Wackernagel: ‘There is only one planet’

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European nations, which use more than twice the amount of resources available on their territories, need to factor ecological assets into their national accounting systems in order to prevent ecological bankruptcy, says Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network. He spoke with EURACTIV in an interview.

Mathis Wackernagel is executive director of the Global Footprint Network, which is “committed to fostering a world where all people have the opportunity to live satisfying lives within the means of Earth’s ecological capacity”.

To read a shortened version of the interview, please click here.

The Ecological Footprint Theory is a way to measure how humans consume the earth’s resources. How is it possible to measure it accurately?

The theory is based around the premise that there is only one planet. Then we ask ourselves how many potatoes we eat, how much space do we need to grow them, how much cotton do we produce, how much space do we need to grow it and etc? We basically add it all up and that is our footprint. 

So it is pretty straightforward, although the devil is of course in the detail. For example, sugar can be produced from sugar cane and from beet, so there is some complication there. Or vice-versa, soy has a number of different products so how can you allocate each of them? 

But overall, it is a very straightforward adding up of all the ecological services that we depend on that are in mutual competition. 

For example, one competition is: do we want to use this space to grow potatoes or for growing timber or for sequestering carbon dioxide? Perhaps some of them can overlap, but most of the time it’s done in mutual competition. We would have enough space on the planet to absorb all the carbon dioxide that we emit extra from fossil fuels, but then wouldn’t have enough capacity to have cities, potatoes and sugar and cotton etc. So it is ultimately a budgeting question. A farmer knows how big their farm is and how many cows fit in their farm. It is not that different to apply that to the world as whole, it’s just a little more complicated. 

Now why do we need to measure the footprint? There are inaccuracies, and some of these are due to lack of data. We use the best UN data, and some of this can be improved. That is why we work with nations to find out how the accounts can be strengthened. Unfortunately there is no better result available at this point.

Do you have some common measurement systems for each country?

We have one manual, one template, so we calculate all the nations equally. As we work with nations, improvements come built in for all nations, so all nations will have a more accurate account hopefully. 

The underlying theory, in terms of change, is that big companies start to become possible with accounting, then they start to organise the finances of a large corporation. In the same way bankruptcy can be easily avoided if you understand how much you make and how much you spend, we need to apply the same rationale to ecological assets. If we want to avoid ecological bankruptcy, it doesn’t happen on its own and it isn’t totally avoided by having accounts, but it is a necessary condition as a way to be able to manage how much we have to how much we use. 

We think nations should be the indicators of success. We want ten nations to adopt the ecological footprint within a couple of years. We want them to take responsibility themselves to say: how much capacity do we have compared to how much we use?

Are nations actively asking you to come up with such criteria? Are they taking your work seriously?

I was invited to a seminar with government administrators in Israel next week and we will be seeing President Peres. So there is high level interest. Jacques Chirac talked about the footprint in Johannesburg, so high level interest is there. 

Is it translating into action? Not yet. 

I think there is still a struggle concerning which way we should be going. We work with United Arab Emirates (one of the six countries we work with) and they have one trillion dollars worth of real estate in the making. For example the artificial islands they are making. One of the things they are starting to realise is, the houses they are starting to build, huge towers with glass facades, are really like solar collectors which soak up a lot of heat, only to use fossil fuels to cool them down. It is kind of absurd. They are realising that the infrastructure developments are losing value, and they built them in a way in order to replace the value they lost from the oil in order to have something else. But now the new value is as dependent on oil as oil itself. So that is why they have started to recognise that we have to have an ecologically sound development. 

Do you think that we can maintain the same level of consumption in rich countries that the Indias and Chinas of the world where the average person can attain the same level of material well-being and comfort as the average American can without putting the planet into a catastrophic situation? 

If everyone lives the way the US does, we would be taking the resources of six earths, and we only have one. That is physically not possible. But there are many other ways of retaining a quality of life that are not as resource intensive. But the biggest knowledge gap we have is how to have good long lives, health and security, good food, safe shelter, the ability to move around. Can we deliver these kinds of functions on far fewer resources? 

The common criticism of the whole theory of an ecological footprint is that it doesn’t take account of evolving technology.

That is one of the most common misconceptions because we are not making any assumptions about technology. We compare every year how much stuff we are able to squeeze out of the planet, and then how much do we use compared to what the earth can generate? So through technological change overall we have seen roughly a 15% increase of what we call by-capacity. 

By-capacity is what the earth can provide that is useful to people. But overall we receive more stuff as humanity, we also have grown as a population very rapidly. So on a per capita basis the technological advances have not been able to cope with the increase of demand, as we need to look at both demand and supply if you want to succeed. 

Would you try to integrate technological advances in your calculations?

Every year we look at what the latest technology is so we describe what it is.

So you are doing a benchmark exercise of what the current dominant technology is in energy or agriculture etc?

In some ways that all comes out of the statistics, you don’t have to make any assumptions. You just see overall how much CO2 is being emitted. As you get more efficient, you get more services out of that amount.

We were mentioning the oil supplies and the scenarios the oil companies are making on a regular basis. Are you proposing such types of scenarios?

We are not proposing scenarios. We are not making scenarios. We are translating all the people scenarios into footprint language. For example, if we followed the United Nations moderate scenario in terms of population growth, CO2 emissions, IPCC, FAO, rather aggressive increases in agricultural productivity, then what we get as a curve is something that looks like this, going to about twice the plants capacity by about 2050. That’s the moderate scenario. All the other ones are steeper. We believe that physically, we may not be able to realise that. It doesn’t just depend on people’s wishes but also on reality.

What are the key things that can be done to curb the curve?

There are five factors that determine the difference between by-capacity and footprint. How much area is productive? How productive is it per hectare? How many people? How much is consumed per person? How efficient would that be? All of them have a role to play. 

We are actually very pro-technology. We need any technology we can get to get enough overshoot. So what is the biggest low-hanging fruit? I would say one of the big drivers is demographics, investing more into women which is one of the biggest returns of investments in terms of health outcomes, longevity, educational outcomes to children plus being able to turn this curve round in the long run. We don’t see the effects in the first year. But in the long run, demographics is a huge driver that is totally un-parenthesised and can generate enormous well-being. 

Another thing is infrastructure, are we getting our cities right? Austria has 2000 zero energy houses, they are the world champions in this sector. But they have 3,000,000 housing units, so 0.07% of their housing units use zero energy. So if you are really serious about turning things around, you need to build zero energy houses at a much faster pace. We want perhaps 80% of our housing store at zero energy by 2030. So then you can calculate how many we have to do per year.

Some people are saying that ultimately it is population control and demographics that needs to be addressed. Is this a view to which you subscribe?

I’m not making a mathematical question. At this point we don’t have to have a Draconian intervention. Just by making the choices available to many people we may be able to turn the demographic situation around. There are many benefits that come with it too. If women have more choices, they will probably actually want that. Even for industrialised countries there are many good indications that economically speaking an economy is more competitive with a shrinking population. There are many good reasons for that, and many haven’t understood that. Some believe it is a threat to have a shrinking population, and that is a very unfortunate misconception.

But a shrinking population always goes together with wealth, as we can see in Europe with their shrinking populations. The life we are leading today requires people to have less and less children because of the cost of living. This is not the case with the emerging economies, and until they reach that level the overshoot will have happened.

You wouldn’t consider Thailand to be a particularly wealthy nation, compared to Europe. Their population growth rate has dropped from 3.5 % to 0.5%. But overall, women have less than two children. Women’s access to family planning is a much bigger determining factor. You have wealthy situations like the UAE with 3% growth rates.

Moving to the carbon footprint issue, which is a hot issue at the moment. There are compensation schemes (or upsetting schemes) which are being put into place. For example, going onto a plane and then planting a tree somewhere to compensate for that. Isn’t that a way of buying yourself a good conscience whilst continuing to pollute?

Buying a conscience is all about bottom-line rationality. We have a collective challenge; it’s not just about virtue doing better than you.

Do you think carbon off-setting schemes are working? Do you think something else needs to be done?

We are in such a squeeze overall that we need any technology possible to find out whether it can play a role or not. We need all kinds of things. But carbon trading may play an important role, I don’t know yet. We need to try these markets out and find out what happens. 

So you are saying carbon dioxide trading schemes could work but the price is not right yet? Planting a few trees for your trans-Atlantic flight is simply not enough.

It’s not enough, no. We need to try out any innovative scheme, and then measure to see whether it has any positive impact or not, because we need a lot of innovation in that area.

You are trying to persuade the EU to move in a certain direction. What are you trying to get in terms of the next policy move from the European Commission?

Europe uses around 2½ times more resources than are available in the European boundaries. There is an enormous risk that Europe is exposed to overshoot. Some people have started to recognise it. Even Barroso wrote a foreword for our European Plan Report, where he said development doesn’t work if you don’t respect the ecological limits. 

This shows the inconsistency emerging and the recognition that we really need to get a handle on it. But overall people are still quite disoriented. We hope to be able to offer a way to navigate tough policy decisions. How can we manage wealth in a more comprehensive way? Wealth enables people to live well, and if we destroy it, it will be very difficult to maintain our well-being, in Europe and elsewhere. 

Our mission is to show that, having good accounts, looking at the ecological footprint, is a way to help Europe maintain its competitiveness and its position. But primarily, if Europe doesn’t get its act together fast enough, there will be serious hardship.

Do you think Europe is moving in the right direction, with its efforts on renewables and cutting carbon emissions etc? 

One could say it’s far too little, too late. But in some ways we need anything possible, so it is never too late. The costs get bigger. So Europe would be more cost effective if it invested in such initiatives. 

In order to understand why it is important we need a footprint. Also in order to understand how rapidly we need to make this change. Because I still believe we perceive it as a virtuous exercise to be nicer than the Americans. But who cares what the Americans are doing? Europe needs to save itself. So if Europe is not able to transform its economy fast enough, it needs to get its infrastructure into place.

So carbon accounting is too limited in a sense?

Carbon accounting is also an important piece that is totally consistent with foot-printing. For industrialised countries slightly over half is carbon foot-printing. But as you are moving out of carbon aggressively it puts the pressure onto other domains, like biofuels. So ultimately we need to look at the whole budget which is planet earth. Carbon is a good start, but if we plan to stay with carbon then it becomes dangerous.

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