Tag Archive | "Ecological footprint"

Footprints on the Pale Blue Dot

Can Everyone Be A Texan?

Many opponents of the RH Bill and of population management in general deny that the world is overpopulated. To support their denial of overpopulation, conservatives usually claim that everyone alive today can fit inside the state of Texas, leaving the rest of the planet blissfully empty of humans. A moment’s thought is enough to come up with definitive arguments against this everyone-can-be-a-Texan scenario. Unfortunately, the said scenario keeps on getting parroted, and by no less than our own anti-RH senators like Tito Sotto.

So how do we elegantly debunk the we-can-all-fit-in-Texas scenario and other similar baloney “arguments” commonly used by RH Bill opponents? The answer comes from the environmental sciences.


My Very Own Patch of Earth

How does your lifestyle affect the environment? To answer this question, environmental scientists William Reese and Mathis Wackernal invented the simple but powerful concept of ecological footprint. Your ecological footprint is the total area of bioproductive land and sea needed to sustain your lifestyle. The name ecological footprint is therefore well chosen because it essentially measures how heavily you tread on planet Earth.

The Energy Library gives the following definition of a bioproductive patch of Earth:

 1. able to produce and sustain living organisms

2. specifically, describing land area that is capable of providing natural substances that support human activities; e.g., land used for growing food crops

In other words, a bioproductive patch of Earth is an area that produces goods and performs services that have economic value to humans.

Now, let us get back to ecological footprint. I wanted to know what my ecological footprint was, so I went here to take a test that gives me a rough estimate of its value. After taking the test (I tried my best to give the most accurate and honest answers possible) I found out that my ecological footprint is around 1.8 hectares. That’s 18,000 square meters of the Earth’s sea and land that’s dedicated to support my lifestyle. (I tried other tests, and they gave me answers ranging from 0.90 hectares to 5.5 hectares. I think 1.8 hectares is the most accurate. I encourage the reader to take other tests, for example this or this.)

How do I make sense of my 1.8-hectare footprint? To make it easier to explain my ecological footprint, I tried splitting it into several divisions. (The divisions that follow are mine. Environmental scientists have yet to reach a consensus on how to divide the ecological footprint.)

A meat-eating diet translates to a large dietary footprint.

One portion of my 1.8-hectare footprint consists of the total land and sea area needed to grow and process everything I eat. This is called my dietary footprint. You can think of my dietary footprint as the total area of all the farmland, orchards and fishing areas where the things I eat are grown or caught.

Of course, I need water too. A good fraction of my ecological footprint consists of my freshwater footprint. This is the area covered by all the freshwater sources tapped to give me water for drinking, bathing, washing my clothes, flushing the toilet and many more.

The Angat Dam and Reservoir is part of our freshwater footprint.

Another part of my ecological footprint is the patch of forest and shallow seas needed to absorb my yearly carbon emission. My carbon emission is the total amount of carbon dioxide I directly or indirectly add to the atmosphere every year. For example, when I commute from home to work, I use buses, cars, and trains that run on the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is one byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels. The area needed to absorb my carbon emission is the now well-known carbon footprint. Notice that your carbon footprint is only a subset of your ecological footprint. Reducing one’s carbon footprint is good, but it’s not good enough. (Carbon footprint is more naturally measured in metric tons.)

Stanford Kay's carbon footprint infographic.

And yes, let us not forget all the waste products I produce. The area in the landfill taken up by all the non-biodegradable garbage I produce in a year can be lumped under my waste footprint. Other parts of my waste footprint include the total area required to recycle my recyclable waste and decompose my biodegradable waste.

What you throw away is still here to stay. And it becomes part of your garbage footprint.

In my day-to-day life I also need go to school, to work or to some places of leisure. To do all of this, I need to use roads, railways, airports and seaports. The said places I mostly share with other people. My share in all these built-up areas I want to call my built-up footprint. Also included in my built-up footprint are my shares in government buildings and other public structures such as shopping malls and places of recreation.

My energy footprint is my share in the area taken up by all the power plants, refineries and LPG factories built to produce the energy I consume in a year.

Ecological footprint is a measure of how heavily we tread on planet Earth.

The connections in the web of nature are delicate and intricate. Just because an area in the Amazon Rainforest remains “untouched” by humans does not mean that it is unaffected by human activities. Similarly, when we overfish one species, we are not affecting only that species but are affecting an entire food web. Overfishing tuna, for example, may greatly affect countless other marine species. My share in the human impact on habitats I’d like to call my biodiversity footprint. Biodiversity is a measure of the richness of life. There are several ways to measure biodiversity. One way is to count the number of unique species living in an ecosystem. Another measure called the Simpson index takes into account the percentage of each subspecies or breed in a given habitat. Sometimes, the number of unique habitats in a given region is also used to measure biodiversity.

What else can one find in my 1.8-hectare ecological footprint? Let me see. How about that patch of forest cleared to supply me all the paper and other wood products I use in a year? And how about that patch of mountain quarried to mine the minerals required to supply me all my metallic needs? The area needed to produce the raw materials and the goods I use in a year I’d like to lump under my goods footprint.

The foregoing breakdown of a person’s ecological footprint is far from exhaustive (and even farther from authoritative). However, I tried to outline the major components of an average person’s ecological footprint to provide the issue some perspective.

Other environmental scientists have other ways of dividing the ecological footprint.

According to estimates published by the Global Footprint Network in the National Footprints Account 2010 Edition, the ecological footprint of the average Filipino is 1.3 hectares. This is a bit higher than India’s 0.90 hectares and nearly five times lower than the Netherlands’ 6.2 hectares. The United States’ average footprint is a whopping 8.0 hectares. (Other estimates peg the average Dutch footprint at 5.9 hectares and the average American footprint at an unbelievable 9.7 hectares.)

The average citizen of the world has a footprint of 2.7 hectares. However, the average citizen of a developed country has a 6.1-hectare footprint while the average citizen of a developing country only has a 1.2-hectare footprint. This disparity comes from the differences in lifestyle and available technologies. People living in poor countries don’t have a small footprint by choice. If you barely have enough money to feed yourself, then you cannot consume much. This translates to a small footprint. However, it is known that as a developing country makes its way out of poverty, the average footprint of its citizens sees a dramatic increase.


How Many Earths Are We Gonna Need?

If everyone on Earth lived like me, how many Earths would we need? How about if everyone on Earth lived like the average Dutch? What if everyone lived like the average American? And is it true that everyone alive today can live comfortably as Texans? Before we can answer that, let’s go through some preliminaries.

It is first important to understand the concept of biocapacity. The biocapacity of a region is a measure of the population it can support. In more technical terms, biocapacity is a weighted total of the area of bioproductive land and sea in a given region. Being a weighted total, when we count the biocapacity of the world, the Sahara Desert will not contribute much even though its area is quite large. On the other hand, the biocapacity of the seas in the Philippines would be exceedingly high even though their total area is less than that of the Sahara Desert. In terms of biocapacity, two of the biggest giants are the Amazon Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef system. The Philippine seas are not far behind.

The Philippines has a relatively high biocapacity.

Biocapacity is measured in global hectares (gha.). The global hectare unit of measurement was invented to accommodate the fact that not all patches of Earth are equally productive or capable of sustaining life. However, on average, 1 global hectare is equal to 1 normal hectare. Therefore, when I say 1.30 global hectares, you can simply think of it as 1.30 normal hectares. (As a matter of fact, I have been using this simplifying assumption in the previous paragraphs.)

The total biocapacity of the Earth is estimated to be 12 billion global hectares. That is, the Earth has 12 billion hectares of land and sea that is capable of sustaining human life. If human civilization uses less than 12 billion hectares, then it can exist for an indefinite period of time. Humans can exist for very long if they use up less than 12 billion hectares of Earth because nature has the ability to repair itself even after human damage has been done. A civilization that uses less than 12 billion hectares of the Earth has a sustainable existence.

Recall, however, that the average person on Earth has an ecological footprint of 2.7 hectares. There are more than 7 billion people alive today. If every one of them has a footprint of 2.7 hectares, this puts total footprint of humanity at around 19 billion hectares. In other words, human civilization is currently exploiting around 19 billion hectares of the Earth’s land and sea for all of its operations.

But wait, something seems wrong. Didn’t I just say that the Earth has only 12 billion hectares of sustainably useful land and sea? But why is human civilization using 19 billion hectares? What’s going on here?

The discrepancy in the Earth’s total biocapacity and human civilization’s total ecological footprint results in what is called unsustainable existence. At present, human civilization is degrading the Earth’s capacity to support life by operating with a deficit of 7 billion hectares.

If you divide 19 billion hectares by 12 billion hectares, you’d get something close to 1.5. This means that to sustainably support human civilization’s current operation, we’re going to need 1.5 Earths – that is, 1½ Earths. But we’ve only got one planet. This doesn’t sound good.

And it only gets worse. Remember that the world’s population is growing at an alarming rate. The human population growth rate in the year 2011 was estimated to be 1.8%. If this does not decrease significantly, then by the year 2016 the world population will be at 7.4 billion! Assuming the average ecological footprint per person remains at 2.7 hectares, by 2016 the total ecological footprint of human civilization is already 20 billion hectares. By then we’ll need 1 and 2/3 Earths!

But the assumption that the average ecological footprint per person remains at 2.7 hectares is unrealistic. All indicators show that as Third World countries emerge out of poverty, their ecological footprint will increase by as much as 400%. Assuming a steady rate of development in the Third World, the ecological footprint of the average person in the year 2016 will increase to 2.9 hectares. If 7.4 billion people each have a footprint of 2.9 hectares, this means that by 2016, humanity’s total footprint will reach 21.5 billion hectares. By that time, we’re going to need 1 and ¾ Earths to sustain such an operation!

One and three quarters Earths is hardly the size of the state of Texas. There goes the everyone-can-be-a-Texan scenario down the drain!

Here’s another way to play the game. It is widely known that for most people living in the developing world, the American lifestyle is the paragon of progress. For example, middle and upper class Filipinos show all the signs of wanting to live like Americans. But what does the American lifestyle cost planet Earth? Recall that the average American has an ecological footprint of 8.0 hectares. If all the 7 billion people alive today were to live like Americans, the total ecological footprint of human civilization would be a gargantuan 56 billion hectares! To support such a footprint, we’re going to need 4 and 2/3 Earths!

But what if we live like Western Europeans? They’re not as consumerist and wasteful as the Americans, after all. If we all live like the average Dutch, then our footprint per person will be 6.2 hectares (this will include the area of all the cannabis farms, oh yeah). If all the 7 billion people alive today were to live like the Dutch, then our total footprint as a civilization will be 43 billion hectares. We’ll be still running a huge deficit since the Earth has only 12 billion hectares to offer. To support 7 billion people living like the average Dutch, we’ll need 3 ½ Earths. It’s not as bad as the 4 2/3 needed when we’re going to live like Americans. However, 3 ½ Earths is still something we don’t have.

We have but one planet Earth. We have but one Pale Blue Dot.

That pale blue dot is all we have for now. And we are overtaxing it.


How Many Philippines Are We Gonna Need?

Now let us take the numbers game to the local level. Recall that the average Filipino footprint is 1.3 hectares. That is in fact a small number. If all of the 7 billion people alive today were to have a footprint that size, we’re going to need less than one Earth.

Sounds great? Nope. Here are the reasons why.

First, the fact that you are reading this implies that your footprint is probably larger than 1.3 hectares. How do I know this? Well, you have Internet connection at home, don’t you? If you don’t, at least you have money to spend on computer rental. Either way, the fact that you are reading this implies that you are more affluent that the average Filipino. As of November 2011, there are 101 million Filipinos alive. A person who can go online and read this essay is certainly in the upper quartile of that 101 million and even probably part of its upper 10%. (Yes, you don’t have to be rich to be part of the Philippine’s most affluent 10%. After all, ten percent of 101 million is more than 10 million.)

So yes, to have a 1.3-hectare ecological footprint you have to live like the average Filipino, which means you have to be really poor. Of course, Mr. or Ms. Average Filipino does not exist in real life, but if you take a quick look at the standard of living of most Filipinos, you will get an idea of how our hypothetical Average Filipino will live if he were alive.

Second, even with the seemingly small 1.3-hectare ecological footprint, we are already over taxing our beautiful country. According to the National Footprints Account, the Philippine islands and its surroundings seas have a total biocapacity exceeding 115 million hectares. That’s pretty big for a country the size of the Philippines. As a matter of fact, the Philippines contains nearly 1% of the world’s total biocapacity. This should be a small wonder given that the Philippine seas are among the richest in the world. However, all this richness is being degraded because we are running on an ecological deficit. If all the 101 million Filipinos alive today were to have a 1.3-hectare footprint, the national footprint of the Philippines will be 131 million hectares. This is obviously larger than the 115 million hectares we have. The difference between our national footprint and our national biocapacity translates to environmental degradation. Environmental degradation includes but is not limited to deforestation, land and water pollution, habitat and biodiversity loss and resource depletion. Also, because of our current economic set-up, this also translates to social inequity.

The Philippines is 3rd best in the world. In terms of deforestation, that is.


How Can We Save the Earth? How Can We Save the Philippines?

There is an umbrella answer to the questions above: We must reduce our ecological footprint. But how doe we do that? Now that is the subject for another post.

For now, the lesson I want all of you readers to take home is this: We can all fit in Texas, but we can’t all live in Texas. Since one obvious way to reduce our ecological footprint as a nation and as a civilization is to curb the population explosion, population management measures like the RH Bill are both important and urgent. Anyone familiar with the quadrants of priorities knows that such important and urgent bills must be top priority. Unfortunately, many people in power have very skewed sense of priorities. For those of you who know how to prioritize properly, I urge you to keep on supporting the RH Bill. The fight for the RH Bill is a fight not only for the Filipina mothers, it is also a fight for Mother Earth.


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