Will we have enough resources to consume and survive if 60% of the world’s population becomes urbanized by 2030? Are our cities self-sufficient entities? How are we going to satisfy the huge appetite of the growing cities and still be able the leave a livable world for our future? Two per cent (2%) of the world’s land surface, which the cities currently occupy, consumes 75% of the world’s natural resources and discharges an equal amount of waste, causing huge ecological footprints.
“Ecological footprint”, a term coined by Rees and Wackernagel in 1992, uses land as currency to measure what we have and what our demands are and how our activities impact nature. It measures the land resources required to support the current consumption levels with current levels of technology for supporting our food consumption, housing, transport and waste production. It is measured in so-called global hectares (GHA), defined as the average productivity of all biologically productive areas (measured in hectares) on earth in a given year. The figures above show how much ecological footprints have increased between the years 1961 and 2008. Against an estimated biocapacity of our planet of 1.87 hectares (per person) — as estimated by Wackernagel et al. (1999) — the average ecological footprint is now 2.2 Gha.
The point of debate in this note is not which country has larger ecological footprints, but rather to point out the fact that cities have large footprints and if we do not curb our footprint it would pose a huge challenge for the policy makers and public. The Future We Want, an outcome document at Rio+20, acknowledged that we must recognize the interlinkages among the three dimensions of sustainability and develop various tools and approaches to measure sustainability in a way that can support growth as well as health of the ecosystems.
The key question is: what are the possible ways to ensure that we bequeath a sustainable planet to our future generations? Some of the solutions proposed in various international debates and fora are:
(1) Reduce the ecological footprints by promoting conservation and sustainable use.
(2) Promote green economies, which would reduce negative environmental impacts, increase resource efficiency and reduce waste.
(3) Engage all the stakeholders of the society — the people, governments, civil society and private sector — in the job of achieving urban sustainability.
The prime thing is to reduce our ecological footprints. The ecologists, conservationists, architects and designers all have proposed several alternatives, such as adopting a landscape management approach to improve connectivity between ecosystem fragments, leaving ecosystems undisturbed, planting native species, controlling invasive species and ensuring ecological succession. These are necessary but not sufficient to bequeath a sustainable earth. Policy makers have a huge role to play to tackle environmental and social issues towards facilitating public acceptance towards naturalistic habitats in urban areas.
I am not advocating that we use a particular measure to see how damaging our activities are. Each approach offers its unique advantages and suffers from limitations. One could use various measurable indicators and environmental planning tools to know where we are heading and how to manage our resources, such as carbon footprints, Biodiversity indices for Cities, ecoBudgets, etc. These indicators are like lists, as pointed out by David Maddox in his earlier essay. Everybody likes to be on the top of the good lists (like clean, green, wealthy) and bottom of ‘bad’ lists (carbon, ecological, water footprints etc.). These lists are useful for managing our environment using different environment management tools like Integrated Management systems, Local Agenda 21, ISO 14001, European Environment Management systems etc, to know where we are heading and how to manage our resources. As mentioned, the applicability of these tools and indicators varies as the situation warrants.