In World Cup of Environmental Footprints, Tops Not Boss

As the 2014 World Cup finals draw near, the nations left standing in the grueling tournament are soccer powers Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and host, Brazil. These teams have endured through this Cup’s pleasing blend of strong play, competitiveness and surprise, and deserve to be top-of-the-heap.

One minor World Cup surprise was the gritty on-field performance of the United States. But there is no surprise when it comes to country’s dominance in natural resource use and waste generation. If there was a World Cup that accounted for such an “environmental footprint,” then US residents would have few if any peers worldwide.

But winning the World Cup of large environmental footprints is no triumph.

Instead, the large environmental footprint of a US resident is unsustainable given the Earth’s limited natural resources and ability to absorb waste. The growing problem is that the US production and consumption patterns are often being emulated globally. This is the finding of “Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint,” a recently published article in Science by Arjen Hoekstra, Water Management professor at the University of Twente. Unlike the simplicity of a World Cup scoreboard, Hoekstra and coauthor Thomas Wiedmann of the University of New South Wales define the environmental footprint as the overall measure of humanity’s strain on the natural environment. The concept combines the various footprint methods that account for, among others, separate ecological, carbon and water footprints, which calculate values for biocapacity (land limitations), carbon emissions and water use and pollution, respectively.

Best known as the creator of the Water Footprint concept, Hoekstra describes the importance of a comprehensive approach to human sustainability:

Obviously, production and consumption patterns do not relate to water use and pollution alone, but to use of land, energy and materials as well. Ideally, we find ways to reduce all our different sorts of footprint at the same time - which happens for instance when we move to healthier diets containing less meat and sugar. Other times, trade-offs between, for instance, water and energy will be needed. For instance, it makes sense from a water point of view to import water-intensive commodities in water-scarce areas, but this carries an energy footprint. Reversely, moving away from fossil fuels to biofuels from maize or rapeseed may reduce our carbon footprint, but will increase our water footprint, because the crops have to be grown. In this latter case, we must search for better fossil fuel alternatives. We thus need to look at our full environmental footprint holistically.

By most footprint measures, humanity has either approached or surpassed what is environmentally sustainable, which closely follows the nine Planetary Boundaries that quantify sustainability thresholds for, among others, the use and cycling of land, water, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. The facts are stark. For instance, humanity’s ecological footprint (EF) now exceeds available land carrying capacity by 50 percent or, in other words, we need 1.5 Earths to live. Worse, the present day EF is more than double that of 1961. Regarding the world’s carbon footprint (CF), just as it continues to grow – witness current carbon levels at 400 ppm for three consecutive months – the CF needs a 60 percent reduction by 2050 to cap  global warming to the maximum target of 2°C.

As for water, at certain periods of the year the blue water footprint, or the consumption of surface and groundwater, sustainable water levels are outstripped within half the world's river basins. Pertaining to water pollution, also called the grey water footprint, two thirds of the world’s river basins are considered polluted.

These environmental challenges are a direct result of how we produce and consume goods today, helped along by the globalization process and the wide distribution of lower-cost technologies and products. Trends show that there are more people around the globe gaining access to higher living standards, but that transition is hardly consistent nor equitable.

To confront this challenge, Hoekstra writes about the goals of higher global living standards for all while living within the bounds of the environment, calling for the environmental footprint of humanity to shrink back toward sustainable levels, while individual footprints converge to similar, more equitable shares. To successfully address inequality, decision makers will need to incorporate the specifics and nuance of a local population’s circumstances and needs, posits another new paper. Even though natural resources are used locally, they become international commodities.

Even as the World Cup displays the unique local and domestic characteristics of a nation’s soccer style, there remains one set of rules to guide play and keep score. Likewise, Hoekstra recommends the establishment of a common set of environmental footprints based on mutually agreed upon benchmarks to ensure that humanity can sustain itself. That will require consumer-driven societies to acknowledge the many resources involved in the consumption of goods and services so as to make better choices. At the same time, businesses and governments must make production systems more sustainable and efficient through better accounting, management and incentives.

With this great shift in perspective – and goals, the environmental footprint World Cup will become competitive only when everyone agrees upon the rules of the game and where play sparks competition with the current, unsustainable champion. In that scenario, regardless of who’s on top, the whole world wins.