The drought in California has made the economic risks of living beyond the means of nature all too clear. Just last month, estimates pegged the state’s economic losses from the drought at $2.7 billion, an enormous number that still fails to capture the toll on individual farmers and farmworkers.
Water, however, isn’t the only natural resource that our state is overusing and must manage more carefully to ensure a resilient future.
On Tuesday, the United States will go into ecological deficit. That means our nation will be using more of nature’s renewable resources and services than our ecosystems can regenerate in the entire year. Of all 50 states, California is running the largest ecological deficit, according to our analysis, which we will release Tuesday in a report called “State of the States.” We found we would need a land area equal to eight – eight! – Californias to support the “ecological footprint” of California residents.
The ecological footprint measures a population’s demand for the resources and services our ecosystems provide – fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing and carbon dioxide absorption by forests. We then can compare that demand to the supply, called “biocapacity.”
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A state, city or nation goes into ecological deficit when its population demands more from its ecosystems than it can regenerate. Extra demand can be met by importing, liquidating its own ecological assets (overfishing, for instance), and/or by emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can absorb.
California is running an ecological deficit, in part, because it’s the nation’s most populous state. On a per-capita basis, Californians actually have the 14th lowest ecological footprint of all Americans, thanks to a mild climate that requires less energy for heating and cooling, among other factors.
However, our supply of biocapacity still cannot meet demand. Surprisingly, California’s biocapacity is relatively low compared to other states because much of the state is arid. The drought threatens to further decrease the state’s biocapacity.
How can our local officials reduce the risks of this ecological deficit? California leaders have taken many ambitious steps to make our state more sustainable, including creating a cap-and-trade system to rein in emissions and setting a goal to get 33 percent of electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
Still, additional bold moves are needed to make our state more resilient. We can start with how we make long-term capital investments with taxpayer money. In Maryland, we helped pioneer a new way to more accurately incorporate environmental and social factors into calculating the true costs and benefits of capital investments.
We tested this valuation method on three investments: fleet vehicles, a weatherization program and a land conservation project. In all cases, the “greener” option was a better – and in some cases by far better – use of taxpayer money. California officials could expand upon these examples and look at the long-term ecological value of major public investments in mass transit, housing, new renewable energy sources and other infrastructure.
City and county decision-makers also can play a major role in creating a more resilient future for California. By 2050, 80 percent of the world population is expected to live in urban areas. Consequently, how local governments plan and build our cities will be crucial for our state’s well-being.
As the world’s seventh-largest economy and a global center for innovation, California cannot ignore its growing risk exposure to ecological constraints, as the drought has made painfully obvious. But let’s learn a lesson from the drought – before we confront another crisis. Managing all of our natural capital carefully and making wise capital investments is imperative for ensuring a prosperous, resilient future for California.
Mathis Wackernagel is president and co-founder of Global Footprint Network, which has its U.S. office in Oakland.