zondag 10 juni 2012

The Living Planet Report (2): Ecological Footprint makes for nice reading but abominable science

WWF's latest Living Planet Report presents a bleak picture, some hopeful trends, an awfully bad indicator and lots of pious words on sustainable development.

Oh boy: the Ecological Footprint

NGOs like WWF love indicators like the Ecological Footprint. Its message seems simple: if we want to continue living the way we do now, we need more planets to offset all the bad thing we do. Alas, it is one of the worst concoctions that ever came out of an econophobic environmentalist's imagination. At best it tells us things we already know. At worst it suggests policies that are harmful to people AND the environment. It is claptrap. Trash. Ecological Footprint is evil. The objections are legion, but the main ones are:

  • EF tells us nothing about how "bad" or how "serious" impacts are;
  • It depends strongly on carbon emissions and makes wildly strong assumptions on how carbon emissions are mitigated;
  • It is biased against cities and trade.

Ecological Footprint does not tell us how bad impacts are

Suppose we have two pollutants. One will, if it reaches a certain concentration, kill all life on the planet. Theoretically we can reduce its concentration with some technology that takes very little space, but because we think it is too expensive we haven't installed it yet. (Let's say we can install some device on the North Pole that sucks the pollutant out of the air.) The other pollutant causes a nasty rash among a small share of the population. Reducing its concentration requires the planting of huge areas of forest, but we can use these forests also for recreation, timber, and all other kinds of uses. Which pollutant should be banned?

EF would say: ban the second pollutant. Not because that pollutant causes a rash, not because EF aims to kill all life on the planet, but because mitigating that pollutant's emissions takes more hectares than mitigating the first pollutant. So one problem with EF is that it ignores how a given activity affects our well-being, or that of future generations. All that matters is how far we are from a steady state, and this "how far" is measured in hectares. Why hectares? Are they such good indicators of the well-being of humans, or life on Earth in general? No. But it gives you pretty pictures: you can show your readers a picture of Earth besides one or two other planets and tell people we also need the other planets. And then your readers can say: "Oh no! We need two more!" It's a great propaganda tool.

Ecological Footprint depends strongly on carbon emissions

In fact, EF ignores toxic substances altogether, because, you guessed it, they are so difficult to translate into hectares. The only exception is carbon emissions: after all, we could in theory plant trees to absorb and store carbon. (Please don't start now that carbon is not a pollutant but plant food, and that anthropogenic global warming is a leftist conspiracy to take away your SUV. Conspiracy theories give me a rash.) This is what the EF assumes: that we need to grow trees in order to absorb all the carbon we emit. No wonder carbon makes up about 50% of the global Ecological Footprint! In case you haven't noticed: the fact that 50% of the EF is caused by carbon emissions is not the result of the gravity of human-induced climate change (which I agree is serious), but of the assumptions that the EF makes on how we should mitigate those emissions (which may be or may not be realistic but is in NO way related to the consequences of human-induced climate change). Moreover, there are many ways of mitigating carbon emissions, many of which take less space than planting trees: Carbon Capture and Storage, for instance.

Ecological Footprint is biased against cities and trade

If the LPR simply presented the EF as an indicator of whether we can keep up current consumption rates indefinitely or not, it may not necessarily be wrong, although it would be useless: we already know from IPCC, IUCN, and other bodies that we are having impacts that are drastically altering ecosystems, and are likely to limit future generations' well-being. The problem so far seems to be that it is presented as a quantitative measure of how bad things are, which it is not. However, the LPR (as well as the EF's proponents) go further than that: they claim cities are evil, and they base that claim on cities' Ecological Footprint.

The reasoning is like this. Imagine a city that covers 100 km2. Of course it cannot exist on its own: after all, it is a city, population density is high, so it is impossible to feed all the city folk by growing food on the mere 100 km2 covered by that city. So it buys food from the rural areas around it. The inventors of EF claim this is a bad thing. Our imaginary city could have an ecological footprint several times its physical surface area, because all that farmland provides food to the city. So according to EF's proponents it is unsustainable, and should reduce its footprint to something more in line with its physical size. Cities are parasites on their surroundings, the EF folks claim.

This 'parasitism' is nothing more than trade. A farm's footprint is smaller than its physical area because it only uses a fraction of the food it produces: the rest is sold, mainly to city folk. This is good: farmers can specialize in farming, city folk can specialize in activities for which it pays to be close to other people, such as trade, banking, research, and education. Throughout history, cities have been hotbeds of innovation, of revolution, of new ideas being spawned, spreading, and finding fertile ground.

No wonder EF is also biased against international trade: densely populated countries (read: countries where land is in short supply) like Singapore and The Netherlands import a lot of food and timber from countries that have lots of land. This way everybody can do what he or she is best at. Really, you don't want to live in a world where everybody grows his own food, fetches his own water, generates his own energy, builds his own house, and pulls his own teeth. Trade enables division of labour, which enables us to do a lot more with the same resources.

Better indicators? Prices!

If EF is so bad, is there any other way to express the state of the world's environment in one figure? The short answer is: no. The issues are too diverse, and too numerous to be translated in a single figure. The long answer: what should such an indicator reflect? At least it should reflect how serious the issues are, because policy makers will set their priorities with the help of the indicator. Prices may be imperfect reflections of what people want, but they are still way better than an arbitrary variable like surface area. (Why not Joules? Or grams? I know: less pretty pictures.) The indicator should also reflect not only our current happiness, but also our impact on the future. So a country that throws a big party squandering its natural resources should have a lower value than a country that uses the same amount of resources more wisely. The first issue is not in EF, and the second issue only partially (and using, as I said, a poorly suited unit). Gross National Income, which is widely used by economists but also criticized by ecologists, is also a very poor indicator of wealth, mainly because it ignores natural resource depletion. But there are better, less well-known indicators: the latest edition of The World Bank's Little Green Data Book presents not only Gross National Income of different countries and regions, but also their Adjusted Net National Income, which is GNI minus consumption of fixed capital, and depletion of energy resources, minerals, and forests. And thankfully, the word "footprint" is nowhere to be found.

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