15.01.2013 - UNESCO Office in Venice

Getting out of debt

A World of Science: We shall sink or swim together (Vol. 11, No. 1 - January–March 2013)

This is the title of the Horizons article published on pages 24-27 in A World of Science: We shall sink or swim together (Vol. 11, No. 1 - January–March 2013). In less than 50 years, residents of the Mediterranean region have nearly tripled their demand for natural resources and ecological services. As a result, all 24 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have become ecological debtors. These are the alarming findings of Mediterranean Ecological Footprint Trends, a report launched by Global Footprint Network on 1−2 October at a conference organized jointly with UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, Venice (Italy), on Securing Competitiveness for the Mediterranean. Participants from the governments and universities of 15 Mediterranean countries were in Venice to debate the implications of the report’s findings for the region’s economic prosperity and political stability.

One question raised by participants concerned the extent to which the growing scarcity of natural resources in North Africa and the Middle East had fuelled the economic crisis which triggered the Arab Spring in 2011. ‘The security issue is closely tied to ecological and demographic time bombs’, observed one participant. ‘If a country cannot satisfy its population’s most basic needs, social unrest will logically follow. Even conflicts that are ostensibly based on religious differences may stem from growing competition for finite resources like land and water.’ 

You cannot manage what you cannot measure

It has been said that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. The ecological footprint has been devised by Global Footprint Network to help governments everywhere measure the state of their ecological assets in the form of natural resources and ecosystem services, in order to manage them better over the longer term. To gauge a country’s ecological balance sheet, you compare supply (biocapacity) with demand (ecological footprint). If demand outstrips supply, the country is considered as running an ecological deficit. Global Footprint Network has calculated that there were 1.8 global hectares per person of biocapacity (forests, croplands, urban land, grazing lands, etc) on the planet in 2008. Between 1961 and 2008, the world’s ecological footprint rose modestly from 2.4 to 2.7 global hectares (gha) per person but the world nevertheless developed an ecological deficit, as its per-capita biocapacity almost halved over the same period from 3.2 gha in 1961.

The situation deteriorated much faster in the Mediterranean than the global average, with the region’s ecological footprint increasing from 2.1 to 3.1 gha per person. At the same time, the region’s per-capita biocapacity decreased from 1.5 to 1.3 gha per person. This caused the region to shift from having a small ecological deficit in 1961 to a 150% deficit in 2008. What went wrong? As early as 1961, 18 out of 24 Mediterranean countries were already experiencing an ecological deficit but this was offset by imports of products grown outside the region. Between 1961 and 2008, the Mediterranean region’s population doubled from 242 million to 478 million, effectively outstripping productivity gains in agriculture. A second aggravating factor came into play from 1971 onwards, when the world entered a period of overconsumption defined as ‘global overshoot.’ With the implacable logic of economics, this surge in demand for a finite supply of commodities pushed up prices on international markets. […]

Download: A World of science Vol 11 n° 1 (pdf)

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