Study: US states use twice the resources and services that nature can provide
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On July 14, the United States busted its annual ecological budget, utilizing more resources and services than U.S. ecosystems can regenerate within the full year, according to a new report released by Global Footprint Network, an international sustainability think tank with offices in North America, Europe, and Asia.
The report, “State of the States: A New Perspective on the Wealth of Our Nation,” details the Ecological Footprint and resource availability of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Created in collaboration with Earth Economics in Tacoma, Washington, the report finds that resource consumption and availability varies dramatically state by state.
Highlights from the report include:
- The population of the United States is using twice the renewable natural resources and services that can be regenerated within its borders. Similarly, the entire global population is using more resources than our planet can regenerate. Worldwide, humanity is using the equivalent renewable resources of 1.5 Earths.
- The states with the largest per-person Ecological Footprints are Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware.
- The states with the smallest per-person Ecological Footprints are New York, Idaho, and Arkansas.
- Alaska, Texas, and Michigan are the most resource-abundant states based on biocapacity, a measure of bioproductive land.
- The states with the least biocapacity are Rhode Island, Delaware, and Arizona.
- California, Texas, and Florida have the highest ecological deficits. A state runs an ecological deficit when its demand for resources (Ecological Footprint) exceeds what nature can regenerate (biocapacity) within the state borders. An ecological deficit is possible because states can import goods, overuse their resources (for instance by overfishing and overharvesting forests), and emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than can be absorbed by their own forests.
- Alaska, South Dakota, and Montana have the greatest ecological reserves. A state has an ecological reserve when its biocapacity exceeds its Ecological Footprint.
“As both domestic and global pressures on nature’s resources increase, it is more important than ever to manage them carefully in order to ensure the most resilient future for our country and its states,” says Mathis Wackernagel, president of Global Footprint Network and co-creator of the Ecological Footprint. “We strongly believe it is possible to live within the means of nature, without sacrificing human well-being. But doing so requires decision-makers to make strategic investments in infrastructure and our natural capital and set policies aimed at conserving our planet’s resources.”
The Ecological Footprint is calculated as the sum of all land areas needed for food; fiber and timber for products like furniture and clothing; infrastructure such as housing and roads; and absorption of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The Ecological Footprint then can be compared to how much productive area is available within each state to provide for these services, defined as biocapacity. A state or country can run an ecological deficit by meeting demand through importing, liquidating its own ecological assets (such as overfishing), and/or emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
California provides a vivid example of the risks posed by resource constraints. The state’s four-year drought has resulted in historic limits on water usage, more than $2 billion of lost agriculture revenue, and battles over water rights.
States can easily access resources beyond their borders through trade. However, such dependence could come at growing costs and exposure to volatility. At the same time states (also cities and regions) have substantial autonomy to set policy within their borders to manage their resource dependence and influence their population’s Ecological Footprint. The menu of options for sub-national governments includes land-use policy (such as promoting housing closer to workplaces); energy policy favoring renewables; building standards encouraging high energy-efficient housing; and investing in nature to provide flood control, freshwater retention, or other services often provided through built infrastructure.
Fossil Fuel Addiction
Transitioning to renewable energy is one of the most powerful ways to reduce the Ecological Footprint of states and the nation. Carbon makes up 67 percent of the Ecological Footprint of the entire United States, up from 53 percent in 1961.
Carbon emissions contribute to climate change, which poses varying risks to states. In Texas, for instance, temperature increases will likely reduce crop yields, especially for cotton, the state’s largest crop.
“People need nature. Economies need nature. Securing prosperity in the 21st century requires using informed measures, like the Ecological Footprint, to improve policy, shift investment and fix our ecological budget,” says David Batker, executive director of Earth Economics. “This report reveals problems and provides solutions.”
Solutions are being developed, implemented and secured across the States.
- Currently Idaho, Washington, and Oregon are generating more than 70 percent of their electricity from renewable energy. The states with the lowest percent of their electricity generation coming from renewable energy are Ohio, Delaware, and Rhode Island.
- Maryland is leading the way toward sustainable investment by including environmental and social factors to evaluate major capital decisions, including fleet vehicles, weatherization and land conservation investments.
- Louisiana values natural capital, such as the benefits of wetlands for buffering hurricanes, providing water, reducing floods, and increasing fish.
- Washington measures the value of the landscape for recreation at over $21 billion per year, creating 200,000 jobs.
- Pennsylvania enjoys $676 million in benefits from natural capital and agricultural lands in Lancaster County alone.
Raising awareness among citizens through tools like the personal Ecological Footprint calculator is another important step toward a more sustainable future for the United States.
“New measure and tools, like the Ecological Footprint and Net Present Value Plus (NPV+), can drive the transition from ecological deficit to sustainability,” Batker said. “Every state should be using these measures right along with employment and income.”
“Each state’s circumstances are unique,” added Wackernagel. “Yet all states have this in common: the need to manage their resources carefully and ensure a resilient future for citizens and for our entire nation.”
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Read the State of the States report.
To calculate your own personal Ecological Footprint, and learn what you can do to reduce it, go here.
Read more about sustainable communities.