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Sustainability | BOCS FoundationSustainability means the structure of a system that enables its long-term survival. When talking about this issue, it is worth mentioning sustainable development, whose most widespread definition was worded by the 1987 Brundtland Commitee:
„Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland report, 1987)

Unfortunately, this definition is not prudent enough, as it views the size of „future generations” as an attribute. In contrast to this, the conception of the future generation to Earth is the most influental factor, and thus, the greatest responsibility of those living currently. Pulling members of the future generation unprepared, before its due time, as an accident, as a forced march is the greatest crime against the future generation, and sustainability. And this is what’s happening for thousands of years. Today, around 100.000 child is born, whom the mother didn’t want, only contraception is inaccessible for them.

The population explosion makes reaching sustainability impossible.

The key to sustainable development is the human right of contraception (UN, 1968).

The current development is not sustainable; since 1970, every achievement in economics, quality of life, peace, etc. is at the expense of natural capital, i.e. the future.


What is sustainability, and what’s not?

Unfortunately, two basic professional errors appear at most people involved with this. One problem is that they use the term „sustainability” flippantly. Basically, one has to understand two terms in connection to sustainability; one is ecological footprint, and the other is biocapacity. For sustainability is based on the relation of the size of the two.

The definition of sustainability:

Ecological footprint
< Biocapacity

Ecological footprint (environmental impact)

The ecological footprint shows the size of the area of the dryland and water would be needed to sustain the person or a population at its standard of living (long-term). The ecological footprint consists of 6 parts:

  1. the area on which the plants needed for consumption may be produced,
  2. the size of grazing land needed to produce the meat consumed,
  3. the area of forest needed to produce the equivalent of the consumption of lumber and paper
  4. the area of water needed to produce the fish, crabs, etc. that are consumed
  5. the area needed for housing
  6. the area of forest needed for sequestering the CO2-equvalent amount of greenhouse gases emitted

Biocapacity (carrying capacity)

Biocapacity is the measure of the ability of ecosystems to produce biologically important materials at the given technological level, and to absorb the waste from human activities.

Global hectare (gha): Average carrying capacity of 1 hectare of {biologically productive} land {and fisheries}

The unit of both the ecological footprint and the biocapacity is global hectare (gha), which complies with the average of biologically productive land or fisheries in terms of biological production for human use and waste assimilation.

It is worth mentioning that due to the differing carrying capacity of different areas, one global hectare doesn’t always amount to one hectare actual area. An example: The biocapacity of Norwegian land roughly equals the global average, and for this reason, the total biocapacity approaches the country’s actual land area. By comparison, the biocapacity of Hungarian land is far above the global average (few mountains, lot of croplands), so the total biocapacity is almost three times its land area.

Ecological deficit (ecological overshoot)

If a country doesn’t have enough ecological resources on its own area to provide for the population’s ecological footprint, then it has an ecological deficit, and the country is called an ecological debtor. (On a global level, there is also an ecological deficit, or an ecological overshoot – which, perhaps, expresses it better that that particular deficit is being stolen from the future.) In the opposite case, it has an ecological reserve, and is called an ecological creditor. In 2014, the global ecological footprint per capita was 2.8 gha, but the biocapacity per capita was only 1.7 gha (Source: Global Footprint Network). The difference means a global ecological debt, amounting to 1.1 gha per capita.

It is worth mentioning two things. On the one hand, with the continuing increase of population, the ecological debt will grow exponentially. For the growing population also decreases the per capita biocapacity, which increases the per capita ecological debt, and the total ecological debt is the product of the two. On the other hand, if we wanted to reach sustainability by lowering our per capita ecological footprint to 1.7 gha, it would mean global destitution. For only poor countries have such low per capita ecological footprint (e.g. Moldova, Honduras, Guatemala).

Ecological footprint and wellbeing

Everyone would like to live well. To have a place to live, where there is always food in the fridge or the pantry, there is hot water, heating, comfort, quiet, fast internet, good transportaion, and then have the whole thing in a healthy, beautiful environment…

Of course, a higher consumption doesn’t always mean a higher quality of life. One could say that a relatively low per capita ecological footprint may be enough for a good standard of living, but reality refutes this idea. The most generally accepted index of wellbeing is the Human Development Index (HDI), which roughly correlates to per capita ecological footprint. This is because individual consumption may be lowered to a certain extent, but there is a level below which basic needs aren not met.

In other words, if we wanted to lower per capita ecological footprint at all costs, then we would sentence the members of society to a low quality of life. And if, in the meantime, we don’t care about population growth in the world, then we ultimately sentence everyone to destitution. So lowering per capita ecological footprint doesn’t solve the problem. Perhaps the only element worthy of consciously reducing is the carbon footprint, which mainly comes from using energy. For we usually waste a lot of energy, and wasting something doesn’t contribute to wellbeing. The graph below shows the size of the carbon footprint, whose reduction may give time to this civilization to rethink its relationship to natural resources.

Sustainability | BOCS FoundationSource: Global Footprint Network

Development does not equal growth!

Although many confuse the two concepts, sustainability and sustainable development don’t exactly mean the same. For „Sustainability” only refers to the relation of biocapacity and ecological footprint, and „sustainable development” means that quality of life is also increasing meanwhile.

The basic problem with the term „sustainable development” is fundamentally that by the term „development”, people tend to mean „growth”, i.e. think about quantitative increase instead of qualitative improvement. Thus, in order to prevent misunderstanding, we tend to avoid the expression, and rather only use the word sustainabilty, or clarify what we mean by „development”.

It is the common interest of every human to improve wellbeing in a sustainable way. Or, if we want to be particularly clear: improving the wellbeing of entire societies in a sustainable way. And the measure of wellbeing (quality of life) are the indexes of public health. (e.g. life expectancy, infant mortality, teenage births, rates of addiction and mental illness, homicide rates, etc.). So if these indexes keep improving, while the ecological footprint of societies is not larger than the available biocapacity, then we can call that sustainable improvement of wellbeing (or sustainable development).

Given that all kinds of economic processes require some extra energy and matter (even services), economic growth is fundamentally incompatible with sustainability. We cannot „grow our way out” of the current, unsustainable situation, as we got here because of growth in the first place. Even if from tomorrow on, the growth of the economy was solely due to selling sustainable products and services (goods), the current part of economy would still need to be made sustainable, which would require a certain amount of decrease. For the ecological footprint of goods cannot be reduced indefinitely, but biocapacity is limited, so the size of the economy necessarily has a limit. This is why it makes no sense to talk about „green growth”, at least in a country with an ecological deficit (3/4 of countries are not sustainable). It is worth mentioning that after a certain pont, economic growth doesn’t increase wellbeing, only reducing income equality is able to do that.

For humanity, the requirement of sustainable development is a total ecological footprint below total global biocapacity. Ecological overshoot is only possible temporarily. An unsustainable civilization either becomes sustainable, or – if that doesn’t happen in time, and they use up natural capital, upon which the economi is also based – it collapses.

Despite all this, the term „sustainability” is being used deceptively. For example, some talk about economic sustainability, by which they roughly mean that the economy rumbles on, but without securing its requirements, this can only be temporary. Money is a subsystem of economy, economy is that of society, and society is a subsystem of an ecosystem. Thus, all three levels built on the ecosystem depends on ecological sustainabily. In other words, the basis of economy are natural resources (e.g. soil, freshwater, crude oil), and the health of global life support systems (e.g. climate, ozone layer). This is the reason why it makes no sense to talk about any other kind of sustainability.

Sustainability | BOCS Foundation

Whichever system is unsustainable, it necessarily collapses.


The role of population

The other problem is that people rarely talk about the most fundamental factor of the ecological overshoot: overpopulation and the population explosion. When population comes up, most people immediately forget the essence of sustainability, and they call its opposite „sustainability”: that the population doesn’t decrease.

It’s not so wise to make it a goal that the population can never decrease. Population decline is not always bad. Morover, in the case of ecological deficit, it’s the best thing that can happen! If we don’t let the population decline, then later, when the collapse comes, it will outright plummet (famine, war, etc.).

Who is scared about decreasing consumption or decreasing popuation, any talk about sustainability is only a sham.

ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT =
Population x Consumption x Efficiency

BIOCAPACITY =
Fishing grounds + Cropland + Grazing Land + Forest products

In order to prevent the collapse, it is important to keep total ecological footprint smaller than total biocapacity. Otherwise, we use up natural capital, which quickly results in the collapse of the economy, and the whole civilization. (see: Easter Island, Mayan empire, etc). There are three possible ways to prevent this:

  • Increasing biocapacity (not sustainable)
  • Decreasing per capita ecological footprint (it has its limits)
  • Reversing population explosion (the most effective, and the cheapest to do)

Increasing biocapacity is not sustainable

Increasing biocapacity (e.g. tilling, fertilization, irrigation, etc.) is typically based on non-renewable resources (e.g. crude oil, natural gas, confined aquifer), and is therefore temporary. Besides, it often has the side-effect of poisoning and destroying natural ecosystems (see: bee mortality, deforestation, desertification), and destabilizes global life support systems (see: climage change). Thus, although the output of agriculture may increase temporarily, on the short term (e.g. via diesel tractors, artificial fertilizers and pesticides), but because it results in ecosystem collapse, and the destabilization of the planet’s life support systems, it actually prevents stabilization, and makes the coming collapse that much worse.

Decreasing per capita ecological footprint has its limits

There is already so much of us on this planet that in order to reach sustainability, everyone would need to live like a typical green ascet (or as an average Moldovian, Honduran, or Vietnamese). And as long as population increse lasts, we would need to tighten our pants ever more. For the current per capita biocapacity is only 1.7 gha, but even by living the greenest way, we could only push our personal ecological footprint down to 1,5 gha. This amounts to the lifestyle of a vegetarian living in a straw-bale house, heating it with renewable energy, who only chooses the most energy-efficient house appliances, but seldom buys any, who only uses bycicle, doesn’t go on vacation, uses only rainwater, even that frugally, recycles everything, composts, eats locally grown foods, and cooks them at home.

But for most people, this would equal destitution. For the majority couldn’t give up meat consumption, vacation, and couldn’t commute by bike (e.g because of the distance or smog). If one lives in a brick house, eats meat once a day, produces at least 10 liters of trash a week, uses public transportation, goes on a domestic vacation, and buys just one house appliance every three years, then his/her personal ecological footprint is already 2.0 gha. And if he/she also has a small car, then 2.2 gha.

Reversing population explosion is the most efficient, and cheapest to do

Not even climate conscious people know that the most efficient climate protection strategy is supporting the provision of the human right of contraception for everyone, for which the knowledge and technology is given for decades. More and more studies point to the huge efficiency of preventing unintended pregnancies in terms of climate change mitigation (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). Having one less child (or continuously supporting the prevention of an unintended pregnancy) is by far the most effective individual climate protection strategy. It can prevent 20 times more carbon emissions than the second most efficient method, which is living car-free.

This strategy is also very cheap. Of course, this shouldn’t be surprizing, since the most efficient way of solving problems is prevention. Many expect climate change to be curbed by the spreading of electric cars, but land transportation is only responsible for 14% of total carbon emissions (Pachauri et al., 2014). The Drawdown analysis showed that compared to creating contraception opportunities, spreading electric cars could prevent less than 1/10 times as much emissions until 2050, while costing 770 times more per ton. In the analysis, the 6. and the 7. methods – about which it wrote that they are inseparable, but discussed separately anyway – together (as they should be) are the most effective method: „Educating Girls” and „Family Planning”.


Why population is the key?

The IPAT (Impact, Polulation, Affluence, Technology) form:

Environmental impact (ecological footprint) =
Population x Consumption x Efficiency

Exiting the ecological crisis requires all these three:
(1) decrease of Earth’s population
(2) curbing consumption
(3) technical development

Population is the key factor of the three, for at least 8 reasons

(1) It is the same burden for Earth, but from a humanitarian perspective, there is a huge difference between 9 billion people living in crowded destitution, or 3 billion in comfort and with a healthier psyche (e.g. has the opportunity to see nature, untouched).

(2) People want this! Most people don’t want to decrease their consumption (actually, billions want to increase it), but smaller families are the desire of hundreds of millions. Unfortunately, family planning is still the privilege of the rich.

(3) It is more cost-efficient! This way, it takes 10 USD to prevent the emission of 1 tons of CO2, which is one fifth the cost of doing the same with green tech. „Family planning could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other single technology now available to the human race.” (James Grant, UNICEF)

(4) It is a foundational human rights issue! Even if there was no ecological crisis or overpopulation, family planning is a basic human right. We could quickly reach results in stopping overpopulation, and turning it back by simply granting women’s rights (everywhere, not just in the developed countries).

(5) Overpopulation has a great impetus, its braking distance is measurable in decades. Consumption may be limited in catastrophic situation, if needed (to a limited extent), but population cannot be decreased abruptly (only by pandemics, famine and war, which are bad, so we better prevent them).

(6) Overconsumption, and the „obtruding” culture is also driven by population explosion: the human resource is ever cheaper, so it has to sell itself, or anything to others. Moreover, the increasingly ruthless global labor market competition increases the involuntary consumption (which doesn’t increase wellbeing, but is necessary for being able to compete, e.g. commute).

(7) Population growth obstructs technical development, as supplying the population increase leaves that much less money/resources for investment in efficient/ecological technologies.

(8) The Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz claimed that the first deadly sin of humanity is overpopulation, because it leads to the increase in agressivity, causes ever greater social unrest, and makes everything harder.

Population growth means no good

Most people think that the more people, the merrier, or they think that population growth shows the success of a people or humanity. It is important to understand that since the carrying capacity is limited, after a certain point, population growth promotes collapse, and therefore, a drop in population. It is also worth understanding that population growth itself results in nothing good.

Up until a few hundred years before, one could only cheer at population growth, and fear decline, as the very survival of a people or a country depended on the number of soldiers. Of course, it is ironic that the most basic reason behind wars was the collision of ecological footprints of different people (before oils for war, wars were pretty much fought because of this), which mainly stemmed from population growth.

Today, the situation is different. Neither economic productivity, nor the strength of an army depends on the population. But then why don’t people solve the problem?

Firstly, because when it comes to consciousle decrease a population, many first think about genocide, whereas a number of countries has a naturally declining population! This has its prerequisites; the practice shows that if women get to education and contraception, then the birth rate starts to fall by itself. And if it drops below the natural death rate, then the population starts to decrease. This is what’s happening in Japan, Latvia, and a few dozen other countries.

Secondly, because even if someone knows this phenomenon, there is a good chance the he can only see population decline as a bad thing due to the the thousands of years of reproduction-forcing imperial culture. Of course, the imperial culture totally missed the ecological viewpoint; they either believed the Earth’s resources to be unlimited, or they thought that „conquering” nature is the holiest mission of humanity, or both. We need to go beyond this mindset in order to have a chance to solve the ecological crisis.

 

Denying the role of population in the ever increasing global consumption is just as foolish as saying that being overworked has nothing to do with how many hours we work a week.


Why decarbonization is a priority?

Decarbonization = Decreasing Emissions + Offsetting Remaining Emissions

We have used up so much of the natural capital, and population growth is so fast, that they leave a very short reaction time to avoid the collapse. Since the threatest part of ecological footprint is the carbon footprint (60%), and it is also the fastest growing part, its solution has a priority. For this, the drastic decrease of the carbon footprint offers the last possibility, together with stopping and reversing population explosion (by prividing tha basic human right of contraception and education to all).

Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint shows that how much direct and indirect carbon emission results from the lifestyle of a person, the activities of a company, or the lifecycle of a product (sources: burning fossil fuels, using haloalkanes, deforestation, soil degradation). Carbon emission includes all greenhouse gas emissions. All greenhouse gas emissions are calculated in carbon dioxide equivalent tons (tCO2e), which is also the unit of carbon footprint. The bigger the carbon footprint, the greater the contribution to climate change. In the case of companies and individuals, carbon footprint is usually calculated on a 1 year basis.

As a component of ecological footprint, the carbon footprint is converted to a need for biologically productive areas, whose size would be necessary to absorb the greenhouse gases. The carbon footprint is displayed in the ecological footprint, because it competes for biologically active areas. If ther isn’t enough biocapacity to absorb emissions, then carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere. The increase of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide contributes to the accumulation of ecological debt (and to climate change).

Sustainability | BOCS FoundationSource: Global Footprint Network

About carbon footprint calculation

Since carbon footprint competes for biologically productive areas, as a component of ecological footprint, the carbon footprint given in tonnes can be converted into global hectares. This shows how much biocapacity is needed to absorb the carbon emissions.

Measuring carbon footprint in global hectares doesn’t mean that the only solution to climate change is sequestering carbon-dioxide. It’s just that measuring it that way allows us to handle the challenge of climate change in a holistic way, rather than shifting the burden from one ecological system to another.

Expressing carbon footprint in global hectares puts climate change in a larger context, which unifies today’s ecological dangers. Climate change, deforestation, desertification, food insecurity, collapse of fisheries, and plummeting wildlife populations are part of a comprehensive problem: humanity simply takes more from Earth than it can offer, moreover, its population is even increasing. Instead of trying to solve one problem at the expense of another, by focusing on the overarching issue, we can solve all of them.

Scapegoating and half-truths

It is widely know that the richest 10% is responsible for half of global greenhouse emissions, and the poorest 50% only for 10%. Based on this, some claim that population has little to do with climate change. Although the basic information is correct, the rethorics ignores a number of important factors.

First, many rich countries are also overpopulated, and most of them still has a growing population (partly due to immigration, and partly due to unintended pregnancies). Secondly, the poor would like to live like the well-off. Thirdly, if there were no population explosion, then their share would not be equal to that of the rich, but much smaller. Not to mention that this rethoric acts like half of the world living in destitution would be ok (which stems from the fact that there is a huge unmet need for contraception and education).

What does it take to reach sustainability?

In order to be able to call a product sustainable, at the minimum, it needs to be carbon neutral (e.g. iCC Carbon Free Product). But this, by itself, is not enough for sustainability. For example, if it’s a wood product, it needs to be certified by a third party that it is from a sustainable forestry (e.g. FSC 100%), if it’s a marine product, then from a sustainable fishery (e.g. MSC), and if it’s an agricultural product, then it needs to come from sustainable farming (e.g. Food Alliace Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified).

In the case of carbon neutralizing, certain independent organizations (e.g. BOCS Foundation, BB Leading Solutions) can determine if a product is indeed carbon neutral, and based on that, grant the abulity to use a label (e.g the iCC label). When it comes to sustainable forestry, dozens of such standards exist, but there are only two global certification programs: the  Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). In the case of fisheries, a few independent certifying organizations needs to be mentioned as well: one is Friend of the Sea, another is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and the third is Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) (which specializes in aquacultures). In the case of sustainable farming, there are a number of issues, like soil protection, prevention of water pollution, or preserving biodiversity. Here, the Food Alliance and the Rainforest Alliance international certifying organizations should be mentioned.

In the case of services, carbon neutrality is the minimum, and even the material assets related to the service need to come from a sustainable source. And a whole organization may only claim to be sustainable if its entire functioning is carbon free, and all of its products, and assets related to its services come from a sustainable source.

The carbon footprint currently accounts for 60% of humanity’s total ecological footptint, and it is also its fastest growing part. Humanity’s total greenhouse emission has grown to almost 4 times its size in 1960, and the (per capita) carbon footprint grew 1,6 times. Meanwhile, global population increased by 2,5 times, which is responsible for the lion’s share of the increase in total greenhouse emissions. Reducing humanity’s carbon emissions is the most important step besides reversing the population explosion, with which we could end the global ecological overshoot and live a long, happy life.Without decreasing and offsetting emissions, no one, and no organization can claim that it strives to be sustainable. Reversing the population explosion and carbon neutralization are only effective together in order to reach the goal.

Carbon neutrality is an inescapable element of sustainability.


Summary

Based on the above, there are indisputable evidences that in order to reach global sustainability (which would mean preventing the collapse), we need to focus on two things, recognizing the fact that everything else (even if it would count) is ultimately futile.

1./ Reversing the population explosion (by provision of the human right to contraception and education)

2./ Carbon neutralization (100% carbon neutral = 50% reduction + 50% offset /PAS 2060 standard/)

„Those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.” – James Lovelock (climatologist, father of the Gaia hypothesis)

If the marketing communication (ads, PR, branding, etc.) related to a product or service claims its subject to be sustainable, but doesn’t use the above definition of „sustainable”, then it qualifies as greenwashing, which is an outrageous deception, and a crime against the coming generations.

We continuously update the content, based on the expansion of the available information.
Last update: 2019. April 28.

The above popular science material was composed by:
Gyula Simonyi
Sztella Nóra Kántor
László Rampasek