News in South Africa

News in South Africa

Your ecological footprint | Part one

written by Wessel van den Berg | Sustainability Research and Development Officer

In the previous thought piece I summarized the ideas around the triple bottom line and the embedded version of the three dimensions of sustainability (economic, social and environmental). Since posting the article we have activated a discussion function at the bottom of the article, and I would encourage all readers to add their opinion to the ideas I placed. In the article below I look at Ecological Footprinting.

The basic assumption of ecological footprinting is that you and your household take up more space or a larger footprint on the surface of the planet, than just the area your feet or your house fills. All kinds of behaviour and habits affect the space you require to live. Space could be measured in hectares of land required. These hectares would provide food or absorb waste or provide living space to name a few functions. Currently the global average per person is just over 23 ha. There are however only 15 ha available per person, on a renewable basis. You might begin to sense the problem. But letís get personal, again. The best way to get a clear sense of what footprinting is about is to measure your own.

Before you read further, go to the WWF calculator and answer all the questions as honestly as you can. (Read the word Europe as your country's name, and convert the pound symbol to your currency).

†Go to this link and click on start.

My footprint translated to 2.49 planets, and my carbon footprint was 10.39 tons of carbon generated per year. I'll touch on the idea of measuring with planets later on, but first I should mention that there are a few calculators like this available. I found many and list seven of them on this page with a nutshell review of each. Some considerations that came up as I compared them were: simplicity of use, applicability to South Africa and just plain fancy wow-ness. The WWF one was the best in general to my quick assessment.

If you went through the calculator you should have a sense of the fact that your footprint on the planet is not just affected by your house - size. It is also determined by the food, travel and stuff which make up your lifestyle. All of them have an effect on the planet.

ĎPlanetsí is a term often used in discussions about ecological footprinting. †It refers to planet Earth and emphasises the fact that we have only one planet available to support life as we know it. The footprint method translates all lifestyle impacts into actual two dimensional space required on the planetary surface. Everything we do is dependent on the earth, air, water and fire which the planet provides. Eating meat for example requires the space needed for grazing by cattle, and the various energies utilized in the processing and delivery of the meat into neatly wrapped packages in the supermarket. A meat stall on the roadside in Khayelitsha therefore has much less of an impact on the environment than a pack of steak bought from a supermarket. Meat still needs grazing and slaughtering so the impact of the meat stall is still much higher than just vegetables, but it is much less than the packaged supermarket product. A great introduction that examines the impact of the stuff we use can be found here: The Story of Stuff. The point is, it can all be linked to space which is used up. The amount of space used by each person can then be multiplied by the amount of people on the planet. You are then left with an amount of space used if everyone on the planet lived like you. Once this amount of space exceeds the amount available on the planet, we would need more planets! As I mentioned above the global average usage per person is about 23 hectares, and the available space is only 15 hectares per person.

So if everyone lived like I do, we would need 2.5 planets. We only have one, however. So why are we still able to live?

Well, there are two reasons. The first is that we have not yet depleted our resources completely. We still have time left, but not much.† Some believe our oil has begun to run out. The second reason is that not everybody lives like I do. Some, like me, live at a consumption rate of 2.5 planets, or some live at half a planet's consumption rate and some live at much more, like 14 planets.

In the next article I'll explore a comparison made between those who consume less and those who consume more, in Cape Town specifically, but also globally. Iíd like to conclude now with a request which will inform the next piece: Please go to WWF or any of the other calculators and determine your ecological footprint. Then post it below this article with the comment function. If you like, you can also say a few words about what kind of neighbourhood you live in. The most important is to post your footprint, and to read what you can do to reduce it.

I look forward to your contributions!

Join a discussion on this article on†

Image Source: Ministry for the environment New Zealand

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