The Global Footprint Network is a nonprofit organization that uses the Ecological Footprint metric – a “resource accounting tool that measures how much nature we have, how much we use, and who uses what” – to inform countries how close the planet is to sustainable living. By the GFN’s calculations, yesterday was 2014’s official Earth Overshoot Day, the point from which we will begin spending more of nature’s resources than it can regenerate in a year.
This deficit has been arriving earlier with every decade. In 1961, the organization states, humans were using only three-quarters of their annual resources; in the 1970s, we began to use a little more than our yearly allotment; in the year 2000, planetary resources lasted until October; and today, we have used us all the planet’s resources in the first three-quarters of the year.
At this rate, the GFN calculates that it would take 1.5 Earths to support how many resources humans burn through every year. “It means severe food and water shortages along with increasingly frequent extreme weather events and natural disasters,” Keya Chatterjee of the World Wildlife Fund told CBS News.
As of 2014, thirteen countries have already or are planning to adopt Ecological Footprint data to use in their environmental planning. Twelve other countries are independently reviewing EF data for potential applications.
But the Ecological Footprint metric has its critics. A 2013 article co-authored by Nature Conservancy Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva argues that the EF is outdated and unhelpful to policymakers and investors.
“The Ecological Footprint had utility in its day,” he says. “It alerted the world to the notion that humans have a huge impact on the planet, and that eventually there may be limits that feed back to undermine the global ecosystem. But now policymakers and business leaders are demanding much more sophisticated information about the benefits we get from nature – information that can be used to inform smarter investments and decisions.”
Kareiva’s problems with the EF metrics: 1) It confuses self-sufficiency with sustainability, measuring balance of trade in natural capital instead of how a country is depleting its biomass; 2) It fails to accurately balance carbon emissions with the supply and demand for other ecological products; 3) It measures carbon footprint by calculating the net amount of forest needed to capture all anthropogenic CO2 emissions (minus ocean absorption of CO2), which would, 4) lead to widespread monoculture forest plantations (e.g. eucalyptus) as a carbon offset mechanism, which is neither agriculturally practical nor economically tenable.
Mathis Wackernagel, president of the Global Footprint Network, responded to some of Kareiva’s criticisms in an email to The Nature Conservancy:
“We point out that most policy-relevant Footprint applications are at the local or national scale. We only argue that biocapacity deficits are a risk in a world running into ecological constraints. Traditional economists advocate for balanced trade in monetary terms. In a similar way, it may be of advantage for economies to consider trade balanced in biocapacity.”