Footprint Network Blog
This weekend, Switzerland made world history, even though not as much as we would have liked.
Switzerland was the first country to vote on whether to implement a green economy. The green economy ballot initiative encouraged resource efficiency and implementation of a circular economy. On top of that, it set a specific goal – to reduce Switzerland’s resource consumption to a level that could be replicated worldwide. Currently we would need three Earths if everybody lived like the Swiss. The goal in the ballot initiative was to get to one Earth by 2050.
The Swiss constitution already recognizes the need to live within the means of nature. Article 73 states that the “Confederation and the Cantons shall endeavour to achieve a balanced and sustainable relationship between nature and its capacity to renew itself and the demands placed on it by the population.” But it does not set a deadline to achieve this goal.
The initiative created debate, some of which is documented on our new website (mostly German), www.achtung-schweiz.org (watch out, Switzerland). However, the biggest confusion in the debate was the following: is it in the self-interest of Switzerland to act aggressively?
A positive starting point was that most parties recognized the need to manage our resources carefully and that we have to live, ultimately, within the means of the planet – particularly if the “we” is humanity. Proponents claimed that to reach the 2-degrees Celsius goal adopted in the Paris climate agreement, Footprint reductions were required. They also argued that most innovations are spurred by ambitious goals, and that Switzerland’s environmental achievements in clean water and air were accelerated by aggressive political targets.
The green economy campaign was careful to not push fear, but to make it a positive, friendly, fun proposition. The opponents played the fear card, calling the initiative “expensive green coercion.” They said it would lead to cold showers (www.gruener-zwang.ch) and an import stop for cocoa. Opponents argued that 2050 is too soon, and that the transformation would be too harsh for the Swiss economy.
Interestingly enough, economic actors were divided. Some vigorously opposed while others, such as IKEA, favored a one-planet economy.
How did the vote turn out?
Early on, polling showed substantial positive interest, but as voters got closer to casting their ballot, the fear of change eroded the early advantage. Still, 36% of voters cast a “yes” for living within the means of one planet. Geneva was the only canton in Switzerland with a majority in favor of the initiative.
The fact that a country would hold such a vote, and that so many recognize the need for a significant shift in the way we use resources is a global historical precedent. We regret how little this significant debate was covered in world news. It is these topics we need to discuss when exploring how to build a future that works for all within the means of our one and only planet (until Elon Musk brings us to Mars…).
Kirsten Balding at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, is a huge advocate of using Global Footprint Network’s Ecological Footprint calculator to teach students about sustainability. “It is a really engaging way for students to measure their consumption of resources,” says Balding. “It’s a very clear and simple way of communicating a complex concept—that also presents solutions too!”
And she doesn’t just refer to the calculator in a single class session of her sustainability course, but refers to the results over the entirety of the course.
From Australia to the United States, university students and teachers across the world have contacted Global Footprint Network over the years to praise and offer ideas for improving the Ecological Footprint calculator.
It’s not only in environmental science courses that the Footprint calculator is proving a thought-provoking instructional tool. Jessica Piekielek, who teaches sociology and anthropology at Southern Oregon University, has taken advantage of the calculator in her Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class to talk about global population growth, development, and social inequality. “I especially appreciate that students can experiment with calculating Footprints based in other countries, so that we can compare results and discuss,” she notes.
Balding from RMIT University echoes that sentiment. The calculator, she says, “helps students understand the relevance of sustainability and global ecological overshoot to their own lives and careers, making them realize that sustainability and climate change is their problem too—and not something to leave to ‘someone else’.”
Guénola Nonet, who is a professor in Management and Public Administration at Nova Southeastern University in the United States, uses the Footprint calculator to teach graduate students about sustainability. “The Footprint calculator is fun, insightful and students love using it. We use it to look not only at the mean of the entire class’s Footprint but also students’ individual Footprints. Their comments are astonishing,” Nonet says. “I’m always happy to see the awareness it helps create and often receive comments like ‘I thought I was doing well… Now I see my true impact.’”
University students have been as enthusiastic as instructors about the calculator. Currently available in 11 languages for 16 countries, the calculator is used by both undergraduate and graduate level students for research and other school work.
Students at the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral (ESPOL) in Ecuador research their personal Ecological Footprint. Heydi Fuentes, a student at ESPOL, prefers Global Footprint Network’s Footprint calculator because it includes several lifestyle choices and leads to more precise Footprint results.
Elfe Marschall, a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York, wrote, “I find [the calculator] very fascinating and have told my friends and family to check it out!”
Amanda M. Onley-Willette, a student at Midlands Technical College, highlighted the comprehensiveness of the calculator, “especially at the end when the program gives you different suggestions on how you can improve your Footprint.” She added, “Maybe if we got together and collaborated among our different communities, we could come up with more ways to reduce our Footprint as a whole along with ways to improve one’s personal impact.”
Indeed, in a future update of the calculator, Global Footprint Network aims to show the effects of scaling individual action to a larger national or even global level. We also hope to create a new version of the calculator that works on mobile devices.
On September 25, Swiss voters will head to the polls to decide on a bold initiative to put Switzerland on the path of a green economy. Initiated by members of the Green Party and the Social Democrats, this ballot initiative builds on the Ecological Footprint: If passed, it will incorporate the sustainable use of natural resources into the country’s constitution, and becoming the first country in the world to commit to one-planet living by 2050.
Switzerland currently consumes four times what Swiss ecosystems can regenerate. And if everyone in the world lived like the Swiss, we would need 3.3 planets.
To reach one-planet living by 2050, the Swiss would have to reduce their average per-person Ecological Footprint by more than two thirds, to at most 1.7 global hectares. This is the current capacity of the world’s renewable resources on a per-person basis. (The target would actually fall even further if populations globally continue to rise.)
The Swiss initiative also calls for a “circular economy strategy,” including measures to adopt new product regulations, encourage recycling, and promote research and innovation.
“Our initiative does not want to slow down growth. We aim for an economic system capable of producing goods with a long life and with as little waste as possible to give just one example,” stated Regula Rytz, parliamentarian and president of the Green party.
The initiative’s proponents have made clear they envision Switzerland becoming a sustainability pioneer and promoting a groundbreaking economic model, including a tax policy tied to the use of natural resources.
The initiative is hotly contested. The Federal Council (central government) and the Parliament have officially voiced their opposition. They argue that 2050 is too soon to achieve one-planet living without risking jeopardizing the Swiss economy in the process. Their argument can be found here.
On the other hand, if the world, and Switzerland live up to the 2°C climate goal set by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the world would have exit fossil fuels before 2050. If the rest of the Ecological Footprint would not change, cutting the carbon Footprint to zero would reduce the Ecological Footprint by nearly 75% and meet the Swiss Initiative’s target. ETZ Zurich Professor Anton Gunzinger shows that this is possible, and even economically beneficial. (www.kraftwerkschweiz.ch)
Recent polls indicate that some 60% of voters support the initiative. With one month before the vote, the public debate in Switzerland is expected to be a heated one between now and then.
One of the biggest questions remains, whether such a transition is too costly (as argued by the opponents) or whether such a transition is an economic necessity for Switzerland’s long term viability (as viewed by the proponents). Global Footprint Network will explore these questions in an event in Bern on September 19 (18:00-20:00). If you are interested in participating, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
On July 21, we lost one of the most effective and yet very quiet giants of the environmental movement, Luc Hoffmann. After a full and transformational life, he passed in one of his dearest places, the Camargue in the South of France, one of the most biodiverse deltas in Europe, which still exists in its splendors largely because of his unrelenting commitment. He was 93 years old.
Luc studied zoology in Basel, Switzerland, during World War II – fascinated by migratory birds, but trapped in Switzerland surrounded by war. Once the war ended, he was the first to follow the calling of those birds, visited their migration route, and realized that they represent the web of life that spans around the globe. His curiosity and willingness to learn directly from nature made him into one of the first and possibly most impactful global conservationists.
He did not hesitate to put his personal assets on the line and show new ways of conservation. His modesty, quiet force, and ability to get things done, his authenticity, kindness and ability to look into the distant future, all were remarkable. He was able to get people together, build communities, and generate results.
Luc spearheaded the Research Institute for the Conservation of Mediterranean Wetlands at Tour du Valat in the Camargue more than 60 years ago, was a key force in establishing and growing World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and its global network, was instrumental in establishing the Ramsar Convention for the protection of wetlands, helped establish parks in Europe and West Africa, and supported many environmental organizations, including Global Footprint Network.
Always open to fresh ideas, he was one of the first who got intrigued by the idea of mapping the world according to countries who run ecological deficits and those who have ecological reserves [see www.footprintnetwork.org/maps]. He surprised us by generously supporting the idea of ecological creditors and debtors out of the blue, helping us kick-start this approach to explaining country’s resource security.
While Luc was an incredibly modest giant, I cherish the moments visiting him and asking him about the many amazing projects he had been able to bring to life. The common threads were his trust in people, his bold ideas, and his unwillingness to take credit for any of it.
Largely, he has not left us. His spirit and sense of possibility is living on, and also his concrete legacies and guidance on how to give nature a voice, celebrate its beauty, and make obvious to all of us how much we depend on a healthy nature.
Combined with his deep respect for all affected people, Luc’s profound recognition of the people connection to conservation and of the dedication it takes by communities to sustain results is what made him so remarkable and effective.
I wish I could have thanked him more for what he gave to all of us and to future generations.
I am still striving every day to become as gracious and farsighted as him.
It’s been a busy day for launching new country rankings. Today (July 20), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) released a 427-page report ranking countries by 77 indicators tied to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals approved last year. The SDG index averages countries’ performance on those goals. Each goal is assessed by a mélange of indicators, including poverty and obesity rate, traffic deaths, literacy rate, seats held by women in national parliament, access to water and electricity, unemployment, mobile broadband subscriptions, wastewater treatment, and carbon emissions.
How does compliance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals SDGs square with achieving development that can be sustained within the means of our planet? Ultimately, to be sustainable, development need to fit within our planet's resource budget. Therefore sustainable development can be mapped as development achievement, on the on hand, and resource demand, on the other.
The graph below summarizes the results. It shows the position of the top and bottom 10 countries on the SDG index in terms of their Human Development Index scores and their Ecological Footprints.
The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) measures a country’s average achievements in the areas of health, knowledge, and standard of living. An HDI higher than 0.8 is considered "very high human development." The Ecological Footprint tells us how much of the earth’s bioproductive areas are needed to provide for that development. An Ecological Footprint less than 1.7 global hectares per person makes a country’s resource demands globally replicable.
What this graph shows is that fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals is no guarantee for sustainability. The top-ranked nations on the SDG index all have high Ecological Footprints. If everyone in the world lived like them, we would need more than three planets. In fact, it seems that there may be a tension as material development achievements are far more prominent in the SDGs than the need to preserve the underlying natural capital.
This leads us to the second sustainability index that came out today: the Happy Planet Index from the New Economics Foundation. This index has far fewer ingredients than the SDSN index: The HPI is based on a ratio of a country’s wellbeing measurements (such as life expectancy, equality and satisfaction) divided by its Ecological Footprint. It measures who gets the best lives per unit of renewable natural resource.
The Happy Planet Index results differ markedly from the SDSN index: The top country is Costa Rica, home to amazing biodiversity and residents who have higher well-being than the residents of many higher-income countries, including the US and the UK. Residents in Costa Rica also live longer than Americans. All this is achieved with an Ecological Footprint per person that is one third of the American Ecological Footprint and a GDP per capita that is less than a quarter of that of many Western European and North American countries.
Perhaps the adage money doesn’t buy happiness holds true after all. Or does the SDSN index suggest otherwise?
Reports card’s out! High schools around the world are starting to integrate the Footprint calculators into their curriculums. Governments and organizations, including the United Nations and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are also catching on to the importance of environmental education in meeting long-term sustainability goals.
So how did today’s students do on the quiz? Teachers found that students were often times surprised at how large their Footprint was compared to others, leaving even the most eco-conscious students wondering what more they can do to protect Earth. By putting into perspective their own footprints, students can understand their personal impact on the world’s resources and begin to make choices that will collectively change the course of our future.
Educators have also praised the calculator for its animated components, echoing the sentiment that being able to communicate information visually helped teach sustainability to students in a digestible way. The calculator uses Global Footprint Network’s methodology to determine how many planets it takes to sustain each user’s lifestyle.
"Instead of giving just the pounds of carbon, the number of planets helped them understand what their number actually translated to in real life," noted Robin Dick (pictured at right), a teacher at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, California. "After they saw how much transportation of food had an effect on their planet number, [students] realized the importance of locally grown produce," Dick added.
With its animated simulations, the quiz is essentially an interactive computer game that is much more appealing to students than a worksheet crowded with numbers and facts, making it an effective and engaging tool for educators in the classroom.
"I used the calculator for my AP environmental science class. I really liked it and so did my students. They loved building their avatars," Karen Jackson, a teacher at Hobbs High School in Hobbs, New Mexico, told us via email.
Two million people took the online Ecological Footprint quiz last year. We hope this is a sign of the emergence of a global ecological worldview and we are excited for the integration of sustainability into more education initiatives. Going forward, we are looking to update the current calculator to work on mobile phones.
Can China become such a civilization?
To find out, we engaged with the Province of Guizhou. We are launching the results of our close collaboration with the province on Wednesday, July 6, at the EcoForum Global conference with a report titled "The Guizhou Footprint Report: Metrics for an Ecological Civilization."
Without a doubt, China is facing steep challenges: growing resource demand far beyond its own ecological resources and services; heavy dependence on fossil fuels; and growing expectations among citizens, with many people, particularly in rural areas, still needing to be lifted out of harsh economic conditions.
The Guizhou Footprint Report was created with financial support from the Swiss government. With mountainous ecosystems, rich biodiversity, and diverse people, Guizhou Province is a unique region of China that shares geographic similarities with Switzerland. So the report also includes a comparison of the two countries, China and Switzerland.
Here are some findings that highlight the challenges that Guizhou is facing:
- In 2012, With a per capita annual income of 18,700 yuan (2,852 US dollars) and Ecological Footprint of 1.72 global hectares (gha) per capita, Guizhou has the fifth lowest per capita income among China’s provinces and the sixth lowest per capita Ecological Footprint. The Ecological Footprint averages 3.4 global hectares per person in China and 5.8 global hectares per person in Switzerland. The latest findings in this report, indicate the Ecological Footprint has grown to 1.98 gha per capita.
- In Guizhou, 51% of the Footprint comes from private and government sector investment in lasting assets while the remaining 49% of the Footprint comes from household consumption, which includes food, housing, mobility, and goods and services. In China, 47% of the Footprint comes from private and government sector investment while the remaining 53% comes from household consumption. By contrast, in Switzerland, 29% of the Footprint comes from private investment and 71% comes from household consumption.
- Guizhou’s score on the U.N. Human Development Index (HDI), which measures human well-being, was calculated to be 0.62, which is below the goal of 0.7 for high development and below the average in China, at 0.73.
Our work in Guizhou builds on the China Ecological Footprint Reports published by WWF China in collaboration with Global Footprint Network. Together, Global Footprint Network and WWF China are approaching other provinces in China about incorporating the Ecological Footprint into their work. Our next meeting is with the province of Sichuan.
Global Footprint Network also has a close relationship with the China Academy of Sciences (IGSNRR). There already have been dozens (if not more) Ecological Footprint papers published in international scientific journals by Chinese academics. Global Footprint Network is seeking to accelerate the Chinese academic leadership in applying and furthering Ecological Footprint accounting.
For more information about our work in China, visit www.zujiwangluo.org or www.chinafootprint.org. Download the Guizhou Footprint Report in English here or in Chinese here. A two-page summary of the report is also available in Chinese here.
In the wake of the stunning Brexit vote results, we ask, what does it take to the support the UK’s demand for natural resources? Consider this:
The UK’s forest land only covers 3% of UK resident’s demand for forest products and carbon emissions sequestration. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel use make up 63 percent of the UK’s overall demand for nature, or its Ecological Footprint.
If the UK used all of its forests for forest products only (and nothing for carbon sequestration), they would meet only 27% of UK residents’ demand for forest products, including timber for building and paper. This means that nearly three-quarter of the UK’s demand for forest products is met by other countries.
The UK’s grazing lands meet only 42% of UK residents’ demand for grazing products – primarily meat and dairy. More than half of the demand is met by resources beyond its borders.
The UK covers 72% of its demand for crops with resources within its borders. In other words, it is relying on the resources of other countries to meet more than one quarter (28%) of its citizens demands for crops.
Overall, the UK requires 3.8 times more than what the UK’s ecosystems can renew including the sequestration of carbon from fossil fuel use. If all fossil carbon was magically sequestered, the UK would still require 1.4 UKs to meet its citizens’ remaining demand, leaving no space for wild species inhabiting the UK.
Even after the vote, the UK is far from independent. It seems that the Brits may be underestimating their reliance on the rest of the world to meet their demand for natural resources.
To mark International Day for Biological Diversity, Global Footprint Network is proud to support its partner Earthmind’s innovative program to boost ecosystems’ restoration and biodiversity conservation around the world, mitigating the Ecological Footprint.
What if conserving biodiversity wasn’t just the prerogative of national parks and protected areas? What if conserving biodiversity and restoring ecosystems could also be the responsibility of every local government, every business, every community and every individual with stewardship over a productive piece of land? And what if we could recognize and encourage communities, companies and others who conserve nature?
This vision is no pie in the sky. It has been guiding the Verified Conservation Areas (VCA) Approach launched two years ago by Francis Vorhies, the former CEO of Earthwatch Institute Europe and Chief Economist of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“To protect our planet, we need to conserve through management, not just legislation. The VCA approach is about supporting and promoting the sustainable management of productive landscapes, including farms, forests, and even golf courses—not just national parks,” explains Dr. Vorhies, a conservation veteran.
Global Footprint Network and Earthmind, the organization founded by Dr. Vorhies, are partnering in order to implement and promote the VCA approach as an inclusive measure for area-based conservation.
How the VCA idea works
The VCA approach is a voluntary program for recognizing area-based conservation. It offers transparency and accountability to area managers thoroughly listing VCAs on a public registry. Access to the VCA Registry is set out in the VCA Standard, which details what needs to be done to get and remain listed.
To register an area, a VCA-compliant conservation management plan and associated third-party audit are required. To remain listed, an annual conservation performance report and associated audit is required. VCA plans, reports and audits are all publicly available on the Registry to inform stakeholders, including funders of the area’s conservation efforts and outcomes.
“It is very hard today to recognize sustainable land management efforts in the private sector or by local communities. Yet a recognition label can go a long way toward building up conservation as an asset,” Dr. Vorhies explains.
In fact, the VCA Registry is designed to make it easier to “buy conservation.” Environmentally minded consumers (individuals or organizations) can discover what suppliers of goods and services deserve their business because of their conservation efforts. Or they can identify VCA projects they wish to donate to or invest in.
“Our goal is to create a supply of conservation projects around the world that people anywhere can support,” says Dr. Vorhies. “We hope to turn conservation into an area for beneficial transaction opportunities to mitigate ecological overshoot.”
Vorhies is careful to stress that the definition of “conservation” used in the concept of a Verified Conservation Area is the one presented in the path-breaking 1980 IUCN World Conservation Strategy document. It includes not only restoration but also the “sustainable utilization” of land as a “positive” action “embracing preservation” for the sake of future generations.
As an example, a recent VCA project proposal was issued by the Dutch water company Vitens and five other landowners. The area is a narrow, 15-hectare strip of land called Lizards Lane in the Netherlands to be developed and managed as an ecological heathland corridor to enhance the viability of local populations of amphibians and reptiles. A detailed plan will have to be submitted within two years for the project to be listed as “registered.”
Seeking critical mass
Boosting conservation efforts on the global scale is nothing short of a pressing priority. Growing human population and increasing levels of prosperity keep intensifying the pressures on biodiversity. Current conservation efforts are insufficient to address the ever-increasing global Ecological Footprint.
On the bright side, the global community has committed to conserving 17 percent of terrestrial areas and to restoring 15 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2020 under the international Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. This commitment was reconfirmed in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in September 2015.
Furthermore, the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group that finances and provides advice for private sector ventures and projects in developing countries, has included eight environmental performance standards in its lending policy. Performance Standard 6 addresses biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of living natural resources.
“The current international policy framework is technically sufficient to allow for the acceleration of conservation efforts everywhere. What we mainly need at this stage is transparency, accountability and scaling up of best practice,” points out Sebastian Winkler, Vice President Programme and Outreach at Global Footprint Network. He also helps with VCA development efforts.
The challenge ahead is as daunting as the opportunity. Since launching the VCA initiative about two years ago, Dr. Vohries and his team have attracted a dozen of projects on four continents to its registry. The initiative has been relying solely on the support of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, and is seeking a wider funding base to grow its clout and expand its reach.
Fortunately, the tipping point may be at hand. Conversations with financial institutions including Credit Suisse are picking up momentum. Investment facility Althelia Ecosphere recently expressed interest in piloting VCA projects in its portfolio. And if the team’s development efforts follow their due course, the two-year experiment may blossom as early as the end of this month into a full-fledged global initiative backed by governments and international agencies.
All eyes on the second session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly
Less than a month ago, Dr. Vorhies hosted a side event at the 20th meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-20) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an international body created in 1993 in the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil. The 40 participants in attendance, who were comprised of government and international NGO representatives, showed keen interest in VCA’s conservation solution.
Dr. Vorhies and his team are intent on capitalizing on that surge of interest quickly. Eight months after the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in New York, the United Nations is reconvening this week in Nairobi (UNEA-2) to discuss budgets and priorities with regard especially to further sustainable production and consumption. The goal is to have VCA taken in consideration as an official UN-approved tool to protect biodiversity, with a view to have it introduced at the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP13) to the CBD this December in Cancun, Mexico.
UNEA-2, we hope, will prove pivotal for VCA, thanks to the official endorsement by a non-European—yet to be announced—government, and the public launch of the VCA Coalition by a multi-stakeholder group.
UPDATE (May 28, 2016): The VCA Coalition was launched on May 27 in Nairobi at the signing ceremony of this Letter of Intent. All partners are committed to helping promote, further develop and secure the sustained and increase use of the VCA Approach as a contribution to sustainable land management in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Global Footprint Network first began encouraging greater environmental risk integration into bond credit analysis five years ago. Since then, a growing number of fixed income investors are following suit. We are particularly delighted by the recent announcement PRI (Principles for Responsible Investment), an influential investor group who is calling on credit rating agencies to incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors into their credit analysis more systematically and transparently.
Some of the world’s major rating agencies last June confirmed their willingness to participate in a project to make this vision a reality. Now the PRI is calling on fixed-income investors to sign a Statement on ESG in Credit Ratings before its official launch on Friday, May 6, to be at forefront of this call to action.