Resource depletion is a serious problem, but ‘footprint’ estimates don’t tell us much about it — Robert B. Richardson #overshootday2019

From The Conversation (Robert B. Richardson):

Experts widely agree that human activities are harming the global environment. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world economy has grown dramatically. Overall this is a success story, since rising incomes have lifted millions of people out of poverty. But it has been fueled by population growth and increasing consumption of natural resources.

Rising demand to meet the needs of more than 7.6 billion people has transformed land use and generated unprecedented levels of pollution, affecting biodiversity, forests, wetlands, water bodies, soils and air quality.

It’s pretty certain that humans are consuming more resources than the Earth can regenerate. An updated estimate of how fast that consumption is happening suggests it’s more rapid this year than in the past 50, according to the California-based Global Footprint Network. This environmental nonprofit calculates the annual arrival of Earth Overshoot Day – the date when humanity’s demands on nature exceed what the network’s analysts estimate the Earth can regenerate over the entire year. This year they peg the date as July 29 – the earliest date since ecological overshoot began in the early 1970s.

As an ecological economist and scholar of sustainability, I am particularly interested in metrics and indicators that can help us understand human uses of Earth’s ecosystems. Better measurements of the impacts of human activities can help identify ways to sustain both human well-being and natural resources.

Earth Overshoot Day is a compelling concept and has raised awareness of the growing impact of human activities on the planet. Unfortunately, the methodology used to calculate it and the ecological footprint on which it is based is conceptually flawed and practically unusable in any science or policy context. In my view, the ecological footprint ultimately does not measure overuse of natural resources – and it may very well underestimate it.

Rising demands, finite resources

The Global Footprint Network estimates when Earth Overshoot Day will arrive based on its National Footprint Accounts. These include extensive data sets that the organization uses to calculate two overarching indicators:

  • The ecological footprint, perhaps the most commonly used metric of the environmental impacts of human resource use. Each country’s ecological footprint is an estimate of the biological resources required to meet its population’s consumption demands and absorb its carbon emissions
  • National biocapacity, which is an estimate of how well each country’s ecosystems can produce the natural resources consumed by humans and absorb the waste and pollution that humans generate.
  • Both of these measures are expressed in global hectares. One hectare is equal to 10,000 square meters, or about 2.47 acres.

    Going into overshoot

    To estimate when Earth Overshoot Day will arrive, the Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days in a given year for which Earth has enough biocapacity to provide for humans’ total ecological footprint.

    When the footprint of consumption worldwide exceeds biocapacity, the authors assert that humans are overshooting, or exceeding the regenerative capacity of Earth’s ecosystems. This year, they estimate that humans are using natural resources 1.75 times faster than ecosystems can regenerate – or, put another way, consuming 1.75 Earths.

    As an example, the ecological footprint for the United Kingdom is 4.4 global hectares per person, and global biocapacity is 1.63 hectares per person. Therefore, it would take (4.4 /1.63) 2.7 Earths if everyone lived like the British.

    The U.K.‘s Overshoot Day would be estimated as 365 x (1.63 /4.4) = 135, or the 135th day of the year, which is May 17 based on 2016 data. The United States reached overshoot even earlier, on March 15.

    What to count?

    However, there are some fundamental and misleading shortcomings in these calculations. In a 2013 paper, six authors from academia, The Nature Conservancy and the California-based Breakthrough Institute analyzed how the Ecological Footprint falls short. In their view, it primarily measures humans’ carbon footprint but does not fully address other key impacts.

    To calculate ecological footprints, the Global Footprint Network estimates the supply and demand of renewable biological resources across six land use types: forests, fishing grounds, croplands, grazing lands, developed lands and the area of forest required to offset human carbon emissions – that is, the carbon footprint. According to the network’s own analysis, each of these land use types is nearly in balance or in surplus, except for the carbon footprint.

    The two key categories for producing food – cropland and grazing land – are defined in such a way that they can never be in deficit. And the analysis does not reflect environmental consequences of human use of these lands, such as soil erosion, nutrient runoff or overuse of water. It measures only land area.

    For example, the ecological footprint for Indonesia is 1.7 global hectares per person, which is among the lowest 30% of all countries. But according to a 2014 study, Indonesia has the highest deforestation rate in the world.

    Furthermore, the footprint calculation does not consider whether stocks of natural resources are decreasing or increasing as a result of human consumption. This question is critical for understanding ecological impacts.

    These national ecological footprint calculations also conflate sustainability with self-sufficiency. They assume that every nation should produce all of the resources it consumes, even though it might be less expensive for countries to import some goods than to produce them at home.

    As an example, the network lists Canada as an “ecological creditor” whose biocapacity exceeds its population’s ecological footprint. However, Canada is among the top 5 oil-producing countries in the world, and exports much of that oil for foreign consumption. Most of it goes to the United States, an “ecological debtor” that consumes more resources than it produces.

    Thinking purely in terms of generic “resources,” everyone is better off when debtor countries can import resources from nations with supplies to spare. There are real and important environmental impacts associated with producing and consuming oil, but the network’s calculations do not address them. Nor do they reflect the decline in natural capital from extracting a nonrenewable resource.

    Measuring sustainability

    The Global Footprint Network asserts that “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” but it may be impossible to create a single metric that can capture all human impacts on the environment. Earth Overshoot Day highlights unsustainable uses of natural resources, but we need scientifically robust ecological indicators to inform environmental policy, and a broader understanding of ecological risks.

    Better measurements of sustainability should reflect changes in our supplies of natural capital, include estimates of uncertainty and incorporate multiple pathways to reduce carbon footprints. The best tool for measuring human impacts on the planet may be a dashboard of environmental indicators, not a footprint.

    Aspinall Unit operations update: Gunnison Tunnel diversions = 950 cfs, Gunnison River through the Black Canyon = 2550 cfs

    Gunnison Tunnel via the National Park Service

    From email from Reclamation (Ryan Christianson):

    Releases from the Aspinall Unit were increased by 500 cfs beginning on Friday, July 26th and are scheduled to continue at that rate into the near future in order to prevent Blue Mesa Reservoir from overfilling. At the current inflow and release rate it is projected that Blue Mesa Reservoir would begin spilling, as the reservoir is now full. The current forecast for the April-July runoff volume for Blue Mesa Reservoir is 1,075,000 AF of inflow, which is 159% of average. Flows in the lower Gunnison River are currently above the baseflow target of 1500 cfs. River flows are expected to stay above the baseflow target for the foreseeable future.

    Pursuant to the Aspinall Unit Operations Record of Decision (ROD), the baseflow target in the lower Gunnison River, as measured at the Whitewater gage, is 1500 cfs for July and August.

    Currently, diversions into the Gunnison Tunnel are 950 cfs and flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon are around 2550 cfs. Current flow information is obtained from provisional data that may undergo revision subsequent to review.

    The latest “E-WaterNews” is hot off the presses from @Northern_Water:

    A “rooster tail” is formed by the water descending the Granby Dam spillway on July 19. Photo credit: Northern Water

    Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

    Cool spring, late storms fill C-BT Project

    A cool and wet spring in Northern Colorado coupled by unusual late snowstorms combined to top off the Colorado-Big Thompson Project in 2019.

    At Lake Granby, water reached the spillway over the weekend of July 13-14. In the days before that, managers had been releasing additional water into the Colorado River to make room for incoming snowmelt.

    Because of a storm that dumped snow on the headwaters of the Colorado River on June 21, the inflow into Lake Granby climbed significantly. While earlier models had indicated Lake Granby wouldn’t fill, that storm boosted streamflows considerably.

    Northern Water was not the only organization surprised by the late snowmelt and heavy late-season storms. Denver Water, which manages Lake Dillon and collects water at the headwaters of the Fraser River, reported the snowpack that feeds its system was also far above normal this year.

    Is that patch of brown getting you down? — News on TAP

    If your yard is feeling a bit heat-stressed, follow three simple steps to return your lawn to its happy place. The post Is that patch of brown getting you down? appeared first on News on TAP.

    via Is that patch of brown getting you down? — News on TAP

    #YampaRiver: The more things change the more they stay the same

    From email from Scott Hummer:

    Please note the attached newspaper article from, the “Yampa Leader”, May 18, 1923…

    Kind of ironic…Given the fact, we’re still attempting to deal with the same issues in 2019 as they were on the ground in the Yampa Valley in 1923, and before…

    Piping a +100 year-old ditch will leave 40% more water in Abrams Creek for fish #EagleRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver

    Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

    From The Vail Daily (John LaConte):

    On Thursday, representatives from Trout Unlimited, Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Eagle River Watershed Council, the Town of Gypsum, the Buckhorn Valley Metropolitan District and Scott Green Excavating raised a toast to the completion of a pipeline from the creek which replaces a more than 100-year old ditch…The more than $1 million project hinges on the fish screen and the data collection station. If water levels aren’t recording properly, Buckhorn Valley won’t know when they’re able to divert, as they’ve agreed to take water only when stream levels are above 1.25 cubic feet per second.

    That agreement saw some referee action in water court, said attorney Steve Bushong, who helped the metro district obtain a judge’s decree which confirmed that the project can go forward without impacting the metro district’s water rights. The decree came through in November after a slight holdup from the city of Aurora, which diverts water out of Eagle County to the Front Range via Homestake Reservoir.

    “Aurora stipulated out of that case; they just asked for some kind of no precedent language, which we were able to work out and include,” Bushong said…

    Mefford screen
    Another complicated part of the project is the diversion point itself — if it doesn’t allow fish to pass through safely from both sides, the whole project will have been in vain.

    Designed by hydraulic/fish passage engineer Brent Mefford, the Abrams Creek fish screen benefits from Mefford’s many years of research with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation studying screen layout, orientation to channel flow, debris management and use of isolation gates.

    “Having a fish person design a screen, they understand fish behavior,” said Kendall Bakich with Colorado Parks & Wildlife. “The way this screen is designed, it allows the fish to swim on the screen if it gets in there.”

    On Thursday, members of Colorado Parks & Wildlife witnessed the fish screen working properly from both directions.

    “Within 10 minutes (of arriving at the site) we had a fish in here,” Bakich said while examining the fish screen on Thursday. “It worked just like it should.”

    Learn more about the project at tu.org.