Environment & Poverty Times
UNEP/GRID-Arendal Ecological creditors and debtors A planet in ecological debt
clear that there is no advantage in waiting. While collective agreements will certainly accelerate action, delaying action incurs a growing cost and risk.
Non EU Europe
Asia and Pacific
As ecological reserves become increasingly rare, it will become critical for creditor and debtor nations to forge new relationships and move toward policies that protect natural as- sets while improving health and well-being. In this game, everyone can win. Every single person will benefit from early action.
Middle East and Central Asia
Latin America and the Caribbeans
By Mathis Wackernagel
A version of this article first appeared in the Commonwealth Ministers Reference Book 2009
We are all familiar with the concept of credi- tor countries, that is, countries that extend fi- nancial resources to regions far outside their borders. But there is another type of credi- tor nation that underwrites the economies and livelihoods of distant shores. So-called ecological creditors are countries that have more biocapacity (ability of their ecosystems to produce resources) than they use for their own benefit. By providing ecological services – ranging from exporting resources in the form of wood products, for example, to removing CO2 from the atmosphere – they provide many ecological services the rest of the world’s countries rely upon.
More than three-quarters of the world’s population now lives in countries that are ecological debtors – they use more resources and ecological services than the ecosystems within their borders produce. This has changed drastically since just five decades ago, when the vast majority of the world’s people lived in countries with ecological re- serves. As the number of ecological creditor nations dwindles, the resource pressures on those remaining surpluses increase and a clear challenge emerges: not everyone can be a net importer of resources. Much of Latin America, as well as New Zealand, Canada, Gabon, Finland, Botswana, Australia and others, are still in an ecological creditor situation, which might significantly – and positively – affect their future economic standing and competitiveness, if resources are managed well. Conversely, those eco- logical debtor countries that are preparing themselves for resource constraints will be far better equipped to navigate the future. Recognizing this new geopolitical shift can help put the climate negotiations on a much more productive path.
This is why: ecological debtor countries depend on the health of ecological assets in creditor countries. It is very much in their interest both to become less dependent on such assets, and to support creditor coun- tries in managing those assets carefully.
Through our Ecological Creditor and Debtor Initiative, Global Footprint Network is
1 square = 2 global hectares per capita
Ecological Footprint exceeding Biocapacity
More than 150% From 100 to 150% From 50 to 100% Up to 50%
Source: Global Footprint Network, 2008.
convening key policy experts and decision- makers to initiate a dialogue on the growing significance of biocapacity for economic pros- perity and stability. If we succeed, policy-mak- ers will start to recognize both the tangible benefits of maintaining ecological assets and the risk that liquidating these assets poses to their nations’ long-term interests.
Avoiding the impending resource crunch The shift of many nations from being eco- logical creditors four or five decades ago to ecological debtors today is part of a larger global trend. In the early 1960s, humanity consumed only about half of what planet Earth could provide. In the mid-1980s, humanity began to demand resources and ecological ser- vices faster than the earth could renew them, a condition known as ecological overshoot. Since then, growing human population and per capita resource consumption have caused overshoot to escalate. Our accounts conclude that in 2005, the most recent year for which data are available, human demand exceeded by 30% what the earth could renew.
The symptoms of overshoot are clear and pressing: rapid climate change, crop shortag- es, biodiversity loss, freshwater stress, shrink- ing forests and depleted fisheries. Yet, so far, global negotiations around environmental crises have been mired in dragged-out debates and deadlock, with no significant moves to- ward implementation. Most political leaders see little strategic upside to bold action and aggressive policy. The path to reaching global agreements (such as the emerging Copenha- gen agreement on climate change) has been extremely fragile; now with the world’s shaky economic situation, there is an especially high likelihood of monkey-wrenching.
Incorporating a creditor/debtor view of the world into the discussion brings an invigorat- ing element of national and regional self-in- terest. Creditor countries have the economic, political and strategic motive for preserving their ecological assets, while debtors have a direct interest in reducing their exposure by minimizing their resource dependence.
In recognizing that humanity is moving at great speed into resource constraints, and that reinventing our urban infrastructure so it can cope with these constraints takes time – possibly several decades – it becomes
Biocapacity exceeding Ecological Footprint
From 0 to 50% From 50 to 100% From 50 to 100% From 50 to 100%
RICCARDO PRAVETTONI - 2009
The challenge for creditors and debtors It is now generally accepted that running a trade deficit involves risks, but the same is not true of ecological deficits. Consider the United Kingdom. In 1961, it was one of only a handful of countries in the world where the population’s demands on nature exceeded the country’s biocapacity. At that time, it used nearly twice what its ecosystems could renew. In the last four and a half decades, however, that spread has nearly doubled. The UK now demands resources of more than three times its biocapacity – and at the same time, the number of countries with ecological reserves able to provide the eco- logical services it needs is shrinking rapidly.
As for ecological creditors, the future doesn’t give them an advantage if they don’t prepare well and avoid the pitfalls. Tanzania and Botswana are still creditors, but their ecologi- cal remainder is shrinking rapidly. Climate change, expanding population and other factors are increasing the pressure on each country’s ecological assets. Without such a remainder, it will be more difficult for those countries to succeed in the global economy, particularly as it will become increasingly difficult in a world with global overshoot to access ecological services from abroad.
The Ecological Creditor Initiative will help countries think through these various chal- lenges and develop strategies that recognize nature as a core asset. In the long term, these discussions could shift the way we value and negotiate resources in the 21st century, providing clear strategic and economic advan- tages for nations to become more resource- efficient and bolster their ecological reserves.
In April, Global Footprint Network met with policy experts and government representatives in Lima, Peru, to kick off the initiative and begin a series of workshops on the growing significance of biocapacity and its potential for competitive advantage in a resource-con- strained world. The organization will continue to hold meetings and convene international work sessions throughout the year, including hosting a side-event at Copenhagen. Next year, Global Footprint Network plans to present a summary of the work session findings at a wide range of international forums and con- ferences, leading up to a Presidential Gather- ing on Biocapacity in late 2010.
Once leaders begin to understand the inher- ent value of ecological assets, the paradigm will shift from “the more we reduce resource consumption and waste emission, the more difficult it is for us to be competitive” to “the more we reduce resource consumption, the greater our well-being and the lower our risk.”
It changes the equation from a negative sum game, where financial wealth is generated at the expense of the environment, to a positive sum game, where the economic objective becomes securing the best lives using the fewest resources.
About the author: Mathis Wackernagel, Ph.D., is founder and Executive Director of Global Footprint Network. For more information on the Ecological Creditor and Debtor Initiative, go to www. footprintnetwork.org/creditors
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