Editor's blog: Growing footprints

Posted: 20 September 2008

Two recent reports from the Global Footprint Network provide striking evidence of the global overshoot in both population and consumption, which threatens to overwhelm our planet by eating up its natural capital while frying what is left of habitable land in excessive atmospheric heat.

Total footprint, top countries, 2003
Total footprint, top countries, 2003
Total ecological footprint, top countries, 2003
The first, on China, shows that if that country were to follow the consumption patterns of the United States - to which increasing numbers of its 1.3 billion people clearly aspire - it would demand the available biocapacity of the entire planet. (See: China's ecological footprint could cover the planet).

Not that North Americans or Europeans have anything to feel indignant about, since each citizen of the United States has an ecological footprint over five times greater than the average Chinese, and the same Chinese citizen has an ecological footprint of only 1.5 global hectares, below the world average of 2.2. China, it seems, still has the potential to reduce its total ecological footprint, while helping secure a high quality of life for all its citizens. But it will take some doing, and will need to be mirrored by an even greater effort among today's rich, high consuming, nations.

Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso
Malnourished boy Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso's government says 23 per cent acute malnutrition is not a crisis. Aid agencies say the government is the obstacle to making progress. Photo © Nicholas Reader/IRIN
The second report, on Africa, shows just how important it is for that continent to slow its runaway population growth. While the average African has an ecological footprint below the region's natural biocapacity, its projected increase in population, from one billion to over two billion by 2050, means that it is on course to grossly exceed its biocapacity. (See: Africa's population is 'nearing biological limits').

But this, too, is a situation open to powerful win-win solutions, since the biggest benefit to many African countries will come from investing in the education and health of women and men, including their ability to space and limit their family size, while designing more resilient cities and leapfrogging to the most resource efficient technologies. As Global Footprint Network Director, Mathis Wackernagel, says "There are huge opportunities to improve well-being in lasting ways while staying within our ecological constraints."

The urgency of all this is reinforced by our reports on drought and food shortages now wracking East Africa, and on the growing tragedy of child malnutrition which now affects nearly half all under-fives in sub-Saharan Africa. (See: 14 million in East Africa threatened by hunger and Nearly half sub-Saharan children malnourished).

John Rowley

PS You can see Mathis Wackernagel discussing the issues of Population and the Planet in a lively half-hour video, in a Canadian TV discussion, here.