How is sustainable development linked to ecological footprint
According to the Brundtland Report, sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In this definition, two challenges are worth nothing: meeting the needs of world’s poor, as well as the environmental limitations brought about by technological advancements and social organizations. According to Ruzevicius (2010), “a country’s social and economic development should be oriented such that the satisfaction of our present day needs would not affect the opportunities for satisfying the needs of future generations”. In the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report called “Our Common Future”, it emphasizes that public organizations, enterprises, and governmental organizations should combine efforts to solve pressing environmental concerns, since they pose such a huge risk to the existence of society today.
Presently, ecological footprint is one of the indices used to measure the progress of sustainable development. It is preferred since it is simple to use, straightforward to explain, and a great didactic tool to convey concepts of ecological deficit and environmental degradation. However, like many other indicators of sustainable development, it has its shortcomings and should not be relied on as an integral indicator of sustainability.
Sustainable development can be divided into three interconnected components—environmental, economical and sociopolitical sustainability. These are known as the three pillars of sustainable development. Therefore, sustainable development does not just focus on environmental quality, it gives equal priority to economic prosperity and social equity as well. Many indices are used to track progress in these 3 areas; an example is ecological footprint.
Ecological footprint is a partial, not integral, indicator of sustainable development because it covers mainly the environmental sustainability aspect, but neglects the economic and sociopolitical components. Ecological footprint is defined as “the land area necessary to sustain humanity’s resource consumption and waste discharge” (footprintnetwork.org). It measures the speed at which we consume natural resources and generate waste, and compares it to the speed at which nature assimilates our waste and produces new resources (footprintnetwork.org). It also highlights the fact that humanity continues to exploit nature to achieve growth, while acting as if our existence is not at all connected to the well being of the environment.
Even though a decrease in resource consumption is one of the requirements of sustainable development, it seems that ecological footprint is not the ideal metric for sustainable development. A low ecological footprint is a positive sign, but it does not necessarily translate into economic prosperity or social equity. Ecological footprint does not address the importance of fulfilling basic human needs, nor does it account for many important qualitative aspects of resource harvest and management, such as the slash and burn of rainforests or the killing of dolphins due to by-catch.
Since sustainable development is a three-pillar system, ecological footprint must be combined with other indices to give us a more comprehensive picture of sustainable development progress. Individual wellbeing, economic progress and social equality sometimes cannot be evaluated accurately since it cannot be converted into ecological footprint’s unit of measurement global hectares. To date, there are no indicator sets that are globally accepted, supported by compelling evidence, and influential in policy making.
This is due to the ambiguity surrounding sustainable development, the plurality of purpose in measuring sustainable development, and the confusion of terminology and measurements (Parris, 2003). A few indicators that could be coupled with ecological footprint to form a more inclusive measurement include Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Wellbeing Index, and Living Planet Index. GPI is a measure of economic performance that takes into account the economic contributions of volunteer and household work, while removing negative factors like environmental degradation, crime and family breakdowns (Parris, 2003).
GPI is a measure of sustainable economic welfare, not just economic activity. A rise in GPI indicates a rise in stocks of natural and social capital on which all goods and services flow (Talberth, 2006). Living Planet Index measures the change in state of global biodiversity over time, including populations of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species (Loh et al, 2005). The Wellbeing Index has two components: human and ecosystem. The human Wellbeing Index is composed of indices for health, wealth, knowledge and equity. The ecosystem Wellbeing Index has indices for water, air, land, species and resource use (Parris, 2003). All these indicators could be used complementarily as a more integrated way of tracking sustainable development.
Even though ecological footprint is not a comprehensive measurement of sustainable development, it is a great indicator or “warning system” for any improvements needed in the pursuit of sustainable development. Ecological footprint is known as a negative ecological indicator since the higher its value, the worse the implications (Ruzvicius, 2010). It helps us acknowledge the challenge that we are facing and aids in directing us towards the path of sustainable living. It educates people about carrying capacity and the dangers of overconsumption, in an attempt to alter individual behavior.
It can also inform policy by evaluating the extent to which a nation’s consumption is exceeding the resources it contains. By explaining the correct use of natural resources, ecological footprint helps decision makers and authorities formulate social, political and environmental norms and aims more effectively (Ruzevicius, 2010). Measuring ecological footprint will also help us assess the pressure we are putting on our planet and help us manage our assets more wisely, as well as learn to take personal and collective action (Costanza, 2000) On top of helping to inform resource management and production choices, ecological footprint keeps the market as a whole on an efficient path, as well as serve as an indicator of the consequences of current flawed resource distribution system, while possibly influencing new distribution systems (Parris, 2003).
How exactly is ecological footprint measured, and what do the values mean in terms of sustainable development? Ecological footprint expresses its results of analysis in spatial units (global hectares/ gha) that can be easily communicated to allow for comparison of human consumption with nature’s limited productivity (Holmberg, 1999). Generally, the higher the ecological footprint value, the farther we are away from goals of sustainable development. In 2007, the world average ecological footprint was 2.7 gha per person.
Comparatively, a Canadian needs 8 hectares of productive land to provide for his/ her level of consumption (Holmberg, 1999). If ecological footprint value is inversely linked to sustainable development, then Canadians do not seem to be on a path of to sustainable living. Developed countries usually have higher ecological footprint than third world countries; and their damaging power to the environment is greater. In this sense, third world countries are the ones with high biocapacity and low resource demand (Ruzevicius, 2010).
Although this does not mean that they have high standards of sustainable development, it does mean that they have a much lower environmental impact than those in developed countries. In some countries, their ecological footprint has surpassed their biocapacity, resulting in an ecological deficit. This indirectly puts a strain on the country’s economic growth, creating a greater need for measures that will help lead it towards sustainable development.
If there continues to be no change in global resource demand and consumption, we will need two more planet Earths to sustain our lifestyle. Therefore, economically developed countries need to prepare sustainable development strategies that involve development in renewable resource production, as well as improvement in sustainable trade standards globally (Ruzevicius, 2010). The core of sustainability consists of the protection of natural capital, including its ability to renew and regenerate itself. Reliable measures of supply and demand of natural capital are crucial for tracing progress, forming targets and pushing forward policies for sustainability (Monfreda, 2004).
In order to do this, sustainability indicators like ecological footprint can be used, especially to track environmental impact following economic development. Along with several other sustainability indicators like GPI, Living Planet Index and Wellbeing Index, we can get a comprehensive and extensive picture of the current state of sustainable development, including future trajectories and goals. While infinite expansion of the human enterprise is impossible, we can shift our aim towards an expansion that is environmentally sound, economically prosperous, and socially equitable—one that is ultimately, sustainable.
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