York researchers measure how humanity’s consumption has changed since first Earth Day in 1970

water and renewable energy

An initiative at York University is measuring how humanity’s consumption of renewable resources has changed over the last 50 years – since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Research out of York’s Ecological Footprint Initiative in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, which involves faculty, staff and students, is informing people and governments about the way humans use the Earth’s resources and the planet’s capacity to provide them.

The team’s work shows that the “ecological footprint” of human consumption is 70 per cent more today than in 1970, with a large attribution of the increase to carbon footprint, or emissions. A timely finding with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22.

water and renewable energyThe ecological footprint measures the total area of the planet that is required to provide renewable resources demanded by humans, including food and fibres, forest products, lands for settlements and infrastructure, and the absorption of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

On an annual basis, the ecological footprint of human consumption is greater than the amount of resources that can be regenerated within a year, suggesting humanity is overshooting the sustainable human carrying capacity of the Earth.

Performance on these conditions can be measured by ecological footprint and its comparison to “biocapacity,” which is the amount of resources available to people at a specific moment in time to a specific population. Both are measured in the same units so that comparisons can be made about the ecological sustainability of nations.

York is working with global partners at the Global Footprint Network to produce National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts which detail ecological footprint and biocapacity for all countries from 1961 to the present. Details include the components of cropland, grazing land, built-up land, forest land, fishing grounds and the carbon footprint. These accounts are produced by a team of graduate students as part of their experiential learning in sustainability informatics.

The team’s work is empowering the Footprint Data Foundation to inform individuals, communities and government leaders to better manage limited resources, reduce economic risk and improve well-being.

The footprint shows tremendous inequities in consumption across the planet. In recent years, the average Canadian has needed about 7.74 global hectares of the planet to support its ecological footprint; the ecological footprint of Canadian consumption is about 2.8 times as much as the average of all of humanity.

These finding fuel York’s initiative to continue to measure these accounts, as humans continue to rely on the Earth to provide materials and energy, ecosystems that metabolize wastes, and places to live and build infrastructure. This dependence can be sustained as long as renewable natural resources are used at a rate that can be regenerated, and pollution is emitted at a rate that can be metabolized by nature.