For millions of years, all life on Earth lived well within the means of the planet. Flora and fauna used natural resources, but the relationship was reciprocal, and no species ever took more than the earth could replenish. Then humans came along – more specifically, post-industrial humans: now, particularly in the West, our demand for the earth’s resources is much higher than the supply, resulting in a huge environmental or ecological footprint for humanity.
Do you know your ecological footprint? If you live in the West, it’s likely to be very deep, particularly if you drive a car, eat meat and other animal products, and fly regularly. That means that, if everyone in the world lived like you, we would need more than one planet in order to have enough resources for our lifestyles. But we only have one planet. That raises the question of equity and fairness too: if your lifestyle consumes more than one planet’s worth of resources, who has to consume less in order to balance you out?
The ecological footprint measures the demand humans place on nature in order to live the way we do, versus the supply of resources from the planet. In other words, how many natural resources are needed to sustain the things we do and consume in our lives. The demand in this instance refers to the ecological assets that a population needs in order to produce the natural resources it consumes; examples include plant-based food, livestock, fish, forest products and space for building.
If our ecological footprint exceeds the earth’s biocapacity we have an ecological deficit – that is, the demand for what the Earth can provide exceeds what it can replenish or renew. Biocapacity is the ability of a given area to generate an on-going supply of renewable resources and to absorb waste.
A country in ecological deficit must meet demand by importing resources from other countries, overusing natural assets – for example, overfishing or deforestation – and by emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. On the other hand, if a country’s biocapacity exceeds its ecological footprint, it has an ecological reserve and is living within the limits of nature’s resources. Unsurprisingly, some of the wealthiest countries in the world have exceptionally high ecological deficits, for example Singapore, Israel, the UAE, the US and many European countries. At the other end of the spectrum, developing countries top the list of countries with biocapacity reserves, including many in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
The concept of the ecological footprint, first conceived in 1990, sparked a broader ‘footprint movement’ – most famously in determining the ‘carbon footprint’ but also more recently measured in a ‘virtual footprint’. The notion of an ecological footprint helps us to understand a holistic picture of what is being demanded from the earth. It combines the various ecological threats we face, so that we can form a better understanding of why they are problems, and create better solutions. Because we do need solutions, and urgently. What with climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, overfishing, food insecurity and the rapid extinction of thousands of species, humanity is demanding so much more from the Earth than it can provide. Our obsession with economic growth as the only measure of success means that humans who can afford it consume ever more stuff, whilst those who can’t, aspire to.
Our carbon footprint is at the heart of so many of the threats that our planet faces. Globally, our collective carbon footprint is 60% of our overall ecological footprint, and the most rapidly growing component. This is partly because carbon is so intertwined with so many aspects of our lives, for example the production of food. This is why reducing our carbon consumption is not straightforward, but also why it is the most important step we can take to end ‘overshoot’ and move towards living within the means of our planet.
Strangely, the largest global health catastrophe in recent times has helped us to do just that. The lockdowns, sealed borders, scaled-back economic activity and reduced travel across the world necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic have contributed to a 17% decline in daily global CO2 emissions, compared to global daily averages in 2019. This is the largest drop in recorded history, and has brought the planet back to levels last seen in 2006. This is projected to lead to a 4-7% drop in our overall carbon emissions in 2020 – which is good, but tiny when you think of the huge lifestyle changes that have been implemented across the world – and it’s unrealistic to imagine that those changes could be sustained. It just shows the huge scale of the challenge that faces us. The risk is that this drop will be a blip, and that it will continue to rise when we return to ‘normal’. We must find a way to build on it, and quickly – we must create a new normal. Governments must prioritise investments and infrastructure that reduce harmful emissions, and support people to find more sustainable ways of living.
There is cause to be optimistic that this can and will happen. Some of the environmental changes that have happened during the pandemic have led to effects that can be readily seen or felt by ‘normal’ people. People in cities have been able to breathe cleaner air and many have claimed they are able to see more stars at night. In northern India, residents of one town said that they were able to see the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years as the smog cleared. People can relate to these experiences more easily than they can to discussions around greenhouse gases and carbon emissions, so perhaps our leaders can harness the relatable to make lasting change and reduce our collective ecological footprint. This World Environment Day, let’s help them in working out how.