26 April 2010

Mathis Wackernagel: Ecological Footprint

Reposted in full from social innovation think-tank Volans web site, 13 April 2010

'The Global Footprint Network is emerging as a leading player providing solutions to how companies, governments and cities can measure and track their natural assets. In this 2009 interview, Alejandro Litovsky talks to Mathis Wackernagel, President of the Global Footprint Network about strategies to amplify the impact of the footprint.

Humans are the most successful species on the planet, but are using more resources than the Earth can provide. The Global Footprint Network was established in 2003 to address this overshoot, by providing ways of measuring human demand on the Earth through the use of the Ecological Footprint — a resource accounting tool that measures how much nature we have, how much we use, and who uses what.

The Ecological Footprint is a data-driven metric that tells us how close we are to living within the means of planet Earth – or whether we are running an ‘ecological overshoot’. Footprint accounts work like bank statements, documenting whether we are living within our ecological budget or consuming nature’s resources faster than the planet can renew them. Global Footprint Network provides the scientific data necessary to drive large-scale, social change.

GFN works with cities, nations, international agencies, leading business, scientists, NGOs, academics and a network of 100+ global partners on six continents. It is committed to advancing the relevance and use of the Footprint in the world, applying it to practical projects and sparking a global dialogue about the desirability of a one-planet future.

GFN’s aspired to a future where ministers get as worried about growing ecological deficits as they fret already about skyrocketing unemployment or inflation; and where human demand on nature is monitored as closely as the stock market. GFN works for the time when designers shape products, buildings, and cities that have one-planet Footprints.

Q: Why should GFN be important to decision-makers?

A: The 21st century will be defined by ecological overshoot and humanity’s ability to deal with it productively. In a severely resource constrained world, those countries that understand the risk, and adapt themselves early on will be the winners, since adaptation takes preparation considering the longevity of stocks: our infrastructure, populations, and industrial plants with set energy efficiencies. Hence, a good understanding of a nation’s demand (or “Footprint”) on – and availability of – biocapacity become crucial metrics for securing a country’s success.

Because financial managers and policy-makers are largely resource-illiterate, the current financial crisis is leading to rather disastrous recovery plans. Even Obama’s $800 billion plan only contains $50 billion so-called ‘green economy investments’. First of all, anything non-green is building traps and needs to be de-constructed in a few decades. We need stimulus packages to accelerate sustainability rather than to repeat the mistakes of the past. We also need to look at what is called “green” and see: “is it green enough?” Not for moral and esthetic or fundamentalist reasons, but pragmatically: Are these investments realizing the highest possible social returns on investment?

Q: What are the biggest barriers you face in scaling up the impact of Global Footprint Network?

A: The biggest limitation still is that many countries and their administrations do not recognize the resource risk. If a country is ill prepared for a resource-constrained world, a significant portion of its GDP is in jeopardy.

Instead, many countries perceive even climate issues to be merely a moral question, not a key concern –or a survival issue. Many international agencies and governments are far too timid in engaging. Still, addressing climate issues in isolation from other resources is a strategic mistake. We are moving into a ‘peak everything’ situation; A crisis of water AND food AND climate AND fisheries AND biodiversity AND oil AND etc.

Once countries and regions understand their self-interest, things start moving fast. We are seeing this in our ‘Ecological Creditor Initiative’, which rallies ecological creditor countries – those who have more biocapacity than they consume, and who by now only host 20 percent of the world population.

Here’s the argument: Resource constraints are reshaping our world map. The 20th century distinction between “developing and developed” countries is vanishing, and the 21st century division will be between ecological creditor countries (with a larger biocapacity than their Footprint) and ecological debtor countries (the reverse). Much of Latin America, as well as New Zealand, Gabon, Finland, Botswana, Australia and others are still in an ecological creditor situation, which if managed well can significantly affect their future economic standing and competitiveness. Recognizing this new geopolitical shift will also put the climate negotiations on a much more productive path.

Once countries recognize that what is at stake is a considerable fraction of their future GDP –as we see in countries like Haiti, investment in strong biocapacity metrics will skyrocket because the social return on investment for such efforts are unsurpassed.

We need to look at who will be the future winners in that scenario, and work with them since they need to focus on opportunities. Still some of those have a hard time understanding the new threats. But once they do, things progress like wildfire.

Q: What relationships and partnerships can accelerate your impact?

A: There are a number of partnerships we are building– and they change over time. WWF has been a crucial communication partner. They are present in the 60 largest countries, are effective communicators and have a great reputation. While they continue to be wonderful partners, we now need to significantly expand our collaborations beyond the WWFs of the world.

We are now also engaging with more mainstream organizations, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). We collaborate with WBCSD to help spark a conversation among their leading corporate members about the significance of planetary limits for business success. We use our metrics to ask: what do planetary limits mean for their business case? What kind of markets will vanish and which ones will open up?

Another important set of relationships are partnerships with Ecological Creditor Countries – in Latin America, Australia, Europe and Africa — and inter-governmental organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations, although their bureaucracies are typically far slower than leading business and pioneer countries.

We are participating in the UNEP Governing Council where we expect to be able to discuss our proposal with many government representatives from around the world. We have had a number of research collaborations with national governments, and now the Ecological Creditor Initiative has caught-on like fire. We got the first grant to develop the initiative on Dec 31st 2008 and one month later we are already in full swing, possibly with CAN (the Community of Andean Nations) in a leading role, but with many other countries and regions highly interested –including Brazil.

Q: Should there be credible ’social’ equivalents of your Footprint work?

A: Ecological Footprint is not a thing, but a short form for a specific and clear research question: how much of the biocapacity of the planet is occupied by human activities?

Our approach is a scientific inquiry into one particularly relevant question of our time. This question has ecological, social and economic ramifications, so the Footprint is not just this ecological thing with other social equivalents. Of course there are other relevant questions as well, such as: Are people satisfied? How are income and access to resources distributed? How well are ecosystems doing?

Q: Do you see competition building? Is there a growing ecology of actors accelerating the systemic change you are after?

A: We wish there was more competition. It is ridiculous how little work is being done in the resource-limits area, particularly in the current financial crisis. The mainstream barely acknowledges how resource constraints are aggravating and systematically exacerbating the negative impact on business cycles.

Certainly most economic advisors are rather oblivious of resource constraints. We find this pretty scary. Deans of prestigious business schools continue to ponder how we can subsidize sprawl and consumption to get us out of the slump while both phenomena are getting us deeper into the current trap of needing to continuously increase our resource consumption – just to be “economically stable”.

Articles in the Financial Times have acknowledged the problem of GDP-type thinking, but we are a long way to go from building widespread buy-in and recognition of the implications of planetary limits on our economic lives and on business. Much more needs to be done. We are looking for help and for partners who want to join us.'

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