Friday, October 27, 2006

Model for Sustainable Development: Cuba?

The WWF just released their Living Planet Report for 2006 (.pdf). As part of it they rank countries on sustainable development based on their Ecological Footprints and their Human Development Index (HDI) (.pdf) score. HDI is a ranking developed by the UN that ranks country by life expectancy, literacy and GDP. Ecological Footprint looks at how much land is needed to support each person's food, timber, clothing and energy needs. The higher their HDI score and the lower their footprint the more sustainable the development. You can click on the image on the left for a larger version of the rankings.

The goal of countries over time should be to increase their HDI ranking while decreasing their footprint, or moving down and to the right on the graph. Almost all countries are moving up and to the right, but India and China are moving much more flatly (more slowly increasing their footprint) than the US, Korea or Italy.

All countries except one either have too large a footprint or too low an HDI score to be considered sustainable development. Now I am not going to accuse the WWF of being communists, but that one country that meets their minimum criteria for sustainability is Cuba. The WWF doesn't really hold Cuba up as a role model, qualifying with statements like "Cuba alone did, based on data it reported to the UN" and saying "freshwater scarcity and civic engagement should be included in sustainable development".

Should Cuba be praised for their model of development? I don't really know enough about Cuba to be a judge of this. I remember reading Michener's Caribbean and being surprised that people many people living in Cuba saw their way of life to be superior to that of America's (of course the Cuban immigrants in Miami felt the exact opposite). Their education system leads to a 96.9% literacy rate and their life expectancy of 77.41 is almost the same as that of the US at 77.85. I have read articles praising and criticizing Cuba's health care system. National Geographic praised Cuba for their environmental protections. On the other hand the Washington Post wrote about how most people have to buy things "on the left" to get around the chronic shortages and government laws. And of course there is the lack of political freedom.

Part of the problem could be that like the Happy Planet Index, while the intentions of this metric are good, the way it is calculated is suspect. I have written before about how the Ecological Footprint methodology penalizes countries with high ecological productivity like Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Norway. While these countries are all net ecological creditor nations, they all show up as having large footprints.

In general these reports tend to play down increases due to improved productivity of the land. According to their numbers the total biocapacity of the planet has increased from 9.0 to 11.2 billion global hectares from 1961 to 2005 an increase of 24%. The average hectare of land has increased in productivity 16% since 1961. While decreasing consumption is one way to get to a sustainable level, increased productivity is another and one that is more palatable to everyone.

I have also written how I don't think energy use should be included in the Ecological Footprint. While switching to renewable and pollution free energy is important to sustainable development, translating energy use into acres of land doesn't make much sense to me. And treating nuclear energy like fossil fuels also makes no sense to me. The WWF appears to understand my concerns as they have broken nuclear energy out as a separate component this year. If you don't think it belongs in the footprint, now you can easily adjust the calculations.

If you make adjustments on how productivity is handled in the footprint and how energy use shows up, I bet a lot more countries would be in the sustainable development club. While I like the idea of coming up with a metric for sustainable development, this current version needs a little retooling before it becomes an accurate reflection of where countries are.

2 comments:

Paul said...

Increased productivity is great, but you want to take *energy consumption* out of footprint measurement?

That would certainly suit profligate western countries, but isn´t the whole point of measuring footprint is that you work out how much countries are taking out of the planet's non-renewable resources?

Take renewables-based energy consumption out of course, and if you want to take out nuclear, first take into account the footprint of the entire nuclear production lifecyle, from mining, transporting and refining fuel, to building and running generators, to disposing of waste. Then we'll see if nuclear is a true sustainable option.

Footprint's use of land area as the final indicator of sustainability is a communication tool. It helps to explain a complex idea in a way that can be easily visualised. The idea of measuring use of a finite resource - the earth's productive capacity - relative to a sustainable norm, would make most people switch off.

But if you represent that finite resource as land area - which as well as being finite, is a source of the earth's productivity in more ways than one - it starts to make sense.

For me, the people who invented the idea of footprint deserve congratulations. It has made it possible to understand and have a conversation about something that needs our urgent action.

Who are you blogging for, by the way?

Fat Knowledge said...

Hi Paul,

Who are you blogging for, by the way?

I am blogging for myself. Who are you commenting for, by the way? :)

My overall philosophy is captured in this Buddhist Economics post if you are interested in where I am coming from.

Increased productivity is great, but you want to take *energy consumption* out of footprint measurement?

Yes, I believe the ecological footprint concept should focus just on land usage and not deal with energy. I don't want to ignore energy use, but rather have 2 footprints: one for land use and one for energy use. I have called for acre and gallon labeling as a way to accomplish this.

Footprint's use of land area as the final indicator of sustainability is a communication tool. It helps to explain a complex idea in a way that can be easily visualised.

I agree with you that it is a simple way for communication. Where we differ is that I believe it oversimplifies and that people's take away is not what it should be.

The take away I get from the way it is currently calculated is that we need 3 Earths of resources to consume the way we are. But, even if we had an Earth 3 times as large we couldn't continue to consume fossil fuels at the rate we are because they are finite non-renewable resources. Really to be sustainable we have to eliminate all fossil fuels. The ecological footprint calculation does not do a good job relaying that information in my opinion. It is possible under the current calculations for an individual to have a footprint that is sustainable (less than one Earth if everyone consumed the same way) and yet has fossil fuels as part of that consumption. I think this is impossible. Which is why I don't think that energy should be included. Just have the ecological footprint tell me how much land I use to produce the food I eat and have a separate "energy footprint" for the energy I use which breaks it into renewable and unrenewable sources.

For me, the people who invented the idea of footprint deserve congratulations.

I don't get it. Are you suggesting that the methodology of the ecological footprint is beyond reproach? That if you dare question how they actually calculate the number and if you don't agree with the assumptions they make that you can't be considered an environmentalist?

Yes, I am glad they created it, but I also believe it needs to be improved and that the current results are a bit misleading. Are you suggesting there is something wrong with that?

Take renewables-based energy consumption out of course, and if you want to take out nuclear, first take into account the footprint of the entire nuclear production lifecyle, from mining, transporting and refining fuel, to building and running generators, to disposing of waste. Then we'll see if nuclear is a true sustainable option.

I agree with you completely. But this is NOT AT ALL what the ecological footprint calculation is doing. They just take the amount of electricity created by nuclear, convert it into how much CO2 would be emitted if the plants used fossil fuels and then figure out how much land would be needed to sequester that CO2. I like your approach much better, but that would mean questioning how the ecological footprint is actually calculated. I personally think it is hard/impossible to convert nuclear energy use into an amount of land for a footprint which is why I would like to see the separate energy footprint.

To be clear, what I would like to see is every human being able to get an American style standard of living in 2050, while not using any additional land and transitioning to completely renewable energy sources. Maybe American style standard of living isn't the right term as we have lots of waste in our current consumption that could be removed without lowering well-being, and I am all for that. But I don't think the ecological footprint captures how to do this at all currently and that is why I think it needs to be changed.

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