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Measuring and managing Canada's use of the Earth's regenerative carrying capacity

Measuring and managing Canada's use of the Earth's regenerative carrying capacity

The Canadian and global challenge of living within the Earth's carrying capacity requires robust measures of this capacity and its use by humans to meaningfully inform policy. Currently, Canada does not employ any such accounting system to monitor transition towards a carbon neutral future. Various measures and measurement systems are used to quantify carrying capacity and its use by humans, with the most comprehensive being Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity.  

York’s Ecological Footprint Initiative produces National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts for all countries, as a time series from 1961 to the present.  This data helps humanity to understand the levels and trends in the amount of the planet needed and available to sustain humans with food and fibres, forest products, lands for settlements and infrastructure, and sequestration of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Information derived from the accounts has enjoyed tremendous public uptake in Canada as in other countries, but comparatively less use in Canadian public policy and decision-making at various governance scales. To better understand these gaps, this project led by Peter Victor and Eric Miller, supported by Katie Kish and Mark Milnes in collaboration with the Global Footprint Network on “Measuring and managing Canada’s use of the Earth regenerative carrying capacity” aims to synthesize and mobilize current knowledge that could help to inform civil society and governments of all levels about how Canadians use – and depend upon - the Earth's carrying capacity. 

Top row: Sophie Angoh, Mark Milnes, Elizabeth Holloway; Second row: Anuja Kapoor, Eric Miller, Mary Thornbush; Bottom row: Jason Robinson, Chaya Kapoor, Maria-Louise McMaster

The project team evaluated key metrics, and measurement systems developed to quantify terrestrial and aquatic systems capacities and performed a rigorous literature review. MES alumna, and Footprint Research Associate, Katie Kish led research to ascertain the needs of the Footprint among key sustainability stakeholders across Canada to develop a new collaborative research agenda. This agenda frames the next five years of the York Footprint Initiative around broader academic participation on the tool's applications and better integration of Footprint research into Canadian policy at various jurisdictional scales.

In Getting to Know the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts, Eric Miller expounds that “In 2019, the Global Footprint Network and York University established the Footprint Data Foundation (FoDaFo) to bring together outstanding natural and social scientists to provide direction on enhancing the data and methodology of the accounts.”

“The accounting methodology quantifies the planet’s regenerative capacity, and the minimum amount needed to sustain the human economy. This is vital information for humanity to live within the means of our planet”, he adds. 

Global demand (left) and supply (right) of carrying capacity in 2017 by colour-coded component of Ecological Footprint (left) and Biocapacity (right).

In explaining why the accounts are important and how it is used with the COVID-19 pandemic, GFN’s Chief Science Officer, David Lin, explains that “to consider the impacts from the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the GFN combined the most reliable data available and formed the most reasonable assumptions to assess humanity’s current resource situation. Changes in carbon emissions, forest harvest, food demand, and other factors that could impact global biocapacity from January 1st to Earth Overshoot Day 2020 were evaluated.

The National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts are produced by a team of faculty and students within the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. Through its MES program, students trained in sustainability informatics are offered the experience of producing parts of the accounts.  The 2021 edition of the accounts were produced with contributions from current MES students Mark Milnes, Chaya Kapoor, and Sophie Angoh, together with recent MES graduates Anuja Kapoor, Elizabeth Holloway, Mary Thornbush, Maria-Louise McMaster, and Jason Robinson