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Our full, unequal world

10 iStock_000000265469_L3Ecological footprints and international trade

by Jan Otto Andersson

To ecological economists, the most compelling fact is that we are living in a “full world.” Rapid population growth and mass consumption have transformed humanity into a colossal user of nature’s services. Our “ecological footprint” – the area we require for our consumption and waste absorption – has become so big that ecosystems are being destroyed, species are dying out, climate is changing and people are losing the potential to pursue their traditional livelihoods. One of the most ambitious attempts to quantify all this is the Living Planet Report, published every two years by the World Wildlife Fund. According to the WWF’s analysis, humanity’s ecological footprint (EF) exceeded the biological capacity (biocapacity) of the earth by about 1985. As of the beginning of this millennium, the “ecological overshoot” is calculated at about 20 per cent. (See box on page 50 for definitions of these concepts.)

Of course, such calculations are estimates and are subject to many uncertainties. Nevertheless, we need some measure of the pressure human consumption is generating on renewable resources and ecosystems. For all its limitations, the ecological footprint concept is better than any other practicable concept, such as energy use or material flows. Unlike alternative indicators, EF calculations make it possible to estimate the biocapacities of different types of land and sea – cropland, grazing land, forestland and fishing grounds. The concept of biological capacity includes, first of all, the ability of the ecosystem to produce biomass, that is the quantity of plants and other organisms that can live on a given area. Second, it incorporates the capability to absorb wastes, such as carbon dioxide emissions stemming from the use of fossil fuels. By combining them, we can estimate the hypothetical upper limit of services the biosphere can supply, a limit not to be exceeded if we want to achieve ecological sustainability.

Furthermore, it is possible to estimate the biocapacity of smaller areas than the globe, such as that of individual countries. It is important to assess whether countries are maintaining their biocapacities or overusing them. Are they gradually destroying their natural capital through “overshooting”? The Global Footprint Network has measured the biocapacity, the total ecological footprint and the difference – the ecological “surplus” or “deficit” – for 150 countries (see table 1 for sample results).

Most countries have an ecological deficit. This applies for all densely populated industrialized countries – such as Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Israel. It is also true for countries that can afford high consumption levels thanks to the money they receive for oil exports: Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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About the Author

Jan Otto Andersson
Jan Otto Andersson is Docent in International Economics at the Institute for Statistics and Economic Research at Åbo Akademi University in Turku, Finland.




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