Change the course - and avoid an uncomfortable crash landing

written by Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, President of Global Footprint Network. Find more about the Footprint at www.footprintnetwork.org

More than 25 years into ecological overshoot, we are nearing the storm. In the last ten years, we’ve seen three- to fourfold increases in food and energy prices, increases that have persisted even in times of recession. These prices multiplied by ever larger resource demands result in explosive costs—costs that have rattled the economic stability of countries in southern Europe and elsewhere, impacting their security and the well-being of their people.

Although our economies depend on access to natural resources, policy debates and government administrations lack measurement tools that tell how much nature a country or a region has and how much its population uses. It's like flying an airplane without a fuel gauge on the dashboard. You don't know how much fuel you're using, nor how much you have left.

Any pilot would be fired for not wanting a fuel gauge on her dashboard. Yet governments continue to fly blind, even though resources are running low, and global overshoot is steadily increasing.

While kerosene is the limiting fuel for planes, economies’ most limiting input is the regenerative capacity of nature, or “biocapacity.” Even economies’ use of fossil energy is ultimately constrained by biocapacity, as nature has a limited ability to absorb CO2, the primary waste product of fossil fuel. Biocapacity is more limited than fossil fuel: From the perspective of nature’s ability to process the waste, we have already found too much fuel.

Even with no new finds whatsoever, if we burned all the fossil fuels we’ve already found—gas, oil and coal—the carbon concentration in the atmosphere would rise to 1700 ppm. That would more than quadruple the current carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and it would radically exceed the threshold that climate scientists warn would trigger catastrophic levels of climate change.

Currently we are at 392 ppm for CO2, and over 400 ppm if we include other greenhouse gases. Climate scientists advise not to exceed 450 ppm if we are to avert a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius (other climate models have revised the threshold down to 350ppm).

In other words, from a climate perspective, there is no more room for fossil fuel use. And many alternatives to fossil fuel will compete for biocapacity as well, making biocapacity even more constrained.

But how much biocapacity “fuel” do our economies require? Our analysis at Global Footprint Network shows that, now, three decades into ecological overshoot, humanity's demands exceed nature’s regenerative capacity by almost fifty percent.

For example, consider my home country, Switzerland.

Switzerland's Ecological Footprint—the amount of biologically productive surfaces to provide all the resources the Swiss consume, and to absorb its waste (in particular its carbon emissions)—adds up to four-fold its own biocapacity. Even though the world’s biocapacity per person is larger than what’s available in Switzerland, the average Swiss resident’s demand still exceeds the global budget two-fold. In short, if everyone in the world lived like a resident of Switzerland, we would need the resources of almost three Earths.

In an age of increasing demand for and constraints on ecological services, wanting ever more from the world is becoming a risky strategy. This is particularly true for countries where the income per person is decreasing relative to the world’s GDP. Like, for instance, in Switzerland.

The good news is that addressing resource risks can open up economic opportunities and advance social equity. The solutions lay in better understanding the choices before us. Just choose investments that gain in value rather than those that paint us into corners, and lose their value exactly when we need the reserves most. For this, governments and industry need the knowledge and tools to understand resource trends and its implications for investments.

If we can begin to pilot our economies with resource accounts like the Footprint and biocapacity as part of our dashboard, we can change our course—and avoid an uncomfortable crash landing.