Humanity now demanding 1.4 Earths

Posted: 26 November 2009

It would now take nearly one and a half Earths to generate all the resources humanity consumes and absorb all our CO2 emissions, according to the latest Ecological Footprint and biocapacity calculations. These figures are based upon source data from 2006, the most recent year for which such data are available, and are released on the eve of the Copenhagen climate conference by the Global Footprint Network.

The data show that humanity's demand on the biosphere for providing natural resources and absorbing carbon dioxide emissions is 44 per cent more than what nature can provide. This ecological overshoot means it now takes approximately 18 months for the Earth to regenerate what we use in one year. The urgent threats we are facing today - most notably climate change, but also biodiversity loss, shrinking forests, declining fisheries and freshwater stress - are symptoms of this trend.

Demand on biosphere
Demand on biosphere
Graph shows the breakdown of humanity’s demand on the biosphere for providing natural resources and absorbing carbon dioxide emissions. The demand in 2006 was 44 per cent more than what nature can provide.
"The future will be shaped by these resource limitations, so, it's clearly in the self-interest of every country to transition quickly from carbon and resource-intensive economies to the economies of the future." Global Footprint Network President Mathis Wackernagel said. "While international agreements are critical, many nations are not taking a 'wait-and-see' approach, rather they are investing now to take advantage of the world's demand for renewable energy and clean technology.

Who uses what

Every year, Global Footprint Network calculates the Ecological Footprint of the world's nations and humanity as a whole, and compares that with biocapacity, the amount of resources nature is able to produce. The data show that in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, humanity's Ecological Footprint grew almost 2 percent from the year before, and 22 per cent from a decade before, due to both rising population and per capita consumption. At the same time, biocapacity has not increased, and may even have fallen slightly.

The average Ecological Footprint per person worldwide is 2.6 global hectares (6.5 global acres), while the average biocapacity available per person is 1.8 global hectares (4.5 global acres.) But some countries' level of ecological demand per person is much higher than world average, and some is much lower.

The United Arab Emirates has the highest Ecological Footprint per capita, 10.3 global hectares (26 global acres). The Emirates adopted a national Ecological Footprint Initiative in 2007 and has been working to reduce its Footprint. Along with investing billions in renewable energy and other sustainability initiatives, UAE researchers and government agencies are working with Global Footprint Network to identify policies that could significantly cut the country's per capita Footprint.

The average American has an Ecological Footprint of 9.0 global hectares (23 acres) - the size of 17½ American football fields. The average European has a Footprint of 4.5 global hectares, half that of the average American, but still well above both the world average and what is available per person.

Global deficit 2006, selected countries
Global deficit 2006, selected countries
On the other end of the scale are Malawi, Haiti, Nepal, and Bangladesh, with Footprints of about half a global hectare (1.25 acres), in most cases too small to provide for basic food, shelter and sanitation.

Population growth

Population is another critical factor driving overshoot. The productivity of our ecosystems has not kept pace with increases in population. The result is that as our numbers expand, the amount of biocapacity available per person shrinks.

The US now requires 23 per cent of world biocapacity, while China - which has a much lower per capita Footprint but over four times greater total population - requires 21 per cent. Together, China and the US require almost half of all human demand on nature's services. China's resource use is rising at a much faster rate due to population growth, suggesting it will soon surpass the US in total consumption, although the US remains much higher per person.

Changing the curve

Despite these sobering findings, there are key opportunities to change our trajectory. "Even as world leaders have acknowledged that an agreement at Copenhagen is out of reach, governments we work with from Ecuador to the United Arab Emirates are seeing the importance of taking bold unilateral action."

"Once city, country and business leaders realize that the best way to remain competitive and prepared for the future is to make the policy decisions and drive the technological innovations we need to live within nature's means, we will begin to change these trends," Wackernagel said. "The good news is that, many governments we work with are moving forward to reduce their Ecological Footprint, no matter what happens next month in Copenhagen. These leaders realize the longer they wait, the greater the risks to their economies and their citizen's well-being.