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Ecological Footprint 2.0
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by Worldchanging Intern, Alex Lowe:

To understand the subtleties and difficulties in ecological footprinting, think of accounting. In the past few years, Enron's collapse and the scandals that surrounded WorldCom gave people a small glimpse into the intricacies of accountancy. To the uninitiated, the swirl of news reports circa 2003 must have posed several questions: How hard can accounting really be? How can any grey areas exist in an activity as seemingly concrete and dry as counting beans?

But grey areas abound, and the task of accounting for nature's resources as well as their depletion from human demand is, to use the colloquial, a doozy. How can one compare the value of a single fish to that of a bushel of corn or a California redwood? How does that relationship change from the exhaust pouring out of your car or the dishwater circling your drain?

The methodology for answering these questions in ecological footprint analysis (EFA) is often criticized for being incomplete and for underestimating humanity's true impact on the environment. In response, researchers at Redefining Progress have made several amendments to the standard methodology, and given their creation the handle 'Ecological Footprint 2.0.' (Best explained by the paper Footprint of Nations, 2005 Update.)

The first improvement that Redefining Progress made is including the total surface area of the earth to estimate biocapacity, whereas the earlier methodology (hereafter called 'EF 1.0') used only the accessible regions and, most glaringly, left out the open ocean. EF 2.0 also sets aside 13.4% of the world's biocapacity for wild species. This number comes from a procedure called global gap analysis and reflects the amount of biocapacity needed for 55% of significantly threatened species to survive. EF 1.0 assumed that humans would occupy every last bioproductive hectare which leads to an artificially smaller ecological footprint and leaves no room for other species. In other words, the future envisioned by EF 1.0 has precious little work for nature photographers.

EF 2.0 also diverges from EF 1.0 in estimating the global food supply. EF 1.0 uses estimates of potential agricultural productivity furnished by the Global Agricultural Ecological Zone (GAEZ). Potential agricultural productivity measures the potential yield of food-energy from farmland in kilo-calories. While widely used, some researchers criticize this method because of its discrepancies with measurements of actual yields, such as those calculated in certain parts of Africa where actual production was significantly lower that potential production. EF 2.0 calculates the total amount of energy stored in a food source and subtracts the respiration of primary producers. This technique, called net primary productivity (NPP) estimates the full amount of available food-energy, and is a more accurate procedure for footprint needs than EF 1.0's potential agricultural productivity.

Other researchers have added to the standard EF 1.0 methodology in different ways. Experts at the Global Footprint Network have improved estimates of the footprint that international trade creates by making use of the U.N.'s COMTRADE database, which tracks more than 600 products as they move between nations. These experts have also made the leap of reporting time-trends in the Living Planet Report 2006 in units of constant 2003 global hectares. This improvement 'adjusts for inflation' so that people can compare the bioproductivity of two different years on the same scale.

The UK's Best Foot Forward research group throws two trademarked methodologies called 'Stepwise' and 'EcoIndex' into the mix, which break down the data from the National Footprint Accounts into several "categories of impact," including direct energy, materials & waste, food & drink, personal transport, water, and built land. Each of these categories can be further reduced to smaller components which let experts zero in on which objects and behaviors in everyday life press down on the environment with the most relevant footprints. For example, the study City Limits focused on the footprint of London and found that eating meat has a footprint of almost six million gha, over 24 times the size of fruit's footprint. If Londoners swore off meat, that change alone would decrease their footprint significantly.

But there are other ways that future research could refine these methods. For example, still missing from EF 2.0 and other methods is a way to account for the footprint of myriad other pollutants besides carbon. Presently, carbon is the only pollutant that ecological footprints consider. (Not surprising, considering the gravity of global warming) But there are many other pollutants that have significant deleterious effects on the environment, such as dioxins, mercury and endocrine-disruptors. With countries such as China and India growing massively in their production, these pollutants will make their impact felt by the environment as well as human health. Some pollutants, like radioactive waste, are not absorbed by the environment at all, and more refined measures must also take them into account. The work also excludes behaviors that harm ecosystems' future health, such as soil erosion and overfishing. Hopefully this will be one of the directions that research takes as scientists around the world improve their estimate of humanity's footprint.

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So can you sum up, in your opinion, which is the best footprint calculator for personal use by a North American use at this point? Is it Redefining Progress 2.0? By best I suppose I mean, most comprehensive and most accurate, not worrying about ease-of-use. (A comparison chart of different offerings would be most helpful!)

Posted by: Jeffrey Rusch on 17 Jun 07

It's great to see these improvements, and I hope there are more to come. But let's remember that Global Footprint is a model and an indicator. It can never be completely "true." It is, and will continue to be, "useful." Improvements are those that help the underlying purpose.

Posted by: David Foley on 18 Jun 07

David said something very interesting there! I've been thinking about that since I read the slightly dated yet still striking "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance".
Basically I think science is too much a search for truth (a truth which it cannot attain) and too little a search for usefulness. Whereas Science's son as I would call it, technology is all about usefulness. His creates some discrepancies which I think are part of why we have all the dirty tech. Because there's no recognition of usefulness and Quality (as explored in the aforementioned book, but you don't necessarily need to read the book to understand what I mean)- in relation to the environment, and social issues - in the science which gives birth to the technology.

I hope I haven't lost all of you here :) and I hope the people at the Global Footprint Network keep up the good and profoundly important working that they've been doing.

Posted by: Lenny on 18 Jun 07

I personally think that Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel will be remembered as the Benedetto Cotrugli and Luca Pacioli of this field. (The former two shaped today's notion of ecological footprinting, the latter two are credited with shaping double-entry book keeping, the foundation of financial accounting.) The work of those at Carnegie Mellon, Best Foot Forward, the Stockholm Environment Institute, WWF-UK, and the University of Twente, to pick out only a few others, is extending today's notion of footprinting even further, addressing some of the gaps identified above.

I had the pleasure of visiting with most of these folks at the recent International Ecological Footprint Conference hosted by Cardiff University's Business School. Have a look at the conference web site to review some of the presentations:

Posted by: j david on 20 Jun 07

Thanks for this informative overview of the state of Ecological Footprint science. Redefining Progress actually has the beginnings of Ecological Footprint 3.0 well underway -- check out the Fishprint of Nations report, in which we move at least one of our six major categories to a radically new level of accuracy and "real-time-ness." We're hoping over the next couple of years to get the whole Footprint onto much more reliable data sources, like satellite imagery.

Posted by: Michel Gelobter on 20 Jun 07



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