Humanity’s ecological footprint : “To infinity and beyond” Earth’s biocapacity ?
Going over the possibility of decoupling and some economic myths, let’s look at what the Earth is telling us. When we talk about Earth’s fate at a time when a single species is a major geological force, there are two inescapable notions to address: ecological footprint and biocapacity.
What are these two notions telling us about the state of the world and its becoming?
The ecological footprint, which is humanity’s impact on the planet, is essentially threefold:
– the amount of resources we use,
– the amount of waste and pollution that we discharge,
– the various degradations that we inflict on ecosystems.
Earth’s biocapacity, or bio-productive capacity, is its ability to regenerate the resources we take from it. It refers also to the capacity of ecosystems to absorb excessive CO2 among other pollutants and its ability to regenerate following the damage we inflict on it.
In systems dynamics, we learn that the continuity of a system doomed if the ecological footprint over this latter is greater than its biocapacity. Graphs of the “Great Acceleration”, allow us to see the socio-economic trends and dynamics affecting Earth system from 1750 to 2010.
When we look at how the earth system is changing, we see that the ecological footprint curve looks like an exponential. The various indicators clearly show that the profound changes in terrestrial balances are due to the human activities and exceed the margin of variability of the Holocene.
To give an example of this great acceleration: if someone went to bed in 1020 and woke up 200 years later in 1220, he would wake up in a world with a little more people, a similar life expectancy (about 30 years) and with a majority of people still using wood for heating and animal traction for many activities.
On the other hand, if someone went to bed in 1820 and slept for 200 years, he would wake up today in a world with 7 times more people on Earth, living 2.5 times longer, and using different resources to heat their homes, run electronics and industries. This Great Acceleration happened because since the 1800s we have been exploiting fossil fuels and their high energy intensity to extract and use planetary resources as never before.
Source : http://anthropocene.info/great-acceleration.php
The problem is that human’s ecological footprint is only increasing. This set of 24 global indicators, or “global dashboard”, trace human activity from the very beginnings of the industrial revolution in 1750 to 2010, and therefore the curves are almost all exponential or tend to be exponential. What is certain is that we are not observing any decrease in these trends.
Arthur Keller, a consultant on complex systems vulnerabilities and collective resilience strategies, has depicted several curves of the ecological footprint and biocapacity using systems dynamics to see the different imaginaries we have for the future.
The first type of imaginary is to think that humans have almost no impact on the planet and that biocapacity is so far away that we don’t need to worry about it. Or that we will manage to push it back, as it has been the case with the discovery of fire, then fossil fuels or with the green “revolution” thanks to the military industry.
The second type of imaginary, for those who understand that the ecological footprint is not really exponential but rather sigmoid, is to believe that we can limit our ecological footprint sufficiently to guarantee our current standard of living. All of it can be made through laws, political, normative or legislative measures and ,of course, innovation.
Among them, there are some who believe that we must bring humanity’s ecological footprint down again, but by continuing to increase GDP, which would lead to decoupling GHG emissions from the economy.
But as we have seen, this belief fails in the face of scientific analysis since there has never been an absolute decoupling (an ecological footprint that decreases while the economy grows). There has only been a relative decoupling (the ecological footprint grows less quickly than the economy) and most believers of such a decoupling, mostly talk about GHG emissions, but our ecological footprint, even with circular economy, is going way further than GHG only. Another issue is that today, to make a GDP point, we still use more resources than in the 1970s. According to the Global Footprint Network, the reality is rather that the ecological footprint has exceeded the earth’s biocapacity since the 1970s.
We now come to the third imaginary, which brings together the proponents of degrowth (economic, material or both) and which can be distinguished in several trends, with one thing in common : they all want to stabilize the footprint below biocapacity to avoid an infernal future by ensuring earth system’s and human societies’ resilience. As mentioned in my previous article, the opposition between crescents and decrescent crystallizes the debate.
The last one is the one that is currently taking place, the one in which we do not envisage a strong regulation of the world demand for resources, in which we think in terms of stocks and not flows, the situation in which we aim for efficiency rather than sobriety and which is therefore disinterested in the limits of the earth’s capacity. The most important agreements that have been made so far, and which, even if they were respected, would lead us to more than 3°C of global warming, that is to say in a state of global food instability, relate only to CO2 emissions and are based on continuous economic growth. At this point, the Paris Agreement is insufficient. From dynamics of systems, we know we are heading towards a biocapacity’s descent and thus towards an ecological footprint descent, which is supposed to fall below biocapacity. Today, if the global ecological footprint goes down, the economic activity, the functioning of our societies and ultimately comfort goes down too. This fall will therefore be all the more drastic as biocapacity is reduced.
For this scenario, now everything comes down to how we will manage the energy and material descent by developing a resilient approach and improving the quality of our lifestyles while we still have a cheap and easy access to energy and raw materials.
Unfortunately, for the time being, all the policies that tackle climate change are aimed at decoupling, and the same is true for the majority of prospective energy transition studies. There is, therefore, a need to develop tangible scenarios and always integrate them into the stable living conditions provided by the equilibrium of Earth systems.