Fifty years ago the Club of Rome called for a transition from growth to equilibrium, as they demonstrated through The Limits to Growth that humanity could not sustain another hundred years of growth in material consumption, pollution, and population. Since then, humanity’s Ecological Footprint has doubled and overshot the planet’s carrying capacity.
York University’s Ecological Footprint Initiative (EFI) produces the world-renowned National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts. These accounts measure the capacity of lands and water to provide humanity with food and renewable materials, space for settlements and infrastructure, and the sequestration of carbon emissions. This capacity can be compared to current consumption, and related to global trade flows, to derive the intuitive metric of an Ecological Footprint. This comparison and the array of data within the accounts can help humanity to strategize about pathways to “net zero emissions” by 2050 and to achieve several Sustainable Development Goals. The data can help to tell stories at various geographic scales and over time.
On a global basis, Ecological Footprint has overshot the planet’s Biocapacity in every year since 1971. The most recent data reveals that humanity’s Ecological Footprint in 2018 was 75% greater than Biocapacity in that year, meaning that it would take the planet 21 months of biological production to provide what was needed for just 12 months.
National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts provide data that help to understand how a country’s production of food and materials, energy, and carbon emissions, relate to domestic consumption or exports, and the amount which is derived from imports. For each country from 1961 to the present, an Ecological Footprint of Consumption is derived from the footprint of production plus imports minus exports. These components can be compared to quantify how lands and waters are embodied through trade flows.
People from 73 countries registered to attend the March 2022 launch event of the accounts which featured special guest Severn Cullis-Suzuki, who spoke to the importance of data telling stories. This followed presentations from MES graduate student researchers who produced the accounts and used them to investigate enticing data stories. Stories include the implications of growing export-oriented pig farming in Argentina, questioning the selfishness of shellfish, and unpacking the growth of online product packaging.
National data can be used to investigate sub-national issues. Months earlier, the Ontario government published a provincial-scaled account of Ontario’s Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity from 2005 to 2015. The data and its accompanying report were generated by a prior cohort of MES graduate students working with project director Eric Miller to inform Ontario’s reporting on the state of natural resources and pressures on biodiversity.
National data can also be used to derive municipal-scaled estimates. EFI Director, Eric Miller, derived an estimate of Mississauga’s Ecological Footprint in 2018 for a presentation to The Mississauga Economic Recovery Group of the Mississauga Board of Trade. A visual representation helped to communicate that Mississauga required the equivalent of 55 times its municipal biocapacity to satisfy its Ecological Footprint, with this being embodied within supply chains that extend far beyond the municipal boundary to draw from materials and energy across the planet, and require significant area beyond the municipality to offset carbon emissions from transportation and electricity.
Led by EFI's Senior Development Officer, Katie Kish, the team also uses the accounts to tell stories about communities. Katie worked with Southern Ontario parishes to develop a Community Footprint Calculator. This tool starts from the premise that collective community action is an integral element to climate change mitigation and that data can point groups towards effective group goals. The Community Footprint Tracker calculates a group's collective planetary footprint and subsequently generates collective goals based on the categories that present the greatest, most relevant, and impactful areas of opportunity for the community.
Opportunities abound for using Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity data to inform the world and ground environmental stories. The Ecological Footprint Initiative provides open-access data on a national basis by year and component of Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity. Data can be downloaded as an Excel workbook or through an interactive open data platform managed by Global Footprint Network. The research team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.