Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption

Commissioned by WWF

Table of Contents

Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption

A Proposed Framework for Measurable Outcomes & Actions

Executive Summary

Urgent action is needed to avoid irreversible biodiversity loss and build resilience world-wide. Mitigating our biodiversity crisis, while still meeting human needs and promoting equity, entails a major shift in how we produce and consume materials and products. With all of this in mind, one of the main goals of WWF’s New Deal for Nature and People is “Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption” (together with: “Protect and restore natural habitats” and “Safeguard diversity of life”). The “Footprint” includes all of the ways that people degrade or put pressure on natural systems and there is no single measure of what the “footprint” means. However, existing footprint measures, such as the planetary boundaries, the share of net primary productivity appropriated by humans (eHANPP), the ecological footprint, the material footprint, etc, all indicate that that we have already significantly surpassed acceptable levels of impact. The goal is to bring these impacts within safe boundaries by 2030.

The Zero Draft of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) establishes goals and targets for reducing biodiversity Impacts. In translating the goal of “Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption” into actionable targets and metrics, we have taken an approach of defining key outcome-based targets for Drivers, Pressures, and States, for the years 2020-2030. These are coupled with action-based targets (or Responses) that are ambitious enough to achieve the outcomes (though they are not the only possible actions to do so). Part of this framework expands on what is already covered in biodiversity and conservation frameworks such as the GBF, as described here:

As biodiversity loss is driven predominantly by production systems, it is crucial to begin by the root cause, for example excessive levels of resource consumption. Biomass consumption and regional extraction of marine resources beyond a sustainable level (a level that can be maintained long term) are essential leverage points and must be included in a comprehensive framework.

  • Example outcome-based target: Consumption of biomass is reduced by around 35% per capita to bring it within sustainable levels, while ensuring there is enough nutritious food for current and future generations
  • Example action-based target: Consumption reduction of 10% is achieved through lifespan extension of products, eliminating planned obsolescence, product-as-a-service models, expanded lending models, building renovation

Looking beyond these drivers, how we produce and consume is also essential. Pressures from production and consumption systems have been organized into categories focused on direct degradation (e.g. destructive fishing gear or agricultural practices), chemical pollution (plastics, pesticides), air pollution, water pollution, and loss of genetic diversity. Some of these, such as invasive species transfer, coincide well with existing frameworks. Other pressures, such as mining practices and regulations are gaps in these frameworks that are covered here.

  • Example outcome-based target: Key sources of chemical pollution, for which the risk is high or unknown, are prevented
  • Example action-based target: Strict environmental requirements on mining practices in all regions of the world are applied through both legal and economic pressures and all closed mines are rehabilitated

Finally, the States of environmental systems are imperative to cover in a comprehensive framework addressing biodiversity impacts from production and consumption. This framework covers states for nutrients, water, and greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to existing frameworks, these are not novel topics, although there are some new actions and metrics.

  • Example outcome-based target: Net nutrient emissions from production converge to within sustainable levels (56% reduction for P & 41% for N – taking into account spatial excess and deficiencies)
  • Example action-based target: Proper manure management and utilization reduces nutrient emissions from livestock by 60%, reducing overall nutrients emissions by 9% for N and 16% for P

In this document, we describe what “footprint” means and how we can set targets and actions at a level that rises to meet the challenge of “Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption”. In setting these targets, we have looked for evidence on where we stand compared to where we need to be, which sectors and consumption and production behaviors are the main contributors to the “footprint”, and what types of actions can be taken to reduce impacts to an acceptable level in line with the outcome targets. This provides a much more comprehensive picture of the production and consumption footprint and what we can do to “halve the footprint”, though there are certainly still some gaps that could be addressed with further research. While we have defined actions that could achieve the targets, these actions are not the only ones possible, nor the optimal option in every context globally.

Within this framework, we have identified where there are overlaps with the indicators that other organizations and networks are using, or key gaps. To address some of these gaps, we have proposed additional indicators that are not yet covered by these existing frameworks. A few examples include:

  • Material consumption inequality: While existing indicators cover the material footprint per person, there is a high degree of material consumption inequality. For some regions in the world, material consumption should actually increase, while being decreased in high-income countries. For this reason, we propose a GINI coefficient for material consumption to track the convergence of consumption levels between countries.
  • Average lifespan of products: Many products and assets in the economy are discarded while still having functional value, which further drives demand for new products. The lifespan of products should be increased, except where there are fast developments in resource efficiency (e.g. energy efficiency). For this reason, the average lifespan of different product categories should be tracked.
  • Industrial and intentional biological fixation of N: Reactive nitrogen is emitted in large quantities every year. Only about half of the emissions are due to human activities but the additional emissions provided by human activities stress the global nitrogen cycle. Although local ecosystems are already under pressure due to high nitrogen concentration, it is ultimately most important to avoid a high global concentration because this would prevent low ecosystems from recovering through diffusion.

Introduction

Biodiversity supports everything that humans need to survive: food, clean water, clean air, and materials that we can make everything from medicines to buildings with. Biodiversity includes all the different kinds of life —the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world — as well as how these species and organisms work together in ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life. 

This balance, and the human systems that rely on it are under threat, driven almost entirely by economic activity. Overconsumption, unsustainable extraction rates, land-use change, and the methods we use to produce and consume all contribute to environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, which in turn put the health, wellbeing, and livelihoods of people at risk. 

Urgent action is needed to avoid irreversible biodiversity loss and build resilience world-wide. Mitigating our current biodiversity crisis, while still meeting human needs, entails a major shift in how we produce and consume materials and products. Within this, we also need to recognize and address global inequalities – high-income countries are responsible for a much larger share of global consumption (consuming around 27 tons of materials/person/year, compared to 2 tons/person/year in developing countries (Oberle et al., 2019)). This means that not only does consumption and its related impacts need to be brought within sustainable levels, but there also needs to be a convergence of impact footprint across regions and income groups.

Policymakers have a key role to play, as they set the boundary conditions driving land use, consumption, and production practices. Levers such as regulation, fiscal measures, taxes and subsidies, capacity building and awareness raising, etc can all be used to address the root causes of further degradation. WWF’s New Deal for Nature and People framework and the recommendations it makes for inclusion in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework sets out 10-year ecological targets that go across key impact areas and that collectively strengthen biodiversity. This framework includes suggestions on how policy can support the realization of targets across three goal areas. 

Halving the Footprint

The second goal of WWF’s New Deal for Nature and People is “Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption”. From the science, it is clear that human impacts on the Earth exceed a sustainable level, or one that can continue to support biodiversity and maintain the key services upon which society depends. We need to reduce the footprint of our economy (or: the degree of impact that our economy has on the natural environment) to ensure that future generations have access to the same resources we do currently, as well as to preserve biodiversity for its own intrinsic value. In order to do this, we need to address the root causes of biodiversity loss (such as total consumption or the methods of production) to reduce the footprint to an acceptable level.

Concepts such as the Planetary Boundaries, the Ecological Footprint, Material Footprint, embodied human appropriation of net primary productivity (eHANPP), and the Water Footprint attempt to establish safe boundaries for environmental impacts. However, none of these are a comprehensive measure of all of the “footprint” of production and consumption. Impacts on biodiversity represent a complex web of interactions between key drivers, pressures, and states, which makes it difficult to establish a sound single measure of the “footprint”.  

While imperfect, these collectively do provide an indication of how far we need to go to address different problems. From these various footprinting methods, we can see that a target of “halving the footprint” is more or less in line with the science, though we need to be slightly more or less ambitious in addressing certain drivers or states.  

Figure 1: Difference between annual per capita footprint boundaries and current state

References: 
All values except for those listed below: O’Neill, D. W., Fanning, A. L., Lamb, W. F., & Steinberger, J. K. (2018). A good life for all within planetary boundaries. Nature sustainability, 1(2), 88-95. 
Current material footprint: Oberle, B., Bringezu, S., Hatfield-Dodds, S., Hellweg, S., Schandl, H., & Clement, J. (2019). Global Resources Outlook: 2019. International Resource Panel, United Nations Envio. 
Current water footprint: Hoekstra, A. Y., & Mekonnen, M. M. (2012). The water footprint of humanity. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 109(9), 3232-3237. 
Current nitrogen footprint: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/nitrogen-fertilizer-consumption. Current carbon footprint: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC

Rationale behind the Approach

  • Targets should be set using a science-based approach. Biodiversity is affected both directly and indirectly by a range of drivers, pressures, and states. While there is no suitable “limit” defined for a safe footprint, we should use the existing science to evaluate footprints related to key drivers and states that are well defined, including CO2 emissions, land use and biomass appropriation, nutrient cycles, and fresh water use. Our targets are based on footprint limits which have been quantified where possible (as shown on the previous page).
  • Targets should be time-based. For key drivers and states where we have already exceeded safe levels of impact, urgent action is required to bring us within a safe boundary by 2030. In other areas where impacts pose a future risk, we have to consider feasibility, political will, and building up capacity for addressing impacts on the longer term. 
  • Targets should be linked to outcomes. There are multiple ways to achieve an outcome and we need to be aware that some actions can result in negative tradeoffs. 
  • Targets should be actionable and give clear guidance on what policymakers should do in the coming decade. We have roughly quantified actions that could get us as far as the targets if implemented, though we recognize that these are not the only actions, nor always the best ones in every context.
  • Targets must be contextually aware. Global environmental boundaries and our current status compared to these boundaries differ geographically. The actions that make sense in one context might not be suitable in another.
  • Finally, both outcomes and actions should work to address the key causes of the footprint of production and consumption, which varies by sector and impact, as illustrated in the “hotspot” graphic below.

*Many individual water basins are exceeding sustainable footprint levels, even though the global boundary is not transgressed.

Targets Framework

The CBD Zero Draft establishes goals and targets for reducing biodiversity impacts. In addition to these impacts, however, there are key drivers, pressures, and states related to production and consumption systems that play a role in biodiversity loss, which is why a focus on these issues is necessary.

WWF has set a goal of “Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption”. In translating that goal into targets and metrics, this framework outlines 12 topic areas (shown below), which are arranged into three categories from the DPSIR approach (Kristensen, 2004). For each topic area, targets are defined for the period 2020 – 2030, which together provide a more comprehensive picture of the “footprint”. Some of these topics, targets, and metrics are new compared to existing frameworks, while others correspond to what is covered already.

  • DRIVERS are needs, processes or activities that drive a certain development or impact. In this case, the consumption of materials and products is a core driver of multiple environmental impacts. 
  • PRESSURES are changes in the biophysical environment that affect ecosystems. In this case, production practices are the main pressures.
  • STATES are stocks in the biophysical environment that describe the state of an essential parameter, such as the concentration of atmospheric CO2.  

Beyond these three categories, the DPSIR framework also includes IMPACTS and RESPONSES. IMPACTS are the final outcome (e.g. biodiversity loss), which are already well covered under the current CBD framework and other WWF goals. RESPONSES are covered in our framework by linking action-based targets to each of the outcomes defined under drivers, pressures, and states. 

Driver Targets

Bringing key demands for resources and space within a level the planet can sustain

Pressure Targets

Create production and consumption systems that eliminate destructive practices

State Targets

Bring natural systems affected by production and consumption within safe boundaries

New Indicators for Measuring the Footprint of Production and Consumption

Many of the indicators identified as suitable for measuring progress towards the “Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption” goal align well with existing frameworks, such as those used in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Aichi Biodiversity Targets framework, and those used by the CBD. Other indicators that were included in this framework are already measured by organizations such as the World Bank, FAO, WRI, or included in Yale’s Environmental Performance Index. 

Beyond these existing indicators, there are a number of gaps in the scope of “Halving the Footprint of Production and Consumption” that were identified. New indicators are proposed to fills these gaps, which include:

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Appendix

Colophon

Authors

Erin Kennedy, Thomas Thorin, Maja Johannessen

Research Team and Other Contributors

Nora Kourelis, Guido Broekhoven, Gavin Edwards, Chris Weber, Lucy Young, Luca Chinotti, Rebecca Shaw, Christos Vrettos, Giulia Sardano

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