Unleashing data to help reduce our carbon footprint

Unlike Gov. Jerry Brown, I don’t “like to think about catastrophe” when considering how the world is addressing climate change.

However, I second his statement made at a climate change conference in San Francisco during Earth Week, that “we’ve got to go against the flow.” Last weekend, countless millions asserted just that at Earth Day Marches for Science around the world. And the supporters will come out again April 29, for People’s Climate Marches around the country.

In this era of fake news, I am energized by such overwhelming support for science and data. Both, combined with such activism, will ultimately play a pivotal role in stemming climate change and managing our natural resources more wisely.

Groundbreaking global commitments were made less than two years ago to end business as usual, with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accord. Now is the time to come to grips with the reality that we face, beyond the toothless promises, the grand statements, the misleading stories.

This is true of greenhouse gas emissions in particular and ecological resource management in general. Just this month, Global Footprint Network, our international research organization, launched an open data platform that details the Ecological Footprints of more than 200 countries and regions. A country’s Ecological Footprint aggregates all the productive areas needed for food, timber, fiber; built-up space for infrastructure like cities, roads and housing; and forests to absorb excess carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. A country’s Ecological Footprint can be compared to its own productive areas.

Based primarily on United Nations data sets, our Footprint data show that humanity currently consumes 70 percent more in a given year than the Earth is able to replenish over the same period. Our global Ecological Footprint is that of 1.7 Earths. Carbon emissions make up 60 percent of it.

If everyone around the world lived like the average American, we would need five Earths to sustain the global population, according to the data. Our 2015 study of the Ecological Footprint of the 50 states found it would take eight Californias to support California residents’ Ecological Footprint.

But there is good news, too: The total Ecological Footprint of the United States declined 14 percent from a peak in 2005 to 2013 (the latest year U.N. data is available), while the overall economy grew. This is the largest Ecological Footprint reduction for any country over the same period – in fact, it is equivalent to the entire Ecological Footprint of Germany.

What is driving this footprint reduction? The carbon footprint of the United States declined 20 percent from 2005 to 2013. In California, that number is likely even greater, given that almost 25 percent of the state’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2014, according to state Energy Commission estimates. Overall carbon emissions in California are poised to continue declining through renewable energy use and other policies, such as the stricter tailpipe emission regulations recently reaffirmed by the California Air Resources Board, in stark contrast to hints that President Donald Trump will weaken fuel standards.

Later this summer, Trump is set to unveil a $1 billion infrastructure plan to create jobs. This represents an opportunity to build a green future or deepen our reliance on fossil fuels.

We applaud Brown for vowing to make California a world leader in addressing climate change. After all, the choice is clear: sticking with laggards stuck in the 20th century or stepping up to what is technologically possible and economically superior to build a fossil fuel-free, robust future, where humanity thrives within the ecological budget of our one planet. Trust data to point the way.

Mathis Wackernagel is founder and CEO of Global Footprint Network. He can be contacted at