Understanding the drivers of the Climate Crisis using the ecological footprint

With natural desasters happening right now which raise awareness to climate change, many of us start wondering how it could get so far – and what they can do to help. This is why in the early 90ies, Mathis Wackernagel developed the concept of the ecological footprint to demonstrate how our lifestyle affects the environment.

What is the Ecological footprint?

The ecological footprint of the world shows where this climate crisis came from.
Photo by Vishnu Prasad on Unsplash

The ecological footprint EF measures human demand on nature [1]. It is a measure of the area of biologically productive land and sea which is necessary to provide for the demands of a person, community or a country, for whichever it is calculated [2,3]. It makes our use of earth’s resources easily understandable and comparable.

The footprint includes the land used to produce food, consumer goods and energy – everything we consume on a daily basis, taking into account the use of cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest area, and carbon demand on land [4].

We live on an earth with limited resources. The footprint helps us to understand how much resources we are using in comparison to how much our earth can provide for us – and therefore how sustainable our way of living is for us as well as future generations to come.

The worldwide ecological footprint

For international comparison, the Global Footprint Network provides data each year comparing nations with each other. They use a standardized approach to compare each country based on the footprint of their own production as well as the footprint of their trade. This gives an overview of the nation’s full consumption footprint.

The biocapacity BC of a nation on the other side demonstrates its capability to absorb waste such as carbon emissions. Using this together with the ecological footprint of each nation, it can be calculated whether this nation lives on an ecological reserve or ecological deficit: Depending on whether the nation’s biocapacity BC is higher than its ecological footprint or lower (BC – EF < 0 means ecological deficit, > 0 means ecological reserve). A world map showing environmental deficits and reserves can be explored here, with reserves marked in green and deficits in red. As to be expected, most developed countries live above their ecological budget.

The ecological budget of the world shows reasons for climate change.
A world map demonstrating the ecological budget of all nations, red showing those with an ecological deficit and green with a reserve. Screenshot from data.footprintnetwork.org

Why the Climate Crisis is a global problem

A nation living above its ecological budget can be compensated by other nations, because our climate is global: We all live on the same earth, Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions don’t stop at borders. What we therefore have to evaluate is the global ecological budget: How well are we using our earth’s resources all together? If we take a look at the ecological footprint of the whole world and compare it to the biocapacity of earth, we get a clear image of what the real problem is:

The horizontal blue line at 1 demonstrates the biocapacity of our earth, which is a constant. As long as we can’t populate other planets, we only have this one earth with its limited resources and capacity. The black line is our combined ecological footprint over the timeframe from 1961 to today. It crosses the mark of the biocapacity of earth already in 1970 and has been above this ever since! This means we have been living above our budget ever since 1970. We are living on credit of generations coming after us!

Industrial development as an accelerator of the crisis

Especially the developed countries have caused the enormous increase of our worldwide ecological footprint: Looking at the same charts for Europe and Germany as an example, the trends are much worse:

In Europe and Germany we crossed the blue line much earlier due to earlier industrialization. On average we are using 3 times the resources that we have! In the worldwide chart the contributions of developed countries such as Germany are mitigated by countries with much higher biocapacity. Therefore, the worldwide trend is crossing the line later in total – still we are above it and have been for quite some time.

Furthermore, industrialization is going forward in those countries that were behind, leading to increasing footprints in those countries which have been mitigating the global trend. Industrialization leads to overconsumption, overexploitation, pollution and deforestation – all of which worsen the crisis. Together with an ever growing human population we are on a path which is pretty far from sustainable.

Industrialization and pollution drive climate change.
Photo by Thijs Stoop on Unsplash

The result: Extinction of the human race?

Global warming is just one result of the path we are on [5], which can already be seen in the extreme weather changes due to climate change. A mean temperature increase of about 1°C has already been reached and this trend will not stop anytime soon. Environmental degradation can also be seen in raising sea levels with increasing acidification and temperature of the oceans [5]. Glaciers and sea ice are melting. We are losing biodiversity on a daily basis with mass extinction of wildlife and plants. If we keep going like this, there is an existential risk for the survival of the human race [6] due to the effects on our environment.

Political actions are not sufficient

Global political agreements such as the Paris Agreement aim to stop what is happening. Many political leaders have understood that this crisis will not only affect their nation, but the whole world, and that there is no alternative. Politics have a high influence on our global ecological footprint: They can make and enforce rules that can change everyone’s behavior and thereby change the path we are on. But their actions are too slow, which is why the climate protests are raging.

Politics will have to act and will have the biggest chances to change what is happening fast. To get them to act, we have a choice:

  • By voting, we can influence political decisions!
  • By protesting, we can force politicians to act faster!
  • By changing our own behavior, we can help to change the path we are on!

Many of the things I am writing in my blog aim at changing our own behavior, because each and everyone of us has direct influence on his own contribution to climate change. Therefore we should use our own capabilities to help save the earth – for our own good just as well as for those to come. I will provide solutions in my next post – solutions to lower your own ecological footprint and make a difference!

Political actions are necessary to mitigate climate change!
Photo by Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

[1] https://doi.org/10.3390/su11072164
[2] https://www.footprintnetwork.org/faq/
[3] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/dpu-projects/drivers_urb_change/urb_environment/pdf_Sustainability/CSS_Wackernagel_footprints.pdf
[4] https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/
[5] http://doi.org/10.7930/J0DJ5CTG
[6] https://scripps.ucsd.edu/news/new-climate-risk-classification-created-account-potential-existential-threats

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