Humans are eating up the earth faster than it can regenerate. And some of us are consuming much more than others. Luxembourgers, the biggest consumers, gobble up natural resources at nearly 40 times the speed of those in Eritrea, the lowest consumers, according to the Global Footprint Network.
Adding up global human consumption shows we suck up more from the earth than it can produce, and generate more waste than it can absorb. In 2011, we consumed 18.5 billion hectares-worth of biocapacity when the earth had only 12 billion hectares to offer. We are like a parasite sucking its host dry.
A nation’s per capita ecological footprint is its total resource consumption divided by its population. If the world’s surface was evenly shared among its population each of us would get an average 1.7 hectares to live off in a sustainable manner.
An average resident of Luxembourg uses the equivalent of 15.8 hectares, 9 times his or her allotment. Next in the heavy footprint camp are Australians (9.8 hectares), Americans (8.2) and Canadians (8.2).
Switzerland worse than much of Europe
Per capita consumption of 5.8 hectares puts an average Swiss resident in eighteenth place internationally, ahead of Russia (5.7), Ireland (5.6), Denmark (5.5), Germany (5.3), Netherlands (5.3), France (5.1) and the UK (4.9). The next most greedy residents in Europe after Luxembourgers are Belgians (7.4).
Residents in 93 of the 150 countries included, consume at unsustainable levels. More concerning, large populations such as China’s (ranked 57th), at 3.4 hectares per head, guzzle at double the sustainable per capita level.
If every one of the 7.4 billion people on earth lived like the Swiss we would need 3.3 planets to remain sustainable.
Essentially, Switzerland’s population had consumed its annual share of the world’s resources by 22 March. Global Footprint Network refers to this date as Switzerland’s ecological deficit day.
“We have such a high ecological footprint, it would take more than three planets to support the world’s population if everyone lived the way we do in Switzerland. That’s a challenge we need to address,” said Michel Tschirren, Green Economy policy advisor at the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment.
“As a country, we’re well-endowed with human and financial capital, but we haven’t paid sufficient attention to ecological constraints, such as the ability of our ecosystems to absorb excess carbon from fossil fuels and provide biomass for energy and food,” added Mathis Wackernagel, CEO and co-founder of Global Footprint Network. “If a Swiss resident had consumed its entire annual budget in the first 82 days of the year, both she and her bank would be worried. The same should apply to our natural resources, because they are essential to our existence.”
A nation can use more natural resources and services than its ecosystems can regenerate by importing, excessively consuming its own ecological assets and emitting unsustainable amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The consequences include collapsing fish populations, deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change, much of which could be happening abroad.
Does Switzerland really have the world’s eighteenth worst environmental impact? It depends.
The 2014 Edgar database of CO2 equivalent emissions ranks Switzerland 67th out of 215 countries so the first difference is the number of countries included. The Edgar numbers look only at domestic CO2 emission equivalents from fossil fuel and cement. Most else is ignored, including much of the fuel consumed by residents on international shipping and flights. The impact of trade is also missing. Cement produced in China but used in Switzerland is not included in Switzerland’s Edgar figure. The Global Footprint Network measure includes trade.
While the two estimates are different. The country order is very similar. Luxembourg (6th), Australia (10th), the US (12th) and Canada (14th) are all still near the top and in the same order in the Edgar list. China in 40th position is dragged closer to the top partly because the emissions from goods exported are not deducted.
One of Global Footprint Network’s measures which sends an odd message is the ecological deficit ranking. This looks at how much nations consume relative to their own biocapacity. It suggests the residents of small densely populated nations such as Singapore are eco-baddies, when the opposite is surely true. City dwellers tend to live in smaller dwellings (less concrete, less heating and less cooling), take public transport (fewer car miles) and have their consumables brought efficiently to them (fewer car and truck miles). Those with big footprints, living on a large land mass score unjustifiably well on this metric. Hefty consumers such as Australia and Canada end up with unmerited green stars.
- Why there has been so little snow in the Swiss Alps this December (Le News)
- Switzerland slips to 14th place in climate change performance (Le News)
Including the impact of trade and considering the earth’s capacity for regeneration bring valuable insight. Singapore’s 16,000% biocapacity deficit shows how important it is to include trade when calculating environmental impacts and how randomly and unevenly biocapacity would effectively be shared without it. Singaporeans each have an average of only 0.1 hectare of biocapacty compared to the 16.6 hectares available to each resident of Australia.
Perhaps the key learning from these numbers is how much we need to change. No developed nation is operating sustainably.