We have been in ecological debt since 1971. As of 2014, our ecological footprint was in excess of 20.6 billion global hectares, while the Earth’s capacity to generate resources to support human activity amounted to just over 12 billion global hectares. In other words, we live in a world where our consumption needs can only be met by a planet that is able to generate nearly the double of Earth’s biological resources.
On the eve of Earth Day, I figured it might be a useful exercise to carry out a quick data exploratory analysis of our consumption patterns, and the Earth’s ability to sustain our ever-increasing needs. Over the past 50 years, global GDP has grown by over 600% to over $80 trillion. This growth has largely been underpinned by an expansionary capitalist system and a world marked by open borders and free trade agreements. This extraordinary period of economic growth has conferred a number of benefits, including a ~40 percentage point reduction in extreme poverty, a 210% growth in per capita incomes, a 20-year increase in life expectancy, and of course, not to mention the countless technological improvements that have significantly enhanced human productivity and in a virtuous cycle, fostered widespread innovation.
Yet, as we are now all too familiar, this remarkable progress has come with its set of costs. In addition to socio-economic implications of structural inequalities (which are significant), human pursuit for growth has inevitably involved some form of environmental exploitation. A richer world is a world of hunger — demanding more food, more gadgets, and more experiences. Regular emissions accounts of course provide an overview of how GDP growth impacts the quality of our environment. Yet, it does not holistically capture how the Earth copes with our changing, expanding consumption patterns.
Enter Ecological Footprint Accounts. Carefully curated and maintained by the Global Footprint Network, these accounts aggregate ecological resources required to support a range of human activities. On the supply side, the Global Footprint Network also estimates total resources generated by the Earth annually. This comprehensive database can be broken down by countries (and cities), and ranges all the way back to 1961. Before I dive into the data, a couple of quick notes about terms and definitions:
- Ecological Footprint: A sum of the resources required to support various human activities such as food production (including emissions), building civilizations (cities, roads, etc.), as well as trade. To standardize comparisons across countries, it is expressed as Global Hectares. If you are interested in learning more, I provide links to relevant resources in the endnotes to this post.
- Biocapacity: Earth’s ability to absorb and repurpose waste from human activities, as well as its potential to support human consumption. Like ecological footprint, biocapacity is expressed in Global Hectares to facilitate cross-country and regional comparisons.
Now that we have these definitions in place, time to take a look at some of the key insights stemming from this dataset.
Human demands have consistently outstripped Earth’s ability to sustain these needs since 1971. We lived in a fairly sustainable world for a very brief period of time (since this dataset started tracking footprint accounts). Over the past five decades, Earth’s ability to generate resources has grown at a much slower pace than human consumption needs. To illustrate, between 1961 and 2014, Earth’s biocapacity grew by 20%, while human ecological footprint exponentially increase by 200%. That is 10x the Earth’s productive capacity to support our needs. A more salient point: we have been in ecological debt since 1971 — and this debt has growth at an exponential pace over the past 40 years.
Roughly, every 8 out of 10 people live in places of deep ecological debt. However, ecological footprint per person is in fact, slightly declining across much of the developed world, and even in some developing nations. Not all of this is entirely bad news — increasing awareness of our impact on the environment has led to a range of policy and market solutions conscious of limiting our footprint. Between 1980 and 2014, major developed nations, including Canada, United States, Western Europe reduced their footprint per capita. These reductions have been modest — lower than 25%, with the exception of Germany (30%) and Norway (36%). The biggest reduction in footprint per capita — 80%, comes from Bahamas, a relatively small Caribbean country that has increasingly focused on eco-tourism, and supports a host of institutions and actors focused on protecting its unique biodiversity. This is particularly impressive, given that in the 1970s and early 80s, Bahamas had one of the highest footprints per capita globally.
On the flipside, two of the most populous countries on the planet saw a significant increase in their footprint per capita — since 1980, India’s ecological footprint has grown by over 70%, while China’s footprint has increased by nearly 180%.
Perhaps, the most troubling statistic in the footprint map above, is the dramatic increase in Iran’s footprint — over the past forty years, every person in Iran has increased their footprint, on average, by over 220%. Less-than-optimal geological features (soil with low-organic content), coupled with decades of agricultural mismanagement (eg: overusing chemical fertilizers and prioritizing water-intensive crops) have placed the country in a deep ecological deficit. This deficit is made worse when we consider the fact that biocapacity has also been declining in Iran during the same time period. Since 1980, Iran’s biocapacity per capita has declined by over 30% (refer to the map below).
In fact, biocapacity has been on the decline for a large majority of the countries across the globe. Much of the Americas (North and South) have witnessed a ~30% drop in ecological resources. Brazil in particular stands out — as the home of the world’s largest tropical rainforest, a 40% decline in biocapacity is concerning. Human development (agriculture, cattle ranching, mining prospects, to name a few) had a major toll on the rainforest in the 1990s. Things got so bad, that between 2003 and 2004, an estimated ~27,000 square kilometers of the Amazon was deforested. Since then, the government has passed numerous regulations and implemented policy actions to protect the rainforest and its indigenous communities. However, over the past couple of years, deforestation has been on the rise again — and the rainforests are potentially under threat with President Bolsonaro criticizing these protection measures as being anti-business.
Some Western European countries, in addition to reducing their footprint, have also made some progress in increasing their nations’ ecological capacities. Germany’s biocapacity per capita has increased by 20%, while Belgium’s has increased by 10%. A little further to the east, Bulgaria’s management of its natural resources has been especially striking — since 1980, every Bulgarian on average, reduced their footprint by 40%. When this is combined with a per capita biocapacity growth of 41%, it tells a tale of a nation focused on sustainable development. Indeed, Bulgaria’s continued efforts towards transitioning to a green economy and strengthening of environmental protection laws are to be commended (and perhaps, emulated).
A little farther to the East, in Asia, India and China are also in the green. However, their modest biocapacity growth (6% and 15% respectively) while a step in the right direction, does not keep up with the rapid growth in their ecological footprints (72% and 176% respectively). In fact, this is the story for much of the world — the growth in net capacity has been largely negative.
When we compare our footprint against Earth’s capacity to support us, ~90% of the nations are more ecologically indebted than ever, or have just about marginally lowered their debts. Guyana is a distinct outlier to this trend: In 1980, Guyana’s net capacity per capita was about 65.8 global hectares. In simpler terms, Guyana’s wealth of natural resources supported every one of its citizen’s needs, and had some left over (to be specific, ~66 hectares beyond every citizen’s needs). In 2014, this number marginally increased to 65.9 global hectares.
Most of the other countries have experienced serious declines in their natural environment’s ability to sufficiently support their populations’ consumption patterns. Canada’s net capacity has declined by over 30%, while Australia’s and Brazil’s have declined by over 50%. The rapid growth in urbanization across Bahrain, Qatar, UAE has contributed to a net biocapacity reduction of over 300%.
There are however, a few slightly promising trends. Some European countries have started to see a reversal in biocapacity declines — Norway, Bulgaria, Romania, France and Germany to name a few. Their footprint reduction, combined with better environmental management practices have led to modest increases in net biocapacity (~10%). Perhaps this more than anything, captures a key lesson around managing the delicate balance of economic growth and environmental protection. While the gains made by a select few countries have not been substantial enough to outweigh deficits faced by the others, they nevertheless offer a potential path towards a more balanced immediate future — one where environment protection laws don’t necessarily imply a loss of immediate livelihoods and destruction of entire industries. There certainly needs to be a heightened focus on reducing our negative impacts on the natural environment, but this needs to be managed in a more compassionate manner. Policy and market solutions that make it easy for consumers to change their behaviour (plant-based diets, easy recycling and composting processes, affordable clean energy), while ensuring that there is a sufficient cushion for impacted groups (workers in the fossil fuels energy sector, farmers, those with livelihoods dependent on extracting natural resources) and a strong-enforcement mechanism to identify and penalize perpetrators of environmental harm (regulating for oil spills, water contamination) will find broad appeal. As we look to transition out of our ecologically indebted lives and look towards finding more sustainable lifestyles, we owe it to ourselves to find creative ways to respect, and indeed, nourish everything this incredible planet offers us.
Thanks so much for reading, and as always, please do let me know if you have any comments or suggestions. I am always on the lookout for interesting trends to explore and questions to answer, so I appreciate any and all suggestions coming my way!
This dataset was generously made available by the Global Footprint Network. They have a lot of really cool interactive visualizations on their website, so if this topic interested you, I would highly recommend spending some time exploring their website (and if possible, make a donation so that they continue their very important work!). For additional clarity around their methodology, please visit their microsite here.
All of my analysis here is through R, and final visualizations through Tableau.