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Ecological footprint accounting and its critics

While sustainability can’t and shouldn’t be defined by a single number, it is still necessary that human demand be within the regenerative capacity of the planet.

Large media exposure invariably kindles critical voices. Ecological Footprint accounting and its Earth Overshoot Day are no exception. This is healthy and welcome.

Earth Overshoot Day 2019 generated more than 5,000 web-based stories, including GreenBiz commentary by Kevin Self from Schneider Electric. Two of them contested the validity of Ecological Footprint results, including another GreenBiz article, "Resource depletion is a serious problem, but 'footprint' estimates don't tell us much about it."

We respond to this latter one, first in general and then with examples.

Ecological Footprint and biocapacity accounting, is an evolving discipline that profits from criticism and fresh perspectives. Some criticism is based on misunderstandings or confusion, some on new insights and logical arguments. Both help advance the Ecological Footprint method, improve the way results are communicated and sharpen the tool’s applications.

Criticism of any assessment becomes sound and meaningful when it includes answers to at least four questions.
Criticism of any assessment, including Ecological Footprint accounting, becomes sound and meaningful when it includes answers to at least four fundamental, sequential questions:
  1. Does the assessment build on a clearly defined, testable research question?
  2. If yes, is the research question relevant to the intended audiences?
  3. If yes, are more accurate methods available elsewhere for answering this particular research question?
  4. If not, is society better off without the results this method generates?

By following such a logical analytical line, criticism becomes sharp and helpful.

For instance, the recent article in GreenBiz concludes, "The methodology [of the ecological footprint accounts are] conceptually flawed and practically unusable in any science or policy context." Yet the article lacks arguments to make that case: It does not identify the actual research question 1, hence cannot meaningfully discuss the methods validity nor the metric’s relevance or lack thereof, nor does it identify a better way of measuring, as identified by question 3.

Such undefined criticisms become based on unrelated premises and end up discussing issues outside of the research scope of what they scrutinize, in this case Ecological Footprint accounts.

What do Ecological Footprints actually measure?

Ecological Footprint accounts are designed to answer the following question: How much of our planet’s (or any region’s) regenerative capacity does any human activity demand?

Ecological Footprint accounts answer this question by contrasting two estimates: the availability of biocapacity; and the human demand on biocapacity, called the Ecological Footprint.

The Ecological Footprint represents all the mutually exclusive, biologically productive spaces that human activity demands. The Ecological Footprint of a person to satisfy his or her consumption includes demands for food, fiber, timber, space occupied for built infrastructure and the space required to assimilate waste, including emissions from burning fossil fuels. Currently, the most significant component of humanity’s Ecological Footprint is the carbon footprint.

Because of the two sides of the accounts, one can contrast human demand with biocapacity. Demand on regeneration as well as regenerative capacity are both expressed in biologically productive areas. To make areas comparable across the world and across various land-use types, areas are expressed in "global hectares" which represent world average productivity.

We see this assessment as highly relevant for sustainability, competitiveness and long-term well-being.
We see this assessment as highly relevant for sustainability, competitiveness and long-term well-being, because living within the regenerative capacity of the Earth’s ecosystems is a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for human long-term success. And, as Ecological Footprint accounting demonstrates, we are failing to meet this condition by a long shot.

Still, as with any metrics, the Ecological Footprint has clear limitations. These are identified in more detail in papers on the method, results or applications, or in the upcoming book "Ecological Footprint: Managing our Biocapacity Budget." Limitations of the metric include:

  • It is not a full metric of sustainability. They only capture the key, minimum necessary condition for sustainability: to what extent overall human demand is within the regenerative capacity of our planet. Other dimensions, such as human well-being or environmental quality, are also important sustainability issues yet are not captured by the accounts.
  • It measures aggregate regeneration and demand. These are outcome measures; in other words, the regeneration of an ecosystem is the result or outcome of the current state of soils, water availability, biodiversity and many other factors. Ecological Footprint accounts do not provide specific metrics for these sustainability factors, but both factors and outcomes are key pieces of information in addressing multifaceted issues like sustainability.
  • It does not forecast. Ecological Footprint accounts only keep track of actual activities, as any bookkeeping does. They simply record inputs and outputs as they are and provide no extrapolation as to how much biocapacity might be depleted by human activities in the future.
  • It most likely underestimates global overshoot. Ecological Footprints accounts for countries are strictly based on United Nations statistics. These statistics may not include all consumption items, and biocapacity data based on those statistics may overstate long-term productivity, since the impact of deforestation, soil depletion or water scarcity on future productivity is not captured. The GreenBiz article points this out as well, and we agree.)

Examples of misunderstandings

To illustrate the confusions, we discuss three examples of the articles’ many misconceptions:

  • "The ecological footprint for Indonesia is 1.7 global hectares per person, among the lowest 30 percent of all countries. But according to a 2014 study, Indonesia has the highest deforestation rate in the world."

    Deforestation surely is reflected in the accounts, but not by looking at per-capita Ecological Footprint of consumption. If forest products in Indonesia are exported, the footprint of these products would appear in the country of the consumer, and not counted in Indonesia’s footprint. Additionally, a per-capita measure does not correlate with a total impact — you would need to multiply this by total people. Whether Indonesia’s per-capita footprint ranks in the lowest 30 percent among all countries is irrelevant for assessing the potential for deforestation. What matters is how big its Ecological Footprint is compared to its biocapacity.

  • "The footprint calculation does not consider whether stocks of natural resources are decreasing or increasing as a result of human consumption. This question is critical for understanding ecological impacts."

    We agree this is a critical question. But the Ecological Footprint accounts just measure demand against regeneration (i.e., flows), not whether stocks increase or not. Both are important. In the finance world, there are income statements and balance sheets. Nobody would accuse an income statement for not including the balance sheet. These are both separate and important questions.

  • "These national ecological footprint calculations also conflate sustainability with self-sufficiency. They assume that every nation should produce all of the resources it consumes, even though it might be less expensive for countries to import some goods than to produce them at home."

    The accounts only describe, they do not conflate. The accounts only describe, they do not conflate. They just measure and compare Footprints of consumption and production with global or local biocapacity. They point to a logical inevitability: not all countries can be biocapacity debtors for long. Vice-versa, Footprint accounts never demand that all countries must be self-sufficient in resources.

The quoted Breakthrough article’s misconceptions are discussed here.

Deeper in the red

In essence, we agree that criticism is important and needed. For this reason, we had the National Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts tested by more than 10 national governments, and those that have reproduced the results were able to do this within a margin of 3 to 4 percent of the original results.

Criticism which is not based on actuals and which lacks clarity about the research question that the assessment is addressing only adds confusion. We’re concerned that such misrepresentations only increase entropy in a world where massive challenges require clarity and everyone’s best efforts to succeed.

The bottom-line conditions for sustainability are straightforward. While sustainability can’t and shouldn’t be defined by a single number, it is still necessary that human demand be within the regenerative capacity of the planet if we do not want to jeopardize humanity’s future.

Ecological Footprint and biocapacity accounts are akin to income statements for a business. Being in the black is a necessary condition but sustaining a long-term business is about so much more.

By our measure, humanity has been getting deeper into the red every year.

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