With the Kyoto proclamation just a few weeks away, we'll soon be getting marching orders on how to walk lightly on the earth. And not a moment too soon, according to a recent report from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities showing the extent of Toronto's environmental footprint.
Ecological Footprints Of Canadian Municipalities And Regions, by Mark Anielski and Jeff Wilson, calculates the boot marks and scars we leave on nature when we've finished walking over her to do our business. A house made with lumber leaves a big mark on a definable space in the forest, a serving of beef steps on a specific amount of pasture, a drive across town makes emissions that must be offset by a heavy step on a certain amount of grassland, and so on.
The ecological footprint is a new kind of measure - one that could be useful during municipal budget discussions like the one we're in now. Bean-counters have long ruled the budgetary roost at city halls. If a proposed budget showed more expenses than could be raised through property taxes, cities dutifully avoided debt by nixing food security and environmental programs that weren't part of their "core business."
Now there's another kind of deficit and debt that needs to be considered - the ecological deficit caused when city policies harm the environment. The boot marks and scars should be entered into the account books as withdrawals, because that space is no longer available for nature to recycle water or create fresh air, the kinds of services that deserve recognition as the gross natural product.
Traditional accounting never subtracts when something is taken from nature. A slashed forest is counted in the gross national product as a pure asset of lumber, for instance, and no accounting is made of the fact that a forest no longer exists to support other creatures, create fresh oxygen and clean water and so on. Ditto when monster homes and box stores are "developed" on what accountants might describe as formerly vacant and unimproved fields, woods or farmland.
Size matters when it comes to eco footprints, since a bigger one means a bigger taking from nature, and Toronto really needs a way to put the environment on its ledger books. While Canada has some of the biggest feet in the world, a floppy 7.25 hectares per person, T.O. has 7.36.
Although T.O. takes pride in being at the enviro forefront, it's actually well back from the leaders and huddled in the middle of the pack of Canadian municipalities.
In a world of over 6 billion people, where personal space of 1.9 hectares would divide resources equally without overtaxing nature, we are taking almost four times our fair share. If everyone lived like Torontonians, we would have to sprawl over four planets. Sprawl: The Next Generation - tomorrow's opportunity for intergalactic travel land development entrepreneurs. We're drawing down resources way too quickly. That rate of depletion will soon create chronic havoc in the world's climate.
Each individual is different, of course, and has a unique and personal profile. (The Web site at Mountain Equipment Co-op, www.mec.ca, can help you calculate yours.) But government policies in cities and countries influence the way their individual citizens consume resources. Public transit or energy conservation policies, for example, dramatically reduce the size of everyone's footprint.
T.O. carries too much weight despite the many advantages of living close together (apartments and duplexes consume much less energy than single dwellings, for instance) and the opportunity - almost totally untapped - to buy food direct from the best farmland in the country.
The report identifies food as a huge footprint-maker. Cropland accounts for 19 per cent of the Canadian footprint, pasture land for 3. As well, a significant portion of the energy that adds up to 55 per cent of the Canuck footprint goes into fertilizing, spraying, trucking, processing and preparing food. We are eating our way out of house and home.
The document urges cities to move toward policies that promote local, sustainable and veering-to-organic foods, public transit and energy conservation. These are precisely the measures most threatened by obsolete standards of budget calculation, which classify environmental protection and food security as expenses and neglect as a saving. When it comes to footprinting the talk, there's a lot of ecological debt to walk off.