Ecological Footprint: Thinking Inside the (Green) Box

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There is a group of countries that has been able to achieve the seemingly conflicting goal of maintaining a relatively high development while keeping their ecological footprint low. Alessandro Galli, Senior Scientist at the Global Footprint Network, highlights the Central and South American countries in this regard, giving specific examples from Costa Rica and Cuba.

According to the Global Footprint Network – an alliance of scientists who came up with the concept of the “Ecological Footprint,” a measurement of how many resources we have and how much we use – we are currently exploiting 50 percent more resources than what the planet has the ability to regenerate.

Nations are divided in this respect. Numerous countries have citizens that live within the world biocapacity target per person, these nations are however associated with a relatively low degree of development as measured by the UN Human Development Index (HDI), including aspects such as health, education and living standards. In contrast, nations scoring high on the HDI have a tendency to exceed their sustainable, Ecological Footprint targets.

Looking at the graph below, countries seem to follow a path where increased human development is related to a higher Ecological Footprint. Few countries manage to fall within the sustainable zone that welds a relatively high degree of development with a low Ecological Footprint (within the green square on the graph). Notable examples are found in several Central and South American countries.

Human welfare and ecological footprint compared.

Wikimedia Commons

Human welfare and ecological footprint compared.

Mr Galli highlights two examples. “Costa Rica has invested a lot in wealth generation rather than growth, involving aspects such as increasing the well-being of its people, their life expectancy, access to food, and getting rid of the military service.“

Another example is Cuba, says Mr Galli. He explains that the country has managed to attain a relatively high quality of life with a low resource use. Why? The U.S. trade embargo on Cuba has forced the country to rely on local resources, making it increase its efficiency for instance in farming.

Are there more general lessons that can be learnt from countries that have small ecological footprints? Countries that score relatively low on the development index and also have low Ecological Footprint could take examples from countries right ahead of them on the development path, says Mr Galli, focusing on improving, among other things, efficiency in agriculture and irrigation. Countries with a relatively high development and high Ecological Footprint could look into further increasing efficiency and reducing waste. This might entail several lifestyle changes. A simple example, says Mr Galli, is turning off the light when you are not in a room. “In major US cities you leave the light on, in Europe you would not do this.” And, overall, Europe has a lower Footprint.

Looking into the future, the Global Footprint Network wants to make their measure as widely used as the GDP metric. For this purpose they have launched the Ten-in-Ten project helping countries adopt this measure. Countries move along a three step process; capacity building, identification of key sectors in the economy that should be targeted and the evaluation of policy options with associated scenario realizations. Thus far, eleven nations have adopted the Ecological Footprint as a formal metric. The UAE has come out as a forerunner in terms of using the Ecological Footprint, says Mr Galli, and is currently the only country that is exploring the use of the Footprint methodology for science-based decision-making processes. Thus far they have applied a new standard for lightbulbs that puts higher demands on energy efficiency. The other policies recommended by the partnership working on the UAE National Footprint Initiative are still being evaluated, adds Mr Galli.

Institutionalizing the Ecological Footprint metric in a similar fashion to GDP would give countries a specific alternative indicator to measure their welfare. This has the potential to encourage nations to think increasingly (see graph above) “inside the green box.”

Green Wall at National Gallery, Trafalgar Square.

Pam Fray / under Creative Commons

Green Wall at National Gallery, Trafalgar Square.

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