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Planetary economics: ecological footprint index shows world has entered ecological overshoot; Cuba the sole sustainable nation

Posted by waterweek on 9 October 2007

According to Daniele Fanelli, an international team led by Mathis Wackernagel of the Global Footprint Network looked at how the living conditions and ecological footprints of 93 nations have changed in the last 30 years, reported The Economist, (6/10/2007, p. 10).

Ecological footprint (EF) index: Only one nation, Cuba, had developed sustainably. (Ecological Economics, DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2007.08.017). The team used the ecological footprint (EF) index, a tool devised in 1993 by Wackernagel and William Rees, his PhD supervisor at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

How it works: The EF quantified

• the area of land required to provide the infrastructure used by a person or a nation;

• food and goods consumed; and

• waste produced, with available technology.

The value was then compared to resources actually available to people on a regional or global scale.

Two planets needed to sustain lifestyle: EF was used recently, for example, by conservation group WWF to calculate that two more planets would be needed to support everyone in the world in the manner of the average UK citizen. However, rather than just measuring consumption, Wackernagel and his colleagues wanted to measure how close countries were to developing in a sustainable way.

“Sustainability” an elusive concept: The problem was “sustainability” was an elusive concept. “Nobody dares to say what it actually means,” Wackernagel told New Scientist. “We believe we provided a robust measurement.”

Count the planets: For each nation with reliable data, the team:

• calculated how many planets would be needed to support the global population if everybody adopted that nation’s lifestyle as it was in 1978, and in 2003;

• then, expressed each figure as an Earth-equivalent ratio (EER); and

• plotted each value against the nation’s corresponding UN Human Development Index.

Index a variable score: The index was a score of between 0 and 1, and a function of a country’s average life expectancy, adult literacy, level of schooling and per capita GDP. To develop sustainably, the researchers assumed a country must have an HDI of at least 0.8 and a maximum EER of 1.

• A lower HDI would mean a nation was not developing adequately; while

• a higher EER meant it gobbled up, too much.

Shoes too big for the people: A country’s historical trajectory showed a clear pattern. People everywhere had a better lifestyle, but the footprint grew at a rate proportional to wealth. Developed countries in particular had done very little to reduce their impact. “It’s a broad indicator of the direction things are moving, and it’s an excellent tool for communicating to the public and decision makers,” said Jan Vernon, who reviewed the validity of EF for the UK government. The study, therefore, carried a credible message: we have all moved away from sustainability, and the world has entered ecological overshoot. “We have not taken sustainable development seriously,” Wackernagel concluded.

The Economist, 6/10/2007, p. 10

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One Response to “Planetary economics: ecological footprint index shows world has entered ecological overshoot; Cuba the sole sustainable nation”

  1. Martin Lundqvist said

    The conclusion that Cuba has developed a sustainable society makes me question this report’s accuracy. Common sense dicates that an authorian regime cares little about the environment, which was exactly what was unravelled after the collapse of the Soviet Union (massive pollution, poison leaks etc.)

    The main point is well taken though; if we do not improve our life-style efficiency faster than more people are born, we will suffer. But does that mean we have to take Michael Moore by the word when he states that Cuba is so wonderful?

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