Footprint folly

In: Uncategorized

9 Oct 2006

Today is the day the world goes into ecological overdraft, according to the lead story in today’s Independent. A report by the New Economics Foundation, in partnership with the Global Footprint Network, finds that until 9 October the world’s population was using up sustainable resources. But from now until the end of the year it will be drawing on resources that cannot be replenished. The implication is that the world should only be using three-quarters of the resources it is currently using. As the Independent argues:

“Global Footprint estimates that the human race is over-using the Earth’s resources by 23 per cent. While each individual should use up no more than the equivalent of 1.8 hectares of the Earth’s surface, the actual area we use is 2.2 hectares per person.”

The lack of details on how this measure is calculated is striking. Both the newspaper reports and the information on the New Economics Foundation website seem to be based on pure assertion. There is more on the Global Footprint website but it is lacking in detail. However, a similar report four years ago by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was subject to rigorous examination by the Economist. (“Treading lightly” 19 September 2002). The article argued that:

“The approach builds in questionable assumptions. Crucial is an implicit, and very strict, idea of sustainability, which in effect denies that natural resources can often be replaced or augmented by man-made ones.

“This aside, the main drawback of the analysis is the way it treats energy. WWF defines the footprint for fossil fuels as the area of forest required to absorb emissions of CO2 (excluding those absorbed by the oceans). Growth in the energy footprint then drives almost everything else. The energy footprint increased from 2.5 billion hectares in 1961 to 6.7 billion in 1999, the fastest-growing component of the overall footprint—and, by the end of the period, very much the biggest.”

The piece went on to point out that it does not follow that any increase in carbon dioxide is problematic. And even if it was there are alternative energy sources such as nuclear and renewables.

The Economist article was based on a report (PDF) by Bjorn Lomborg’s Environmental Assessment Institute in Denmark.

Despite the crudeness of the “footprint” measure it is increasingly popular in government circles. For example, see my 30 September dispatch on “One Planet Living”.