG: In the last 30 years, China has been pushing through a fast urbanization process. In just the most recent years, several mega-cities have sprouted as more and more people have been moving away from rural areas to find work. Some cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, with over 20 million residents, are getting so huge that I worry about their sustainability. Their Ecological Footprint clearly extends way beyond their own biocapacity.
My goal with this research has been to show how far a big city’s EF or biocapacity extends, starting with Beijing. The conclusion from our findings is clear: China ought to favor the development of small or medium-sized cities because they are more sustainable.
What does Def actually indicate/infer with regard to sustainability?
XG: The further Def climbs up and away from biocapacity, the less safe it is. Food safety is compromised when food travels from far away, becoming vulnerable to such factors as weather events. Long travel distances also affect the quality of food, including its nutritional value. Besides, a food ecosystem that depends on so much transportation is the source of a whole set of environmental issues — including carbon emissions.
Typically Global Footprint Network refers to "imports" as resources from other countries. Your paper defines them as coming from outside the boundaries of Beijing but from Chinese sources of production. What about true foreign imports from outside China?
XG: Beijing's "imported" biocapacity should include both food imports from China and from abroad. The challenge we're facing is the difficulty to get enough reliable data about foreign food imports in such a huge city as Beijing. My guess is that they make up between 10 and 20 percent of the biocapacity consumed in Beijing — but that's just a guess at this stage.
So we just calculated the Def of "imported" biocapacity within China, but we will calculate the Def of imported biocapacity from foreign sources as soon as we are able to.
Based on your research, what does "sustainable development in metropolitan areas" look like to you? What policies do you suggest would pave the way in that direction?
XG: In my view, "sustainable development in metropolitan areas" is attained when the population can access the necessary resources to support its Ecological Footprint and need for ecosystem services, thanks to biocapacity that originates close enough so as to spare residents undue environmental pollution and worry about their food safety.
This can be achieved through such policies as:
1. Careful land use that rationally plans population density and natural assets' availability across that land.
2. Ensuring the closest possible proximity of available biocapacity.
3. Reducing the transportation of resources.
The governments of some big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have truly realized that their city has grown too large. They have even begun to take some measures to limit or control urban growth. But at the national level, debates are still ongoing as to whether urban planning should favor small- and medium-sized cities.
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.
Statement by Mathis Wackernagel, President, Global Footprint Network
The landmark U.S.-China climate change agreement announced this week is a game changer for our energy future because it represents strong recognition of the need to wind down fossil fuel use to zero within a few decades. What had been a physical necessity but a political taboo is now being acknowledged by the two countries with the largest CO2 emissions.
Other countries have been waiting on the sidelines for the United States and China to act on climate change. So President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable energy adoption by 2025 and 2030 respectively—just 10 and 15 years away—sends a promising signal to the world community on the path to the Paris climate summit at the end of next year.
The new goals would keep the United States on the trajectory to achieve deep economy-wide carbon emission reductions on the order of 80 percent by 2050, according to the White House. China, meanwhile, has targeted total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources to around 20 percent by 2030. Both actions will happen well within the lifetimes of many people today.
These targets represent a significant shift in political momentum and suggest that moving out of fossil fuels may finally have won mainstream acceptance.
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 launching 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 will be 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.
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.
Japan Footprint Exposes Risks to Food Security
Global Footprint Network presentation in Tokyo focuses on ASEAN reliance
The ASEAN region is one of the fastest growing areas in the world, with a population of approximately 600 million people and a combined GDP that would make it the planet’s eighth largest economy. Despite these gains, the region faces myriad challenges: Large numbers of the population remain in poverty, while its member states are among the most vulnerable to climate change, deforestation, depletion of fisheries and other ecological pressures. These resource constraints pose threats to the region’s energy and food supplies.
But what does this mean for Japan?
That question was the focus of a recent presentation in Tokyo given by Global Footprint Network Research Economist Katsunori Iha, and Asia Regional Director Pati Poblete hosted by the Keidanren Nature Conservation Fund.
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.
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."